From the successful defense of Fort Sullivan, née Fort Moultrie, against the combined British fleet and army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, to the F-16s of the Air National Guard’s Swamp Fox 157th Fighter Squadron that flew some of the first attacks on Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm, South Carolinians have continually taken the lead in defense of the United States and her national security interests.
South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum director Allen Roberson says that it is amazing how many military “firsts” are attributed to South Carolinians, which is usually the biggest surprise for the museum’s visitors. “Our museum strives to convey this sense of military tradition and the very real sacrifices by South Carolina servicemen and women and their families through state of the art exhibits combining modern technology with entertaining programming,” says Allen.
The CRR was founded in 1896 by the Wade Hampton Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the South Caroliniana Library on the University of South Carolina Campus. It soon relocated to a large room adjacent to the gallery overlooking the Senate in the State House, where it remained for more than half a century. In 2000, the CRR relocated to the old Columbia Mills Building at 301 Gervais St., which also houses the South Carolina State Museum. The United Daughters of the Confederacy managed the museum through the 1980’s, with the state assuming fiscal responsibility for the museum, and in 1997 it became an agency of the State Budget and Control Board and remains so today.
The CRR is the oldest continuing history museum in South Carolina and has been accumulating a collection related to the state’s military history since the 19th century. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, South Carolina has a long history of individual service and sacrifice in defense of freedom, its citizenry, and its deeply held values and beliefs, giving it one of the most significant histories of military involvement of any state in the nation. The museum covers South Carolina military history in a national context from the Revolutionary War to the current War on Terror in an 8,000-square-foot permanent exhibit called The South Carolina Martial Tradition.
“This is a permanent exhibit, but we do rotate artifacts out of specific cases and add new displays and exhibit cases to specific sections,” says Allen. “Recently, we added a high quality diorama on the nighttime salvaging of the USS Keokuk, a Union ironclad sunk in the naval assault of Confederate Charleston during the Civil War in 1863. We also recently added an exhibit about South Carolina and the Vietnam War, featuring the letters of Sgt. Steve Flaherty, 82nd Airborne, a local sports hero who died in the A Shau Valley near Cambodia in 1969. His captured letters were part of the first official transfer of war memorabilia, conducted between Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his counterpart in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 2012.”
The CRR has many rare artifacts on display: a French Charleville musket, marked “S.C.,” that was used by patriots in the Revolutionary War; a letter written by British Capt. Charles Campbell, 71st Regiment of Foot, describing the siege and capture of Charleston during the Revolutionary War and the British victory at the Battle of Camden (shortly after writing this letter, he was slain during a surprise attack by Gen. Thomas “The Gamecock” Sumter’s partisan militia); the flag of the Palmetto Regiment that first flew over Mexico City after the Battle of Chapultepec, during the Mexican-American War in 1847, and later over Havana, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War in 1898 — the first American flag to fly over two foreign capitals; the flag of the 1st SC Infantry Regiment, carried in the Civil War through the Battle of Gettysburg; the regimental flag of the 371st Infantry, the only African American unit of US Army draftees, who fought valiantly in the trenches of World War I under French command; the uniform coat of Capt. Kimberly Hampton from Easley, S.C., a graduate of Presbyterian College and a US Army Kiowa helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, where she was killed in combat in early 2004, the first American female pilot to die in combat; and many, many other such rarities.
According to Allen, “Our changing gallery currently showcases one of the most popular exhibits in recent memory, ‘Gettysburg: South Carolina in the Fight,’ which opened in late June for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and will run through the June 2014.” This exhibit features some significant South Carolina-related artifacts associated with Gettysburg, such as rifles carried by the state’s infantrymen, the sword of Gen. Joseph Kershaw, equipment, flags and uniforms.
The museum also currently has another exhibit, “Civil War in 3-D,” that features Civil War era stereo card images transferred to a big screen television, accompanied with captions and a soundtrack. “When viewed with 3-D glasses, the images, many of which are famous, become three dimensional, emphasizing details in the foreground” says Allen. “President Abraham Lincoln, for example, appears almost life-like in 3-D. This is the second in a series of 3-D programs. We also exhibited ‘World War I in 3-D’ several years ago.”
According to Allen, while all wars in which South Carolina was involved are represented by artifacts at the museum, the Civil War has the most items on display. The museum also has a very significant World War I collection that was exhibited in “Forgotten Stories: S.C. in the Great War” in honor of the 90th anniversary of World War I in 2007, as well as strong Mexican–American War and Spanish-American War collections. It is currently increasing its Vietnam War collection for a 50th anniversary exhibit in 2016.
CRR exhibits and programs meet South Carolina secondary education standards, and it offers membership opportunities to learners of any age with benefits that include gift shop discounts and free access to other museums across the state.
When asked about his favorite parts about the CRR, Allen says one highlight is finding many instances of the same family names spanning generations of service. “Our museum curators have often talked to active duty personnel visiting our museum, only to discover that visitor’s ancestor fought in an earlier American war, or that the visitor’s great, great grandmother served on a World War I citizen’s committee, and that our museum has a reference book, artifact, document or image associated with that ancestor,” Allen says. “In South Carolina, it’s all connected!”