The Citadel’s “Big Red” Flag Rediscovered

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On January 9, 1861, cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, known today as The Citadel, arguably fired the first shots of the Civil War when they prevented the Star of the West from resupplying Union troops at Fort Sumter. Above their battery on Morris Island, the cadets flew a red banner emblazoned with a white palmetto and crescent presented to them by the family of local flagmaker Hugh Vincent. Although the event was largely forgotten after the war, an image of the flag was included in a mural celebrating the centennial of the battery’s action at The Citadel’s Daniel Library. Its legend now re-established, the icon’s popularity grew and in 1992 it was declared the school’s official Spirit Flag.

More recently, Citadel officials discovered that a subtle detail on their Sprit Flag is wrong; but the nature of the discovery more than makes up for the error.

In 2007, Citadel alumni discovered a red palmetto flag in a museum of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Presented to the museum in 1919 by a soldier from the 20th Iowa Infantry, the flag matched descriptions of that flown by the Citadel cadets—notable since red palmetto flags were atypical at the time. But curators knew of nothing at that time that could definitively link it to the cadets’ Morris Island battery.

Investigating the flag’s provenance, members of the Citadel Alumni Association learned the Iowan soldier acquired it after the April 1865 capture of Ft. Blakely, Ala. The only South Carolina unit present was an artillery battery commanded by a Citadel graduate fighting with several men who had served on Morris Island or had other connections to the engagement. Unlike the Citadel Spirit Flag inspired by the mural or the state flag of South Carolina, the crescent on the Iowa banner faced inward. Although no eyewitness described the crescent in detail, alumni investigators found a February 1861 newspaper illustration showing the cadets flying a flag with the distinctive arrangement.

Although conclusive proof probably will likely never be found, the Citadel Historical Council and the Iowa Historical Society agreed that the evidence strongly suggests that the flag once flew over the cadets’ Morris Island battery. The State of Iowa Historical Society has loaned the flag to the school, where it is displayed in the Holliday Alumni Center. In 2009, the Citadel’s Board of Visitor’s voted that to adopt the original flag’s design for the school Spirit Flag.