'Big Red' coming home to S.C.

A battle flag that traveled to Iowa with a Union soldier at the end of the Civil War will soon be taking a $75,000 trip home to South Carolina.

The red palmetto flag - believed to be the one that flew over Morris Island on Jan. 9, 1861, when a battery of Citadel cadets fired on the supply ship Star of the West - will require special and expensive care, said Ted Curtis, a 1964 Citadel graduate and chairman of an alumni committee that researched the flag's authenticity.

The flag, now part of a Civil War battle flag collection at Iowa's State Historical Museum, will travel back to The Citadel carrying a $1 million insurance policy in a climate-controlled truck with a security guard on board.

Before it arrives on the campus, the school must prepare a secure display space that is climate- and light-controlled. It also must arrange for ongoing care of the historic artifact, and cover attorney fees and other expenses involved in trademarking the historically correct version of the flag, known as "Big Red," as a school symbol, Curtis said.

The red palmetto flag is a powerful symbol for the state's military college, which adopted it as its "spirit flag" in 1992. But nobody knew what happened to the original flag until last month when an alumni committee released a report making the case that the flag in the Iowa museum was likely the one that flew over Morris Island more than a century ago.

The Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter. But some Citadel alumni and others consider the shots fired at Star of the West, which forced the supply ship to turn around, to be the first shots of the Civil War.

"A palpable buzz" permeated the campus and alumni network after the report was released, Curtis said. And efforts to bring the flag to campus on long-term loan quickly revved into high gear.

The school's alumni association set a fundraising goal of $75,000 and has collected $35,000. The senior class kicked in $5,000 of that as a gift to the college.

Citadel leaders selected a preferred spot in the school's alumni center for the Big Red display, and officially adopted the historically correct version as a school symbol. And Lt. Col. Randy Bresnik, a 1989 graduate, will take a replica of the flag into space aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-129 mission, which is schedule for takeoff Nov. 16.

Curtis said he expects the flag to be on campus before Corps Day on March 14, when the school celebrates the 166th birthday of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets.

Richard Jordan, president of the Class of 2010, said the class made the $5,000 donation because the flag is an important symbol, and because students hope to inspire others to give. "It's the cadets' flag, so we believe the cadets should have a hand in bringing it back," he said.

Michael O. Smith, director of Iowa's State Historical Museum, said the museum has agreed to an initial two-year loan, but details of the transfer are still being worked out. The museum will probably extend the loan "at least for another two years and probably longer," he said.

He also said the museum could consider a permanent transfer, known as "de-accessioning," in the future. That, however is a long and complicated process, he said. The transfer would have to be approved by several different state groups, and the process would have to include public hearings. The final step would be getting approval from the Secretary of the Department of Cultural Affairs, an appointee of the governor.

"It's a hassle," Smith said of the process, "but sometimes it is possible for us to do this."

Smith said the red palmetto flag, which has a white palmetto tree in the center and a white, inward-facing crescent in the upper left corner, was donated to the museum by Willard Baker in 1919. Baker, a Civil War veteran, said only that he "got the flag in Mobile, Ala., at the end of the Civil War," Smith said.

Because museum officials have such limited information about how Baker acquired it, they can't guarantee the flag is The Citadel's Big Red, Smith said. But, he added, after extensive research and testing, he thinks it likely is.

Greg Biggs, a military historian from Clarksville, Tenn., said he thinks the school was premature in claiming the Iowa flag is the one that flew over Morris Island in 1861. It's possible, he said. But The Citadel doesn't have enough documented proof.

Smith said it's often impossible to find hard-and-fast proof on the history of such artifacts. "It would be wonderful if life were black and white and that certain," he said.

The Citadel Alumni Association is asking all of its members to donate at least $20 toward the flag's return. The trip home will be expensive, Curtis said, "but the flag is priceless."