A new book sheds light on one of the nastiest, most unpredictable rivalries in college football.What follows is an excerpt of what happened after a 12-6 Carolina win in 1902. The Gamecocks snapped a four-game losing streak against the Tigers, but what happened after the game could have potentially derailing the rivalry forever.
After the game, joyous Carolina students celebrated downtown by unveiling a large transparency that depicted a Gamecock crowing over a wounded Tiger. Clemson cadets were not amused, and a bloody confrontation followed after they tore down the image. The Carolina side claimed later that cadets brandished swords and wounded two students. The Clemson side claimed later that Carolina students brandished brass knuckles and inflicted injuries. The account from Charleston’s News and Courier read:
The South Carolina College boys were naturally very happy to-night. They had a great jubilee as the result of their victory over Clemson College. About 9 o’clock there came near being a serious row between the Clemson and Carolina boys. The South Carolina College boys had a large transparency with a tiger representing the Clemson team and a game cock on top of this tiger. The tiger had a twist in its tail. The South Carolina College boys were marching down Main street with the transparency when a body of Clemson boys rushed into the South Carolina College boys’ ranks to capture the offending display. It was not ten seconds before a good row was going on. Sticks were in use and the South Carolina boys were incensed because one of the Clemson boys struck one of their number over the head with his drawn sword.
The cadets issued an ultimatum: don’t dare bring a similar transparency to the popular Elks parade the next night. Carolina’s students did not oblige, redrawing the image on another piece of cloth and displaying it at the parade. The series of events that followed was disputed between the two sides, but it was generally accepted that Clemson’s cadets marched to Carolina’s campus with swords and bayonets drawn. A vastly outnumbered group of Carolina students, armed with shotguns and pistols, barricaded themselves behind the eight- foot walls that surrounded the Horseshoe. Jerome Reel, the Clemson historian, says the fault was clearly with the cadets. “They were hot-headed and inflamed. The Carolina kids were very proud, and they taunted them. It’s the nature of kids. And the reaction was an overreaction: ‘Fix bayonets and march.’”
James Rion McKissic, a Carolina sophomore who would later become the school’s president, was armed with a handgun. A fellow student told him, “Make every shot count.” The two sides were seething and on the verge of a bloody—and, very likely, deadly—riot.
From the mayhem, a peacemaker emerged in Christie Benet, who’d helped coach the Gamecocks to the exhilarating victory a day earlier. He climbed to the top of the wall and offered to fight any cadet to settle the dispute. There were no takers, so Benet climbed down to Clemson’s side and tried to arbitrate. A six-person committee was formed with three men from each side. The committee suggested burning the cloth transparency, and Carolina’s side reluctantly agreed.
The event did not create much of a splash in the next day’s newspaper. A short story with the headline “They’ve Buried the Hatchet” ran on page eight of The State, and it painted a picture of a warm, amicable resolution between the two sides: “Every member of the two committees applied a match to the cause of the trouble. Quickly the flames ate their way into the painted cloth and finally the last shreds fell to the ground in darkness and silence. Three cheers were given by Clemson for Carolina and were returned heartily.”
But more details began to surface about the incident, and Carolina students weren’t happy to hear that the cadets trumpeted themselves as the victor of the altercation by virtue of the burned image. Benet, who would later become a U.S. senator, wrote a letter to The State presenting his account of the episode, and the story gained momentum. An editorial ran in Monday’s paper chastising Clemson’s cadets while also calling for the retirement of Clemson’s commandant of cadets, Lieutenant E.A. Sirmyer, for abetting the “raid” by disappearing after the cadets announced their intentions to march on campus. The editorial credited Benet and the other arbitrators for averting a disaster that “probably” would’ve resulted in deaths.
“The colleges of the State are not enemies of the other, and they should not be permitted to appear as enemies. Fair rivalry in sports should not provoke bitterness nor should its results breed hatred. Harmony between those who are alike the beneficiaries of the State should be demanded.”
The flames were fanned further after Clemson president P.H. Mell wrote a letter to The State providing a different account of events while also staunchly defending Sirmyer. The State published a lengthy editorial the same day disputing a number of Mell’s points, asserting that there was “no excuse” for marching on Carolina’s campus and nothing insulting in the transparency.
“One shot fired them would have brought on a battle, and perhaps dozens of the young men for whom South Carolina is providing an education would have fallen in death upon the grass of the campus.”
A number of other newspapers across the state joined in the condemnation of Clemson and its commandant. Some historians would later argue that The State’s sensationalism made an innocuous confrontation seem much worse than it was. Carolina’s trustees later elected to suspend the series, and the Gamecocks and Tigers would not play again until 1909.
But had Clemson’s cadets and Carolina’s students truly lost their tempers that Friday night after the big game, a budding rivalry might not have simply been put on hold but lost forever.
"Classic Clashes of the Carolina-Clemson Football Rivalry: A State of Disunion” by Travis Haney and Larry Williams is available at www.historypress.com, www.amazon.com, or any bookstore.