There’s no doubt that South Carolina tops one list: best state flag in the country.
If you take a look at all of the states’ flags, about 30 of them are as dull as dishwater. They feature state seals pasted on a field of color and call that a flag.
A few states took more time and effort. California’s flag features a bear; Wyoming’s has a bison. And Maryland’s flag, which kind of looks like a yellow version of the checkered flag at NASCAR events, has history behind it because its design is based on the heraldic banner of the family of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and founder of the state.
For pure graphic design, look to Arizona’s flag, which sports red and yellow rays coming from a center star with a field of blue at the bottom. Neighboring New Mexico’s red sun symbol of the Zia tribe on a field of bright yellow is distinctive, too. Most people also are familiar with the Lone Star State’s red, white and blue flag that Texans proudly wave.
But South Carolina’s iconic blue flag with a palmetto tree and a crescent-shaped object in the upper left corner is arguably the best flag in the country because it is instantly recognizable, has a clean graphic design and is linked inexorably to the two wars that shaped America.
You might wonder why we wrote “crescent-shaped” instead of “moon.” That’s because the shape probably isn’t a moon, but a medieval gorget, a crescent-shaped plate of armor designed to protect the throat. By the 18th century, gorgets mostly were ornamental, but were still well-known symbols of battle.
“The historical view of it was it was a gorget from the Second Carolina Regiment [of the Continental Army], says Revolutionary War historian Carl Borick of the Charleston Museum. “That was what was initially on their flag,” referring to a white gorget with the word “liberty” inscribed on the emblem.
The regiment was instrumental in holding off the British at Fort Moultrie on June 28, 1776, at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, the first colonial victory of the Revolutionary War. As many South Carolinians know, the “Liberty flag” is also known as the “Moultrie flag” after its designer and the fort’s commander, Col. William Moultrie. During the battle as British ships sent waves of cannonballs onto the palmetto log fort, Sergeant William Jasper grabbed the flag when it was shot down and held it aloft to rally the troops to hold fast.
Amateur historian David Shimp of Mount Pleasant, a retired Navy captain and vice president of Maybank Industries in Charleston, argues that it makes sense that the symbol on the Moultrie flag is a gorget. Moultrie, he says, bore great allegiance to John Rutledge, then president of South Carolina. Rutledge’s family coat of arms (at left) features three gorgets and the Moultrie flag is a tribute to him.
In January 1861, a palmetto tree was added to the Moultrie flag to symbolize the strength of palmetto logs and, in a likely tip of the hat to state’s secessionary sentiment then, how South Carolinians could be strong again.
By this time, most people assumed that the gorget was a crescent moon, a widely-held belief that continues today.
With apologies to David Letterman, here’s our top 10 list of best state flags:
Ohio: The only non-rectangular state flag.
Arkansas: It’s to the point.
Maryland: Great history, but a little busy-looking.
Wyoming: The bison is great, but the state seal detracts.
California: The bear looks good.
Colorado: The “C” is distinctive and memorable.
Arizona: Good graphic design.
New Mexico: Some think it’s the best, but the yellow is too bright.
Texas: That lone star is recognizable all over.
Finally, we’re at the top of a good list.
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