Try to count the number of palmetto-and-crescent decals on the back glasses of parked vehicles around Columbia, then look to see if they have a license plate from some other state. South Carolina’s iconic state flag is alluring, even for those who don’t live here.
The story behind this state’s iconic flag is scholarly debatable, at least in regards to what the crescent represents. Joe Long, curator of education at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, says, “The most definitive history done on the flag was by Patrick McCauley of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. He determined the ‘crescent’ doesn’t represent a moon, but could represent a crescent-shaped hat device dating back to the 1760 Cherokee Indian War with the word ‘Liberty’ on it or a gorget worn by military men of rank and stature.”
These symbols would have been worn by the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers defending Charleston from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. Their flag featured a solid blue field with the crescent-shaped hat decoration — or gorget — in the upper left corner. Joe says, “People back then often designed flags without explaining them, so someone else wound up creating the story behind its design.”
Though the state flag remained unchanged for several years after the Revolutionary War, militia units in South Carolina enthusiastically adopted the palmetto tree as a design element in their military flags. “Palmetto trees became a symbol of strength and defiance during the 19th century. You start seeing it on uniform buttons, and many South Carolina Militia units around this time adopted the palmetto as a symbol for their flag. The oldest example we’ve got here at the museum is from 1833,” Joe says.
The reasoning behind the adoption of the palmetto as a design element in militia flags of South Carolina dates back to the defense of Charleston during the Revolutionary War. The walls of Fort Moultrie were constructed using palmetto logs, and as the British mercilessly bombarded its ramparts, the pliable palmetto logs absorbed the projectiles being lobbed into them from the harbor. Walls constructed of other hardwood species would have likely splintered, sending shards of wooden shrapnel everywhere and causing traumatic wounds and catastrophic casualties to the 2nd South Carolina. When the British mounted their ground assault on Fort Moultrie, they were shocked at the number of surviving defenders, and their attack was repulsed. With so many South Carolina Militias displaying the palmetto tree on their unit colors by the time of the Mexican War, 19th century author William Gilmore Simms was inspired to write a poem titled “The Green Palmetto” in homage to the militia units of South Carolina.
In January 1861, the closest resemblance to the current state flag was adopted, with both elements, the crescent shape and the palmetto, sharing space together on a single blue field. During this tumultuous time of the nation’s history, the flag’s design was filled with symbolism. In fact, some versions of the flag featured a “Don’t Tread on Me” serpent wrapped around the palmetto tree, as if to double down on the defiance of South Carolina to the national government. These earlier versions of the flag from the 19th century featured a much bolder crescent made to look less like a moon shape as well as a more rustic palmetto design. Fortunately for political and aesthetic reasons, the symbolism of the flag’s design has progressed into a modern interpretation. “Ever since the first major redesign in 1861, the symbols of the palmetto and crescent have evolved to look more like a moon in the sky with a palmetto tree in the foreground. Our current flag looks less like a symbol of defiance and more like a promotion for our beautiful beaches,” Joe says jokingly.
Since the time the South Carolina flag was created, some version has been flown in battle, and today is no different. The South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum displays one version of the state flag created by a group of U.S. Marine Corps reservists engaged in current combat operations. The Marines used two different shades of digital camouflage to create a flag to show their state pride.
“I love the way South Carolina soldiers, sailors, and Marines carry on the tradition of carrying this symbol into battle while putting their own spin on it,” Joe says.
Photography courtesy of the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, Columbia, S.C.