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The History of the South Carolina State Flag

The Palmetto and the Moon: A Symbol of Resilience and Liberty

The flag of South Carolina, a proud emblem consisting of a blue field adorned with a white palmetto tree and a white crescent, has a storied past that dates back to the early days of the American Revolution. This design has largely remained consistent since 1775, symbolizing the state’s enduring spirit and its journey through American history.

The Moultrie Flag: The Birth of an Icon

William Moultrie’s Liberty Flag (1775)

In 1775, Colonel William Moultrie was tasked by the Revolutionary Council of Safety to create a flag for the South Carolina troops.

Moultrie chose a blue that matched the militia’s uniforms and a crescent from their cap insignia—elements that would embody the state’s fight for liberty. This flag was first hoisted at Fort Johnson and later at the newly constructed fortress on Sullivan’s Island, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

During the legendary 16-hour Battle of Fort Moultrie on June 28, 1776, the flag would cement its place in history. As British cannon fire rained down, the flag was felled but was heroically recovered by Sergeant William Jasper.

His brave act of rallying the troops and re-erecting the flag helped prevent Charleston from falling into enemy hands, thus making the flag an enduring symbol of the Revolution and liberty in the state and across the fledgling nation.

Indigo Blue: The Color of Heritage and Valor

The distinctive indigo blue of the flag harks back to the color of the militia’s uniforms and ties in with South Carolina’s rich economic history.

Indigo, a valuable dye, was a significant cash crop for the state, standing alongside cotton and tobacco in driving the colonial economy. The choice of this color for the flag is a tribute not only to the valor of the troops but also to the state’s agricultural heritage.

Adding the Palmetto: A Symbol Born from Defense

The palmetto tree was incorporated into the flag in 1861, commemorating the resilient design of Fort Moultrie, which was constructed with palmetto logs over sand walls—a design that proved effective against British cannon fire during the Revolutionary War.

This addition was a direct nod to the past, linking the flag’s imagery with the state’s historical narrative of endurance.

Civil War and Beyond: The Evolution of a Symbol

First draft of SC State Flag, January 1861.

The onset of the Civil War saw South Carolina pondering over several designs for its national flag. The first official draft was a white ensign with a green palmetto, reflecting the state’s independence.

During this tumultuous period, the state adopted a version of the flag, known as the “2-day flag” because it lasted only two days, briefly featured a golden palmetto before settling on the design.

South Carolina 2-Day Flag, January 1861.

However, the design evolved rapidly, and by January 28, 1861, the General Assembly adopted a simple white palmetto on a blue field.

The flag, in its many forms, became a beacon for the secessionist movement, unfurling as far as Nebraska City, Nebraska, and was the first Confederate flag to replace the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter.

SC State Flag (1861)

The Crescent’s Tale: From Cap Insignia to State Symbol

The origin of the flag’s crescent is a subject of much discussion, with a common theory tracing it back to a military emblem.

Contrary to popular belief that it was merely a cap insignia, the crescent is thought to be a representation of a gorget—a small crescent-shaped piece of armor that protected the throat in military uniforms. William Moultrie’s memoirs point to the silver crescent emblem worn by the troops, which was likely derived from this piece of armor.

In its early representations on the flag, the crescent was positioned vertically, mirroring the gorget’s typical orientation as worn on the uniform.

However, in 1910, Alexander Samuel Salley Jr. altered the crescent to its current angle without a recorded rationale. This adjustment has added to the emblem’s mystique, intertwining it further with South Carolina’s historical identity and the evolution of its flag.

The Quest for Uniformity

Despite its widespread recognition, the flag’s exact specifications have long been undefined, leading to variations in its appearance based on artist preferences. It wasn’t until recent years that efforts were made to standardize the flag, sparking public debate and further solidifying its place in the hearts of South Carolinians.

At the time of my writing this, an official design standard has yet to be chosen. However, there are two proposed options.

A Living Legacy

Today, the South Carolina state flag is more than a symbol; it is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Its design elements are found on everything from clothing to holiday decorations (even old Extra Chill logos), and university supporters proudly adapt it into their school colors.

This flag is not just a piece of history—it is a living legacy, representing the indomitable spirit and rich heritage of South Carolina and its people.