During these next couple weeks, my research will focus on a “Confederate Palmetto Flag” from the Civil War in 50 Objects exhibit:
If you recognize the design, it’s probably because it is very similar to the contemporary South Carolina state flag:
These flags have two common elements: the crescent moon, and the palmetto tree.
The crescent moon comes from a predecessor flag known as the “Moultrie Flag.” The Moultrie Flag was used during the American Revolutionary War, and it was composed of a similar blue background with the same crescent moon in the hoist corner (upper left). However, the moon in the Moultrie Flag had the word “FREEDOM” written on it. The Moultrie Flag was flown throughout the South, along with the regular American flag, as a symbol of Southern resistance to the British.
The palmetto tree is inspired by a real palm tree in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is South Carolina’s key port city, and the site of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. For the soldiers who fought below this flag, the tree was a reminder of home. In my research, I found an illustration in Harper’s Weekly that depicts this enormous tree in the center of Charleston:
There is one very important difference between the flags: the snake coiling around the tree. That’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.
Many of you have probably seen the famous drawing by Benjamin Franklin, entitled “Join or Die,” which depicts a snake cut up into thirteen pieces (representing the thirteen original American colonies). Once the colonies did join to form the United States, the drawing morphed into a flag called the “Gadsden Flag,” which had a yellow background, a coiled snake, and the caption “Don’t Tread On Me.” This slogan was an American warning to the British, reminding them of their defeat in the Revolutionary War. It epitomized the American commitment to independence, and affirmed the success of the revolutionary experiment.
The Confederate flag adopted the snake because the Confederates saw their rebellion as similar to the American Revolution: noble, blessed by God, and destined for success. The snake now represented the growing Confederate nation, but the underlying message was the same: tread on us, and face defeat.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, the snake imagery could be viewed in several ways, not all of them positive. The Northerners twisted the snake into a sign of treason, recalling the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Not surprisingly, after the eventual Confederate defeat, the treason interpretation became universal, and the snake was removed from the tree.
Though this flag was replaced by the starred St. Andrew’s cross still seen at rallies across the South, it remains a topic of study for historians even today. Who knew what looks like a simple tropical night scene could contain so much fascinating symbolism?