What the heck is that doodad in our state flag?

The South Carolina state flag flies over Blackbaud Stadium Tuesday.

It is such a pretty scene; all that's missing is the sailboat.

The South Carolina state flag is a tourism bureau's dream — a palmetto tree that appears to be rustling in a nighttime breeze, illuminated by a perfect crescent moon.

But the flag, one of the most recognizable and best-selling state banners in the nation, has nothing to do with condos or beaches, smiling faces or beautiful places.

Because that's not necessarily the moon.

Nearly 150 years after it was adopted as our state flag, historians and scholars still can't agree on exactly what that doohickey in the top left corner of the flag means. It's a crescent, they concede, but what exactly it stands for is a subject of some contention.

"That's something that has been debated for years," says John Tucker, assistant director of the South Carolina Historical Society. "A lot of people don't realize it goes back to the war."

Although the flag was designed by Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., a Charleston newspaper editor, during the days leading up to the Civil War, the crescent symbol goes back to that other war.

In 1775, William Moultrie wrote in his memoirs that the colony's council of safety asked him to design a flag for the purposes of signalling ships coming into port. The result was based on the uniforms of the 2nd South Carolina regiment.

At the time, the 2nd South Carolina wore dark blue uniforms with a crescent - tips pointing straight up, as though it were a bowl - on their hats. And that's as far as the history books take you.

"It gets a little gray," says Carl Borick, a Revolutionary War historian and assistant director of the Charleston Museum. "Moultrie never says what it is, a gorget or a crescent moon."

A gorget is a steel collar used to protect the throat in battle. Some people say the crescent was a gorget, that some colonial soldiers wore this cumbersome bling into battles.

Others say the crescent has little to do with the military.

In the 18th century, the firstborn son of an English family inherited pretty much everything, and the second got nothing. 'The moon,' according to this theory, symbolized that nothingness, and many of the first Charlestonians were second sons who came to America because they had nothing in Britain.

If you believe that, then perhaps that crescent really is a moon.

Of course, there is another theory, one suggested in "A Flag Worthy of Your State and People" by Wylma A. Wates and published by the state. She writes that the crescent on those caps may not have been anything more than a pin to hold up the soldiers' caps.

The current controversy, or case of mistaken identity, goes back a century as the flag has evolved.

When the state adopted Rhett's state flag design in 1860, the law said specifically the symbol would be "increscent," which means like it was on the uniforms: tips pointing up.

That's how all the flags were for the rest of the 19th century. But all that changed in the early 20th century when Alexander Samuel Salley Jr., secretary of the state's Historical Commission, started monkeying with the design. He fluffed up the palmetto, making it leafier, adding the grass on the ground.

Salley also turned the crescent on its side, apparently on his own authority. Since then, the crescent has crept closer and closer to the palmetto - a symbol of Fort Moultrie, but that's another story.

Jason Brooke, owner of Carolina Flag and Banner in West Ashley, says the state flag is probably his best-seller after the U.S. flag, and most people buy it because it is such a beautiful scene.

'Most people don't understand that it's a symbol from the caps of soldiers,' Brooke says. "Before I opened this business, I thought it was a moon like everybody else."

Borick says that because of the way the crescent is portrayed today, Salley - or somebody - meant for it to be a moon.

"The way it's oriented, you get the idea it's a crescent moon, and I think that's the interpretation today," Borick says.

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