Charleston Tours and That Crescent on the State Flag –What’s That All About?

When visitors
tour Charleston, there is always an interest in our beautiful South Carolina state
flag. On my Charleston walking tours, I always point out the flag and use it as
a teaching tool.
Its Palmetto
tree and crescent moon look like a designer logo welcoming visitors to
beautiful sandy beaches and nights with dreamy Carolina moons. Visitors love learning
that palmetto logs were purposely used to erect a harbor defense during the
Revolutionary War. Dubbed Fort Sullivan, our Patriots won the day on June
28,1776 because the palmetto log walls absorbed the powerful onslaught of the
British navy. The cannon balls were absorbed or deflected by the spongy wood
which held through the battle. This gave the Patriots, under command of Major William
Moultrie, the decisive edge needed  to
repulse the enemy. This victory was the first decisive victory in the
Revolutionary War of an American force over 
a British land and sea force. At a time when the War was at a standstill
in the north, victory at Charles Towne was huge. The battle standard that flew
over the fort was a deep blue field with a crescent in the top left corner, and
the word Liberty splayed boldly across the center.
The Moultrie Flag
For this
reason , the palmetto tree emerged as the symbol of liberty in South Carolina.  In 1832 South Carolina first attempted to
leave the Union, an event called the Nullification Crisis. Caroline Gilman,
wife of the Unitarian minister and a noted author, wrote a friend in
Philadelphia that Palmetto trees were being planted up and down the streets!  The state flag continues Moultrie’s theme of
the blue background and the crescent, but replaced the “Liberty” with the
Palmetto tree. Adopted in 1860, the flag has remained essentially the same over
But the
crescent is a constant. Chosen by William Moultrie for his battle standard,
there is an old story that goes with it. The fanciful story goes that Moultrie was
challenged to a duel as a young man, and the choice of weapons was swords.
Prepared for battle, Moultrie wore a gorget plate that literally saved his neck
when his opponent went to slice off his head. Forever his lucky charm, he
placed the gorget on his flag.
A gorget is a
metal plate  worn around the neck as a
defensive armor piece. It is  designed to
deflect sword blows to the neck and shoulder. Never manipulated by hand or used
to attack an enemy, its purpose comes into play only when the enemy has bested
you to the point of having an opening to take your head. One might think that
William Moultrie would play down this scenario if such were the case. No, I
modestly put forth that the crescent  has
a different meaning.
After all, the
crescent was adopted by no less than five South Carolina Patriot militia units
in 1775 well before the Battle of Fort Moultrie and the Moultrie flag.
Moultrie’s use of the crescent joined his unit with others that had previously
chosen it as the Revolution ramped up.
What made
the crescent so special to rally the troops? Some might claim that Moultrie was
so popular and famous that his symbol carried over. But this symbol was adopted
before Moultrie by other militias. Was Moultrie that famous by 1775? Colonial
militias units often designed their flags with elements of English heraldry
including shields, broad axes, bundled arrows and the mace. Armored helmets and
eagles also figure prominently. They depict  offensive weapons or chivalric symbols of
bravery and aggression. These were largely abandoned by Patriot militia and Continental
Army units. Yet the crescent is unique to our flag and unique to our state.
Many assert
that the crescent symbolizes a gorget. Webster defines the gorget as
:  a piece of armor protecting the
a :  an ornamental collar
b :  a part of a wimple
covering the throat and shoulders
c :  a specially colored
patch on the throat
Gorget as body armor
illustration of a 
medieval gorget in no way resembles the crescent found on
the state flag. It is a a piece of body armor worn by knights of old,
appropriate for a jousting tournament. The crescent does resemble the necklace/
ornamental collar worn by George Washington as part of a formal dress uniform. Here
we see George Washington  depicted
wearing a gorget.
Washington in formal dress uniform after French and Indian War
So I ask the
question, why was this crescent symbol chosen to rally the troops? Flags are
designed to rally the troops to acts of bravery and patriotism. Spears and  arrows, of course, but a necklace????
Why the gorget?

I put forth
the idea that the gorget as we know it is a symbol from English Heraldry. It is
the symbol of the second sons. The probable explanation why we find George
Washington sporting the gorget is that his grandfather, Lawrence Washington,
was the first of his family to settle in Virginia. He was the second son of
Lawrence Washington, an Anglican vicar.

In English
Heraldry, the symbol of the Second Sons is the Crescent. Adopted at the time of
the Crusades, the eldest son stayed home and oversaw his holdings while the
Second Sons ventured to Palestine seeking glory and treasure. They brought back
the Islamic Crescent as their proud symbol. A simple Google search for “English
Heraldry second sons” immediately brings up the gorget as worn by George
Washington .
many early settlers to South Carolina were second and third sons. The Law of
Primogenitor left entire estates to the eldest sons. Younger siblings might
practice law, enter the military or engage in trade. For those who loved the
land, their destiny would be planting. Huge fortunes were made in one
generation off tobacco in Virginia and sugar cane in the West Indies. It was
possible for a young adventurer with a passion for planting to establish
himself in the New World as landed gentry with an estate sometimes equal or
greater than that of his elder brother. Generous land grants attracted second
sons to Carolina.

It is the
same symbol used by Sout
h Carolina militias by 1775 and later adopted by
Moultrie.  So we can put this argument to
rest. South Carolina was settled by second sons who prospered, fought and died
while  establishing their legacy in the
rich lands of Carolina. Their symbol displays prominently on our flag along
with the symbol of South Carolina Liberty, the Palmetto tree.

She’s a grand old flag!

Charleston Old Walled City Tours offers guided tours  daily and by appointment. Check out our webpage at or call us at 843 343 4851.

Charleston Old Walled City Tours offers themed tours od Historic Charleston including the Old Walled City Tour, the Home and Garden Tour, the Slavery and Freedom Tour, and the Charleston Ghost Walk. Go to www.walledcitytours.come to learn more!



1 thought on “Charleston Tours and That Crescent on the State Flag –What’s That All About?”

  1. Amazing information Al. It's interesting how many South Carolinians still think it's a crescent moon.

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