The history (and mystery) of South Carolina’s official flag

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South Carolina state flag
South Carolina state flag

Table of Contents

That’s no moon… or is it?

Pop quiz: What symbols adorn the South Carolina state flag?

If you answered a palmetto tree + a crescent moon, you’re wrong. Or, at least, you could be wrong.

Here’s the thing: as is often the case when it comes to history, we’ve lost track of some of it. And now, modern-day historians disagree on what we’re actually looking at when it comes to the state flag. 

Confused? Don’t worry – we’ll explain.

 

Started at Fort Moultrie now we here

The story begins with one man: Colonel William Moultrie. From his fort on what is now Sullivan’s Island, Moultrie defended the Charleston Harbor from British warships.

fort moultrie
Fort Moultrie | Photo by @walk_with_steve

For nine grueling hours on June 28, 1776, British battleships pounded Fort Sullivan with cannon fire – but to no avail. That’s because its walls were fortified with palmetto logs that, rather than shattering, absorbed the force from the cannonballs.

Eventually, the Redcoats withdrew. Of course, they did go on to carry out a successful siege of Charleston – but thanks to the fierce protection by the palmetto logs, today, Fort Sullivan (now Fort Moultrie) was still standing by the end of the Revolutionary War. 

How does that play into the story of our state flag, you ask? Two ways. One: because the life-saving work of the palmetto logs can be attributed in the sabal palmetto ultimately being designated South Carolina’s State tree. And two: because Colonel Moultrie designed a flag that hung at Fort Sullivanone that eventually inspired the design of the state flag.

The Fort Moultrie Flag

The Ft. Moultrie Flag
The Ft. Moultrie Flag

Col. Moultrie’s chose blue to be the color of the flag so that it would match the color of his soldiers’ uniforms.

The crescent, with the word “liberty” written across it, also paid homage to their uniforms: their caps were adorned with silver crescents, along with the words “Liberty or Death.” (Or was it a gorget? More on that in a second.)

Does this all look familiar? It should. After the war ended, state leaders used this flag as a basis for the design of the official state flag in 1861. The word ‘liberty’ was taken out, and, of course, the palmetto tree was added.

 

Gorget what you think you know

gorget
A gorget for an officer of the South Carolina Infantry Regiment

The crescent, positioned over in the top left corner, seems to welcome the comparison of a moon shining over a palmetto tree. But a lot of people will tell you that it’s not a moon at all, but a crescent-shaped piece of armor worn across the throat called a “gorget.” 

Some argue that the gorget symbol was worn on the hats of soldiers as a way of paying tribute to the days of wearing body armor. And being that the crescent symbol on the flag was taken from the uniforms, that would mean the symbol on the flag is also a gorget – not a moon

Historians have scoured records from the time in an attempt to identify the object once and for all. They even read Col. Moultrie’s diary in the hopes it would shed some light on the mystery – but even in his most private confessions, Moultrie only referred to the symbol as a “crescent.”

50 Shades of Gray Areas

different versions of the state flag
The most popular versions of the S.C. state flag | @PickSCFlag

Believe it or not, the crescent isn’t the only point of contention on the flag. As lawmakers never established any official guidelines on what the flag should look like, there isn’t a universally accepted design. The consequence of having no solidified design is that the position, placement, size + color of the symbols varies depending on the flag maker.

Lawmakers even reviewed the issue as recently as last year, after it was brought to their attention by Newberry-based political consultant Scott Malyrerck. But the session ended without any flag-related legislation reaching the Senate floor. 

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