There are few physical items in South Carolina’s history that elicit more passionate responses than the flags that have represented it.
But it’s not just flags emblazoned with the controversial St. Andrews Cross that draw such emotion. There are other flags – many, many others. Some centuries-old pieces of material – remnants, in some cases – whose threads flew in the skies over the battlefields where many South Carolina men, and later women, fought and died.
These historic state treasures are housed now in the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum which is located inside the State Museum on Gervais Street. There, visitors can stand just inches from flags such as the silk remnants of the 2nd S.C. Volunteer Infantry (later designated as the 34th Infantry Regiment) United States Colored Troops – the only known surviving colors of any of the seven South Carolina Civil War African-American regiments. Under the same roof is a 2009 flag from Operation Iraqi Freedom that displays the state’s palmetto tree and crescent – emblems South Carolina Marines had cut and stitched from camouflage fabric and sewn into a flag to fly over their station in Anbar Province.
One of the most important years in the history of the Relic Room and museum was 1905.
“That’s when President Theodore Roosevelt went to the War Department in Washington and said, ‘It’s time to send home the captured flags to their home states,’” said William “Joe” Long, curator of education for the Relic Room and Military Museum. “They’re a symbol of the country being torn apart. They’re a symbol, too, of a some people working very hard to reconcile.”
Every flag has at least two stories, Long said: about the people who carried it and fought under it, and about the people who created it.
“Some of the earlier flags in our collection literally have two sides and two stories – the front design and story and the back design –and story and they are actually different designs and different stories,” Long said. “The front design tells the world who you are. If it’s from South Carolina, the front of the flag would have a palmetto and the name of your unit and it might have a number of other things but primarily it tells the world as you’re marching down the road, ‘These guys are from South Carolina.’ The back of the flag very often has a message of some sort from the ladies who created the flag – messages that might include a couple of Bible verses or even a directive such as the one on the back of the Lexington Guards flag that says, ‘Defend this: the home of your mothers, wives and sisters.’ Our friends at the State Museum have the flag of the Chester Guards from the Mexican War and the back of that flag says, ‘Go on and leave us. You have work to do.’ Those messages showed the love and respect everyone had for the soldiers but they were also a reminder of their duty and the expectations we had of these men.”
Of course, the flags also had a significant role on the battlefield.
“There was a lot of symbolic power in one of these items but it also had a battlefield role that was really important because you’re relying on verbal commands – you’re relying on officers and NCOs who are going to shout orders at you – but in the chaos of battle with your musket going off and all the others going off and the screaming and cannons firing, verbal orders are not going to be heard throughout the unit,” Long said. “But that visual marker – the flag, your regimental flag – you can see and it was always next to the colonel. Visually it’s a command and control device. If I lose my regimental flag in battle, I’m basically no longer a soldier in an organized unit I’m just a man holding a rifle in the middle of a mess. ... Taking a flag could turn the tide in a battle and to take a flag was an act of enormous, reckless bravery because the fight over the flag was so fierce.”
Carrying the flag was an incredibly brave thing to do, as well, Long said.
“You were a target,” Long said. “When you see a color guard marching in a parade, who’s on the right and left of the color bearer? Guys with rifles – the color guard. In the old days, the men with rifles were to protect the flag but their secondary duty was to drop their rifle and pick up the flag when the color bearer was shot.”
That’s exactly what happened to five teen-age color bearers carrying the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry flag (also housed at the museum) at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, in 1862, during the Civil War. All five were shot within five minutes.
In addition to the many flags on display in the Relic Room, there are also the dozens of flags that the museum simply does not have the space – or funds – to display. Flags such as the Monticello Guards flag, dating to 1861, from Fairfield District unit, Company F, 12th Regiment, McGowan’s Brigade, which remains between two sheets of clear plastic protective sheets in a storage drawer at the museum.
Since 2007 the Relic Room has had a partnership with the state division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, according to Rachel Cockrell, registrar and operations chief for the Relic Room and Military Museum.
“It started in 2007 as a 50/50 partnership where we would put forth 50 percent of the conservation cost and they would cover the remaining 50 percent,” Cockrell said.
However, when the economic crisis hit in the late 2000s, the state, “zeroed out our entire budget,” Cockrell said.
“We were struggling just to find funds to make payroll so we realized we couldn’t do conservation any more, “ she said. “Sons of Confederate Veterans said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll pay 100 percent.’ Since 2007 we have had close to a dozen flags conserved almost completely through Sons of Confederate Veterans. That amount has been anywhere between $6,000 to $14,000 per flag.”
Conservation estimates for the Monticello Guards flag would be much more – way beyond the budget of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“We’ve been given an estimate of $30,000 for that one,” Cockrell said.
South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Museum
310 Gervais St., (803) 737-8095, www.crr.sc.gov.
Open 10 am.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sunday-Monday