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S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster asks Iowa if The Citadel can keep Civil War-era 'Big Red' flag permanently

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Gov. Henry McMaster is asking Iowa's governor for help in allowing The Citadel to keep "Big Red" — a treasured flag that flew over Morris Island when cadets took part in an opening skirmish of the Civil War.

The banner, featuring a white palmetto tree and crescent emblem against a red background, was thought lost to history until it was discovered in the possession of a Union soldier from Iowa a century ago.

In 2010 it was put on display by mutual agreement at the Charleston military college under a loan offering that's set to expire in 2021.

McMaster sent a letter to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday saying The Citadel would like to keep the arrangement going permanently with the cooperation of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

The 10-foot-by-7-foot flag is believed to have flown over Morris Island at the southern mouth of Charleston Harbor when the Union vessel Star of the West tried to reach Fort Sumter.

A battery of Citadel cadets operating under the flag fired at the supply ship as it approached the fort, forcing the Star to turn around.

It was Jan. 9, 1861, roughly three months before the war broke out in full with the fort's bombardment.

The cadets' banner resurfaced in 1919 when Iowa Union veteran Willard Baker said he got the flag in Mobile, Ala., at the end of the war. It was then placed in museum storage. 

McMaster described the flag as almost identical in resemblance to South Carolina's indigo blue state flag. The red version was given to the superintendent of the Citadel in 1861. 

McMaster's letter noted the banner was "posted at the Cadet Battery when South Carolina declared itself a sovereign republic."

He added it "has been embedded into the tradition and history of the Corps of Cadets ever since, with every aspect a part of each cadet’s life forever."

The modern agreement put the flag on display at the school's Holliday Alumni Center. 

The Citadel has since trademarked “Big Red,” with replicas of the flag being carried by the Navy's Blue Angels and aboard the International Space Station.

It also became the school's spirit flag in 1992, replacing Confederate flags that had been seen as emblems of segregation.

"At The Citadel, 'Big Red' has been viewed by over 200,000 visitors," McMaster wrote. "Great care is taken to protect the flag, with over $80,000 in donations having been provided by alumni for temperature controls, security sensors, coded entry locks and guard monitoring."

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the two governors would speak by phone as soon as it is convenient. Both are Republicans.

"I am confident the respect and good will demonstrated between the states of Iowa and South Carolina will allow for a mutually satisfactory solution," McMaster's letter said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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