Monday, March 3, 2008

The Story of the South Carolina Flag

As someone who enjoys history, I view the subject as not only useful for understanding the present, but as a source of fascinating stories. In my opinion, these tales are all the more interesting because of their veracity. I am lucky enough to be a South Carolina native and resident - a place that is as full of history (good and bad) as any place in the United States. My home state is full of classic stories of war, romance, and Liberal Massachusett Senator ass-whipping. Of all these adventures in the world of reality, perhaps the one I find the most interesting involves the origins of the state flag of South Carolina. I will take you back to a time when things looked bleak for the rebels. The empire's fleet was approaching and the harsh breath of Darth Vader could be heard underneath his helm. Our destruction at the hands of these dark forces seemed as certain as another losing season for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The year was 1776 and the thirteen colonies were in rebellion against England and their king, George III. George Washington had just defeated the redcoats in Boston, with the help of Ethan Allen, who hadn't even founded his furniture company yet. The Brits had decided to try a new tack, a naval invasion of the city of Charleston, a place where loyalist sympathies were higher than in Red Sox nation. Successfully taking Charleston would eliminate a crucial rebel port and strike a great blow against the cause of whatever the colonies were fighting for at the time. Something about taxes, I think - who says we forgot our roots? The commander leading the British fleet was in fact not Darth Vader (he was conducting an operation on Cloud City at the time), but the equally ludicrously named Peter Parker. In his parents' defense, they could not have foreseen the success of the comic, much less the trilogy of movies starring Toby Maguire. Before sending Parker on his mission, Admiral Howe, commander of the British forces in America, reminded Parker that with great power, comes great responsibility.
Meanwhile, back at Superfriends headquarters in Charleston, the colonists had just heard of the upcoming British invasion and were buying a lot of Beatles, Kinks, and Rolling Stones' albums in order to prepare. Commander Colonel Moultrie also thought it might be a good idea to build a fort at the mouth of the harbor, in order to defend against the approaching warships. They chose Sullivan's Island as the place to set up their defense. With few building materials at hand they chose to use palmetto logs to build their fortress, which after at least five intense seconds of thought, they called Fort Sullivan. If they had not wasted so much time titling the fort, they might have had time to finish constructing it, but unfortunately the structure only had three completed sides when the limey bastards arrived in Charleston. The future of dental hygiene in America hung in the balance.
On the British side, Spiderman (oops, I blew his cover) had a brilliant two-pronged attack plan to crush his enemies and take the city. He would use his fleet to attack the fort from the front while a force of marines would land at the island adjacent to Sullivan's, today known as the Isle of Palms, where they would wade the short distance across to Sullivan's Island. They would go in the back door and catch the colonials by surprise (kind of like you did to your wife last night). Now that you have met both teams and got an idea of their gameplans, let's go down to the floor to check out the action. It should be exciting!
The Tories opened the action by winning the coin toss and choosing to shoot first. Amazingly, the blasts from their cannon failed to damage Fort Sullivan in the least. The soft palmetto wood, instead of being blasted apart, absorbed the shells like a catcher's mitt. They did manage to shoot down the South Carolina flag, which at this point in history consisted of a crescent mooon on a navy blue background. A brave (or stupid, your call) Sergeant by the name of Jasper climbed the ramparts under heavy fire and replaced the fallen symbol. Despite continued bombardment, no real damage was being done to the fort.
Part one of the attack was a waste of time, so how was the land attack progressing? The British marines had landed without any problem on the far side of the Isle of Palms and progressed to the inlet that separated that island from Sullivan's. It appeared they could just wade across a fifty yard channel and commence their assault. Unfortunately for the soldiers, no one had put up any warnings yet at Breech Inlet, as the confluence of the two islands is now called. Signs that today read: dangerous current, DO NOT SWIM or just used a picture of the Grim Reaper to give you the idea. The crossing was not shallow in reality. If you see the area at low tide, it is obvious that the water will be above head high just a matter of feet from shore. Needless to say, those soldiers that lived never made it to the other side. The colonists would not have to worry about a ground attack.
With his master plan falling quickly apart, Parker had one more option - fire at the fort from the back side, which due to a dispute with the contractors (probably Halliburton, man I hate those guys), happened to lack a wall. Some really smart British guy had noticed this deficiency during the previous exchange of grapeshot and suggested that maybe they fire at the defenseless part of the fort instead. The fleet sailed farther into the harbor in order shoot directly into this small gap in the defenses. Fate again intervened on the part of the Americans, for it was low tide. Modern day Charleston harbor is very silty, it can only be kept open for shipping with the help of constant dredging, a process by which the silt is removed from the bottom and deposited on uninhabited islands in the center of the waterway. During low tide there was not enough water to accomodate a large ship-of-the-line, and they became stuck upon sandbars. The British were now sitting ducks and their ships were blown apart by the Fort Sullivan cannon. By the time high tide came, the fleet was battered and beatened - they could do nothing but beat a hasty retreat with their remaining forces. The South Carolinians had won the day.
Charleston would stay free for several years before succumbing to a second British invasion. Fish and chips never did catch on in Charleston despite the limey's best efforts.
Colonel Moultrie was eventually promoted to General and had a middle school named after him. I went there. That school really sucked. It was recently torn down.
Sergeant Jasper died during another battle while trying once more to save the flag. Jasper county, one of the dumbest counties in the state, is named after him. Irony is sweet.
We all know what happened to Peter Parker.
The palmetto tree was added to the state flag in honor of the crucial role it played in saving the fort from attack. The origins of the crescent moon on the flag are debated to this day. I theorize that the colonists thought the redcoats were werewolves and if they had a crescent, rather than a full moon on their hats and flags, the enemy would be unable to turn into their more powerful lupine form. I bet no one has thought of that before.


april said...

I love reading every thing that you write. I was never a fan of history when I was a kid but when I read your stuff it keeps me intested. I think I have learned more about history in the six years that I have known you than I did while in school. I am proud to say that I can now tell people about our state flag and actually remember the details.

Alastair McCandless said...

Thank you so much, that was very sweet :)

Philyra said...

Good post.