Birth of a flag: Newspaper editor's design chosen 150 years ago today

Rick Hatcher, historian with the National Park Service, and Park Ranger Jeff Jones display the South Carolina Flag at the Fort Moultrie Visitors Center on Thursday. The flag will fly over Fort Moultrie to celebrate South Carolina Flag Day.

Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. believed the South Carolina flag should be simple, elegant, perhaps even majestic.

But the banner emerging from legislative compromise carried none of those traits.

It was January 1861, in the weeks between the state's decision to secede from the Union and the emergence of the Southern Confederacy, and South Carolina needed a national flag.

A committee of legislators had been appointed to come up with the design and, on Jan. 21, the panel presented a proposal that "the National Flag or Ensign of South Carolina shall be white, with a green palmetto tree upright thereon; and the union blue, with a white increscent."

Over the course of a week, one senator would suggest that instead the state adopt a red flag sporting a green palmetto with a brown trunk.

Rhett -- a House member, son of secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett, and editor of the Charleston Mercury -- used his newspaper to argue against "the calico appearance" of the Senate's proposed flag. He renewed calls for his design, presented a week earlier, that called for the flag to be "blue, with a white palmetto tree upright thereon, and a white crescent in the upper corner."

On Jan. 28, the General Assembly fell in line behind the newspaper editor, and South Carolina had its flag. With minor changes, the flag has represented the state ever since.

Today, 150 years later, the state celebrates "the first annual South Carolina Flag Day" in honor of that anniversary. Last May, the Legislature approved a joint resolution establishing the day at the request of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"Our flag has a rich and fascinating history dating back to the American Revolution and, while adopted after secession, it has continued to be a prominent icon of our state's heritage and history," said Mark Simpson, division commander for the state Sons of Confederate Veterans. "It is a symbol of unity and one that all can equally embrace."

Fort Moultrie will host a program to honor the flag and the holiday this afternoon. Organizers said it was the logical choice for such an event, since much of the flag's symbolism can be traced back to the fort. The crescent commemorated those worn on the uniform caps of the Second South Carolina Regiment during the Revolution. The palmetto symbolized the palmetto logs used to build the first Fort Moultrie, which repelled British cannon fire in June 1776, one of the early battles of that war.

For years, South Carolinians have argued about the crescent in the corner of the flag: moon or a gorget? Rick Hatcher, National Park Service historian at Fort Moultrie, said he can see both arguments, but William Moultrie gets the final say.

"In Moultrie's memoirs, he calls it a crescent," Hatcher said. "When the commander of the regiment says he put a crescent on it, that settles it."

Part of the confusion about the flag's crescent can be traced to the early years of the 20th century. Originally, the tips of the crescent pointed upward. Eric Emerson, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, said that in 1910, Alexander Samuel Salley Jr., secretary of the state's Historical Commission, angled the crescent, apparently on his own authority.

"Salley didn't think it was a gorget," Emerson said.

Emerson will talk about the evolution of the state flag -- and its possible future -- at the Fort Moultrie program at 2:30 p.m. today, along with state Sens. Chip Campsen and Danny Verdin, sponsors of the legislation.

Fort Moultrie admission will be free today.