South Carolina has had a flag ever since Col. William Moultrie flew the new "provincial banner" from Fort Moultrie in 1776. Remember from your fourth-grade history: British warships entered Sullivans Island Harbor blasting away at the hastily built palmetto log fort. The shells sank into their soft texture doing so little damage that the enemy had to retreat.
The straight-trunk, fan-leafed tree has been a revered state symbol ever since. Not so the flag's design, which has been discussed, argued over, voted on, changed, and in 1910 changed again by none other than Orangeburg's Alexander Salley Jr., state historian.
On his own, he had the points of the crescent (moon), which pointed straight upward, set at an angle as they still do. Nobody knows why. Eric Emerson, executive director of the State Department of Archives and History, said recently: "It's imperative we correct our history inaccuracies when we find them. The Legislature-approved flag Salley changed had been created and approved on Jan. 28, 1861.
"The crescent-shaped moon had never represented the moon in the first place, he said, but a "gorget." Dating back to knights-in-armor times, it was a piece of armor hung around the neck for protection. By the time of the Sullivans Island fray, they had become uniform symbols.
Would such a change be hard to bring about? State Sen. Chip Campsen gives a firm, "Yes."
The 1910 (current) flags are everywhere from car decals and bumper stickers to beer glasses - even on the turf at Carolina Stadium. Many thousands less flew around back in the 1800s.
A booklet in the Orangeburg County Library, "A Flag Worthy of Your People," laboriously lists all the arguments and suggestions for changes; every legislator seemed to have a different idea. Often towns and organizations flew their own version of the flag in many colors, all sizes.
Civil War threats brought action. The Legislature appointed a joint committee to devise a flag. Rep. Barnwell Rhett Jr., "father of the state flag," said, "it shall be blue with a white palmetto tree and white crescent in the upper corner." Lots of objections fell upon him. People called for a green palmetto tree; others wanted royal purple instead of blue. After the committee agreed to eliminate a white medallion and change the gold palmetto to white, the houses approved Rhett's design 49 to 32.
That April, after capturing Fort Sumter, the new flag shared honors with the Confederate flag.
In 1869, after the war was over, the House provided for a U.S. flag to fly over it. A Yankee, William Hoyt, who had come south with the Union Army, amended the resolution by inserting the words "and a State flag." A long, hot debate ended in the measure carrying 15 to 6. This design held fast until 1899 when a bill was introduced to "change and fix the color of the banner."
Emotions ran high again; ideas and colors bloomed, calling for white, even red. Eloquent speeches followed. For example, "the blue of despondency should be replaced with the purple of sovereignty and strength." Yaa, yaa, yaa.
Legislators defeated these changes, but the controversy had not ended. When a state flag was presented to the cadets at Clemson in 1906, Sen. Ben Tillman orated: "We know that this flag is not what ought to be. The S.C. coat of arms has been omitted; there should be two shields leaning against the trunk of the Palmetto, etc." Historian Salley countered him bitingly: "There is no reliable account of our state flag. I have worked it up from the most authentic sources."
Thus, the Salley design has served 101 years, but will historic fact bring about a change? As South Carolina has moved into the space age, so did our flag. In 1972 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched Apollo 16, Charles Duke Jr. of Lancaster (born in North Carolina) and his fellows spent three days on the moon exploring the surface and collecting rock and soil samples. In his "personal preference kit," he included several miniature state flags, which he said, "are still up there on rocks."
The palmetto tree's future should be interesting. Today, still beautiful, it is a famous symbol of what South Carolina was and has become.
Contact the writer: 803-534-2097.