Cool Things - Southern Rights Flag
The flag of the Palmetto Guards is a reminder that southerners came to settle Kansas as a slave state.
Kansas Territory quickly became the center of attention when it opened for settlement in 1854. The whole nation knew that when Kansas became a state it would alter the balance of power between North and South. To gain statehood, though, Kansas needed a constitution, one that would either prohibit or allow slavery. Only those who lived in the territory could cast a legal ballot, therefore, people on all sides of the slavery issue flocked here (more on the politics of territorial Kansas).
As organizations like the New England Emigrant Aid Society encouraged antislavery northerners to settle Kansas, southern organizations worked to accomplish the opposite. One group of South Carolinians formed an armed force in Kansas named the Palmetto Guards after the tree that symbolized their native state. They brought along a red flag with a single white star featuring the words "South Carolina" on one side and "Southern Rights" on the other. These men settled in Atchison, then very much a proslavery town. Their leader, Captain F.G. Phillips, was a graduate of the South Carolina Military Academy (now known as The Citadel).
The Palmetto Guards carried this flag into battle on Kansas soil. When a proslavery force attacked the town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, the flag briefly flew over both the Herald of Freedom newspaper office and the Free State Hotel (now the Eldridge House), signaling they were in control of the city. Both buildings were then destroyed.
That same day in Lawrence, another proslavery group--the South Carolina Minute Men-- carried this dark green flag (left). It features a snake and the mottoes "Sic Semper Tiranis" (death ever to tyrants) and "Don't Tread on Me," Revolutionary War symbols that had remained popular in the South.
After the attack on Lawrence, the red "Southern Rights" flag was seen at a banquet in Atchison where it was reported that "the most ultra pro-slavery toasts were given, and the subjugation of Kansas by the victors of Lawrence, was spoken of by the Southerners as a thing achieved."
But the luck of the Guards was running out. On September 11, 1856, a company of free-state men led by Captain James Harvey surprised the Palmetto Guards as they camped along Slough Creek, near Oskaloosa in Jefferson County. With little effort the Guards were captured, and the flag was taken as a trophy.
Harvey presented the flag to Colonel E.B. Whitman of Lawrence. In 1879 Whitman presented it to Franklin Adams of the Kansas Historical Society (Adams had been with Harvey's company when the flag was captured). The flag is now in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.
To learn more about Bleeding Kansas, see the online exhibit Willing to Die for Freedom.
Entry: Cool Things - Southern Rights Flag
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2006
Date Modified: June 2016
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.