No one felt the cold on January 9, 1861 as the Star of the West approached Charleston Harbor. South Carolina had seceded from the Union just a few weeks before, but Fort Sumter remained stubbornly in Union hands. Major Robert Anderson resolved to hold out as long as possible in his lonely, dangerous position in the harbor, but he needed support. That support was now steaming towards him.
But the South Carolina Citadel cadets stationed at Morris Island were likewise prepared to defend their position. As the ship rolled in closer, they fired the first shot of the Civil War across her bow.
And over the heads of the cadets flew “Big Red,” a flag that would not only become famous in its own right but its colors would also start a Confederate tradition.
Contemporary sources tell us the flag had a “blood red field” on which was sewn a “remarkably executed white palmetto tree.”
The Charleston Mercury noted just four days before that the flag was presented to the cadets by the ladies in the family of flag maker Hugh Vincent. Eyewitness reports tell us that flags at Fort Johnson and Castle Pinckney looked similar. Shortly thereafter, red and white flags with stars or palmettos began appearing across the state.
As the color scheme caught on, it became associated particularly with secession and the Confederacy. Years later as the United Daughters of the Confederacy were organizing, they wanted to choose an emblem for their organization.
Their records state that, “Only one flower was considered by the committee, this one flower belonging exclusively to the South, giving the clear white and red of the Confederacy. The white for truth, the red for sacrifice, and again the white of a transcendent purity.” Thus the cotton boll became the UDC’s national emblem, and red and white became the organization’s official colors.
Likewise, the United Confederate Veterans and later the Sons of Confederate Veterans chose red and white as their organization colors.
But of course, what grabbed my interest were the cockades.
Shortly after South Carolina seceded, striking cockades appeared across the South of red, or red-and-white.
Fannie Beers wrote in her memories of the war, “Hats and bonnets of all sorts and sizes were made of straw or palmetto, and trimmed with the same.” Most of them bore cockades of bright red and white (the “red, white, and red”), fashioned of strips knitted to resemble ribbons. Some used emblems denoting the State or city of the wearer, others a small Confederate battle-flag.”
A Baltimore newspaper reported in November 1860 that, “The scarlet cockade and steel button, of which we spoke yesterday, has, we learn, been unanimously adopted by the Edgefield Riflemen, and is now a pledge by them to resist Black Republican rule in or out of South Carolina. The motto is ‘Blood and Steel’—a reliable cure for present troubles.”
And what became of the flag that started it all?
After analyzing it’s construction, design and history, experts finally agreed that a flag in the Iowa Historical Society collection is likely the original “Big Red” of Morris Island fame. The famous flag was captured at the fall of Fort Blakeley, AL in April 1865, shortly before the war ended.
In 2010, Big Red came home to the Citadel, on long term loan. The design of Big Red lives on in the Citadel’s flag today.
-By Heather Sheen