Historic find — in a storage closet
Flag discovered in Iowa museum is likely Civil War-era original
By Diane Knich
The Post and Courier
Friday, October 2, 2009
In the days leading to the Civil War, a battery of Citadel cadets on Morris Island fired at the supply ship Star of the West as it approached Fort Sumter, forcing the ship to turn around.
The war officially began on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter. But some Citadel alumni and others consider the shots fired at Star of the West to be the first shots of the Civil War.
The red palmetto flag became a powerful symbol for the state's military college. The school adopted a replica of the flag as its "spirit flag" in 1992 and called it "Big Red."
But nobody knew, until now, what happened to the original flag.
The school has found what almost certainly is the original Civil War-era "Big Red" in a museum in Iowa.
The flag was donated to the museum by an Civil War veteran from Iowa in 1919, and has been sitting in a storage closet for nearly a century.
The State Historical Society of Iowa, which owns the flag, and a history committee from The Citadel Alumni Association have determined through forensic and historical research that the flag in Iowa is very likely the one that flew on Morris Island on Jan. 9, 1861.
Finding the flag is great news for The Citadel, said Tex Curtis, chairman of The Citadel Historical Council and a 1964 graduate of the school. The flag is not only "a priceless, historic artifact," he said. "It literally is The Citadel. It goes right to the beginning."
After seeing a photograph of the original flag, Citadel leaders now know that the replica they have been using has historical inaccuracies, Curtis said.
Big Red Report: , from the Citadel Historical Council (22 page PDF)
A committee of the school's Board of Visitors voted Thursday to begin using the historically correct version of the flag as its "spirit flag," and to assign intellectual property rights in "Big Red" to The Citadel Alumni Association. The full board will take a final vote on the matter today.
The flag in the Iowa museum has a red background with a large white palmetto tree in the center and an inward- facing white crescent in the upper-left corner.
The replica the school has been using has a smaller white palmetto tree on a red background, with a white outward-facing crescent in the upper-left corner. The direction of the crescent is important, Curtis said, because an inward-facing crescent was, at the time, a common symbol of secession in the Charleston area.
The fact that the flag in Iowa carries the secession symbol makes it more likely that it is the flag that flew on Morris Island, he said.
Ed Carter, president of The Citadel Alumni Association, said his group is now in discussions with the State Historical Society of Iowa about bringing the flag to The Citadel on long-term loan.
From S.C. to Iowa
Michael O. Smith, director of Iowa's State Historical Museum, said the museum has a collection of Civil War battle flags. The red palmetto flag was donated to the museum by Willard Baker in 1919.
Click on graphic to enlarge.
Baker, a Civil War veteran, said only that he "got the flag in Mobile, Ala., at the end of the Civil War," Smith said.
Because museum officials have such limited information about how he acquired it, they can't guarantee the flag is original, he said, but added that it likely is.
A report from The Citadel Alumni Association's Historical Council, a four-member group that has been researching the flag for nearly two years, states that Baker was a private in an infantry unit involved in the capture of Fort Blakeley, which is near Mobile, in April 1865.
The report also states that according to historical records, Capt. James F. Culpepper, an 1854 graduate of the Citadel Academy, and his battery were at Fort Blakeley when it fell.
Culpepper had been a student of Maj. Peter F. Stevens, who was superintendent of The Citadel during the time "The Star of the West" was fired upon.
According to the report, a news report in 1861 stated that the Hugh Vincent family designed a red palmetto flag and presented it to Stevens between Jan. 1 and 4, 1861, to be used by The Citadel battery at Fort Morris.
It's likely that Culpepper and his men had the flag when they arrived at Fort Blakeley, and that Baker got the flag from them, and brought it home to Iowa, Curtis said.
Making the case
Why the flag is thought to be the original "Big Red":
• It has an inward-facing crescent in the upper-left corner, a common Charleston-area symbol of secession.
• Forensic tests indicate it is.
• Written historical accounts support its authenticity.
• There are strong similarities between the red palmetto flag and the other flags known to have been made by Hugh Vincent.
Source: The Citadel Historical Council
Curtis and Smith said The Citadel and the State Historical Society of Iowa shared research and came to the same conclusions about the flag's likely authenticity.
Curtis said the important factors included the inward-facing crescent, results of forensic tests, written historical accounts and similarities between the red palmetto flag and the other flags known to have been made by Vincent.
Smith said the flag has been in a storage closet since 1919. Officials knew it was from South Carolina because of the palmetto, but they didn't know the flag's significance.
Curtis said a woman who wants to remain anonymous posted information about the flag on the Internet in 2007. Some Citadel alumni saw it and began conducting research with the State Historical Society of Iowa.
It took nearly two years to determine that the 10-foot-by-7-foot flag was likely the original "Big Red," Carter said.
"Until now, nobody knew what the real 'Big Red' looked like," he said. But soon, he said, "you'll see it on license plates, T-shirts, logos and decals."
Reach Diane Knich at email@example.com or 937-5491.