The Crescent on SC’s State Flag
Is it a Crescent or a Gorget?
South Carolina is widely believed to have one of the most beautiful state flags in the country. The original design was created in 1775 by Colonel William Moultrie, with a crescent shape in the top left corner. This shape and its meaning are topics of great debate amongst the sandlappers of our fair state. Many think it is a moon, others believe it is a gorget. Which is it? What does it signify? Just why is it there? These are the questions that we will ponder in our pursuit of the truth.
One side of the coin
South Carolinians are very egocentric when it comes to their flag. Both schools of thought are also very passionate about their beliefs. State “folklore” suggests the shape is a gorget. Historically they were hung around the necks of soldiers to protect the delicate area from bayonet strikes. They first made an appearance during medieval times. During the 18th century, the gorget could be seen as an accessory on the military uniforms of Revolutionary officers. George Washington first wore a gorget during the French and Indian War to show his rank in the Virginia Regiment. According to Mountvernon.org, George Washington “wears a stylish silver gorget engraved with the royal arms, a vestige of the armor worn by medieval knights, and across his chest he wears a military sash. Both were traditional symbols of rank worn by officers.”
According to the Charleston Museum, “These things have been around in one form or another since the Middle Ages and survive even today within certain military units. Traditionally a component of a suit of armor, the gorget served as a protective plate over the seam between the combatant’s helmet and breastplate. As full body armor became less useful over time, gorgets shrank in size and eventually became a communicative symbol of rank. During the American Revolution, both British and Patriot forces employed gorgets in their uniforms. This particular piece belonged to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, signer of the United States Constitution and 1803 presidential candidate. The gorget itself was made by master Charleston Silversmith John Vanall circa 1750. (The engraving was very likely done sometime after the war as a commemorative gesture.)”
Folklore further says the gorget shape was used on the military caps of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiments during the Revolutionary War. In 1775, Colonel William Moultrie was put in charge of these troops. He was assigned the task of developing a flag for the state while stationed at Fort Sullivan. The flag would be used to signal the city when friendly ships were entering the Charleston harbor. According to some, he used a gorget in the corner of an indigo blue field for this flag. The indigo matched the color of his troop’s uniforms, and the gorget was taken from the cap. Some profess that the work liberty was also written on the flag. The palm tree would later be added to the flag and placed in the center. We’ll talk about that later.
The other side of the coin
As previously stated, William Moultrie was the brain trust behind the design of the flag. In his own words, here’s what he has to say on the matter:
“A little time after we were in possession of Fort Johnson [that is, late September or October 1775], it was thought necessary to have a flag for the purpose of signals: (as there was no national or state flag at that time) I was desired by the Council of Safety to have one made, upon which, as the state troops were clothed in blue, and the fort was garrisoned by the first and second regiments, who wore a silver crescent on the front of their caps; I had a large blue flag made with a crescent in the dexter corner, to be in uniform with the troops: This was the first American flag which was displayed in South Carolina.” William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far As It Related to the States of North and South-Carolina, and Georgia, volume 1 (New York: David Longworth, 1802)
In this excerpt Moultrie does not offer any explanation about the use of a crescent. The crescent is an ancient symbol that was used throughout history. According to the Hall of Names “the crescent stands for one who has been enlightened and honored by the gracious aspect of his sovereign. It is also borne as a symbol of the hope of greater glory in heraldry. Knights returning from the crusades introduced the crescent, the badge of Islam, into the language of heraldry. The heraldic crescent has a very deep base and curving horns that quickly sharpen to point close together. Crescents also represent the moon that lights the night sky for travelers, though it does not resemble the shape of a crescent moon very closely. In English arms it was also a mark of cadency signifying a second son. The reversed crescent is a crescent with the horns turned down. The term increscent indicated a crescent with the horns facing the observer’s left, and decrescent is a crescent facing the observer’s right.”
Did the flag at its conception have a true crescent? If so, the horns would have faced upward. There is some debate about this. This 1826 painting by John Blake White that hangs in the US Senate shows the crescent facing upward. Another painting by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel in 1858 shows the diagonal tilt that we currently use. Both images depict the brave soldier Sergeant William Jasper as he returns the fallen flag to an upright position during the Battle of Sullivan’s Island June 28, 1776. His brave actions rallied the troops to persevere against the British artillery.
This flag became known as the Moultrie flag. The flag was in use at Fort Sullivan (now Fort Moultrie) on June 28, 1776, during the famous Battle of Charleston Harbor. A shell from a British warship damaged the flagstaff. William Jasper recovered the fallen flag and held it in place until a new staff could be installed. This rallied the troops, and they went on the defeat the British. After the war, General Nathaniel Greene presented the flag to the City of Charleston. Although it was intended as a temporary flag, the Moultrie flag was adopted by the colony. It was the first flag to fly over the South. When South Carolina entered the union the Moultrie flag became the official state flag.
The flag remained unchanged until 1861, when the Sabal Palmetto tree was added in honor of Fort Sullivan. The fort was hastily made out of palm trees, that were readily available along the coastline. It was also decreed that the gorget’s tips would forever point straight up as the soldiers had worn it.
At the beginning of the American Civil War a similar flag was flown at Morris Island by Cadets from the Citadel as they fired upon United States supply ship the Star of the West in 1861. The ship was taking supplies to Fort Sumter. This flag features a reversed crescent, possibly turning away from the Union during the time period of the Civil War.
The flag didn’t change again until 1910, when Alexander Samuel Salley Jr, secretary of the Historical Commission began changing the design. He added more volume to the palm tree and from this point forward, the crescent has been tilted in a northwesterly direction.
Current state laws do not provide specifications of the shape, size, design or placement of the flag symbols, or the exact color of the background. As a result, there are many versions of the state flag. The state’s main universities and their supporters also display the flag in their school colors. A committee of the South Carolina Senate is in the process of picking an official color and design.
Some folks are “Team Gorget”, and others are “Team Crescent”. While minds may or may not be changed from their line of thinking, there are other important aspects to remember. The flag was first designed by a Revolutionary hero. He was held to such high esteem that they named the fort on Sullivan’s Island after him. Colonel William Moultrie’s bravery and leadership will go down in history for all times, as our flag and history books will tell his story forever. The blue will always represent the indigo color of the soldier’s uniforms. The palm will always stand for the strength and fortitude of a quickly built fort, made of readily available sabal palmetto trees, and the waxing moon in the corner will always be an ancient symbol that represents the hope of increasing prosperity and future glory. It further signifies the rising of families or states. And according to Astrotwins and Refinery29.com, the waxing shape in the corner,” …is the cosmos’ not-so-subtle signal to get moving.” That makes sense. Our forefathers did, in fact, “get moving” on Sullivan’s Island that hectic day of June 28, 1776, when they defended their fort against the British for ten grueling hours and held off their attack.