The state’s official repository of its military history has a problem — and it’s a wonderful problem. Veterans and their descendants have generously shared their family’s artifacts. They’ve been so generous in fact, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum has doubled the size of its collection to more than 7,000 items. And that’s the problem.
“We’re totally out of space!” says W. Allen Robinson, the museum’s executive director. “We’ve got to deal with that issue. It’s a major challenge.”
But it’s a problem many museums around the country would love to have. With a collection spanning 250 years, from the American Revolution to the Iraq War, the Relic Room and Military Museum has something to fascinate and interest everyone.
And the museum covers much more than the War Between the States. Admittedly, it is the star of the show (the Civil War started in South Carolina, after all), its various displays give glimpses into periods from the country’s earliest days to modern times.
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That’s led to an increasing number of people coming to see it all. While similarly themed institutions typically draw around 15,000 visitors annually, the Relic Room and Military Museum is on track to have 35,000 visitors this year.
The current “It’s A War With No Front Lines: South Carolina in the Vietnam War, 1965-1973” exhibit is especially popular. “It’s pretty special,” explains Joe Long, curator of education. “I’ve seen veterans from Vietnam bringing their grandchildren here. We’ll never get to talk to the people who came here in the 1890s, but we have reminders of their history that are now being preserved. But tragically, there’s a time limit on being able to take a Vietnam vet to see an exhibit and hear his perspective on it. So that’s very special.”
The museum will take visitors farther back in time when its next exhibit opens in June. “Twilight of the Revolutionaries: The Dawn of Photography” captures an interesting overlap in eras. The display features early photos taken on glass plates showing Revolutionary Patriots in their advanced years. Their lives were a remarkable span stretching from their youth spent amid the Spirit of ’76 to seeing the Industrial Age’s arrival as seniors.
As its name suggest the museum also features, well, relics. Among them? A twenty-pound parrot shell fired at the unfinished S.C. State House in 1865 as well as a chip of marble from the damaged building …
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There are also pieces of wreckage from a kamikaze fighter which struck the USS Columbia – a cruiser named for the Palmetto State’s capital city which was participating in pre-invasion exercises near the Philippines in the waning days of World War II.
Thirteen people were killed and another fourteen were wounded in that attack …
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The museum showcases other unique items like the Palmetto Regiment flag. “It’s unlike any other U.S. flag I know of,” Long said. “It’s an 1840s eagle regimental silk flag that flew over Mexico City and was later carried by the Second South Carolina Infantry during the Spanish American War and flew over Havana, Cuba. Not many flags have flown over two captured capitals.” (Because of its advanced age and delicate condition, the museum had to decline the South Carolina National Guard’s request to fly it over Baghdad, Iraq, several years ago, which would have given it a historical hat trick.)
While that banner won’t be going anywhere, it is in good company. The museum boasts more than 125 flags in its collection, including several rare Confederate battle flags that saw extensive combat in the 1860s.
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Besides its special exhibits and the usual display, the museum stays busy sharing South Carolina’s military legacy with people around the state. As you would imagine, there are traditional school field trips to the facility. And a lot more besides.
“We do lunch and learns during the week, and special programs too, lecturers and various things,” Long noted.
If you happen to be off work on Confederate Memorial Day (May 10, 2023), the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on the holiday. It’s located at 301 Gervais Street in Columbia in the historic Columbia Mills building.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].
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