Every American is familiar with the story of Betsy Ross and creation of the nation’s first flag, though there is now some controversy about the accuracy of the tale. What is less known is another story involving the banner.
Contemporary news reports reveal the historic standard was the first American flag raised over the fortress of Chapultepec in the Mexican War.
When the Cameron Guards, Company G of the 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was raised at Harrisburg on Dec. 26, 1846, Edward C. Williams, a 27-year-old bookbinder born in Philadelphia, was appointed captain and commander of the company.
General recounts incident
An article in the Aug. 25, 1899 edition of the Sunbury American, a newspaper published at Sunbury, Northumberland County, quotes War Department documentation and testimony of General William W. Brindle, who served as a lieutenant colonel with the 2nd Regiment, on the flag-raising incident. At the time of the article, Williams was operating a grocery store in nearby Snyder County and was scheduled to attend a Grand Army of the Republic encampment at Philadelphia.
According to Brindle, Williams obtained the flag–allegedly made by Betsy Ross and presented to George Washington just before the battle of Trenton during the American Revolution–from the State Library at Harrisburg, Pa., and carried it to Mexico with the intent of raising it over the enemy’s works at every opportunity.
Regiment aided in defeat of Santa Ana
The Cameron Guards aided in the defeat of Santa Ana near Cerro Gordo, proceeded on to Jalapa and Pueblo and, by August 1847, were in sight of the City of Mexico. All along the line of march, Williams and his men were in the forefront of the fighting.
Brindle said that during the battle at Chapultepec Williams “was struck by a ball, near the top of the shoulder, high enough up to turn the shoulder. It threw him forward on his hands and knees, severely wounded. He was quickly on his feet again, and continued on duty with his company until the fighting was concluded in the City of Mexico.”
Soon after U.S. troops entered the fortress, Brindle said Williams ascended to the top-most ramparts and was the first to raise an American flag over it.
“The Second Pennsylvania Regiment was placed as a garrison in the citadel after the capture of the city and Captain Williams ran up over it that American flag which he had so proudly raised over the fortress,” Brindle said. “To Mr. Williams also belongs the honor of having raised the first American flag over any public building the City of Mexico.”
During its time in Mexico the Cameron Guard sustained losses of more than 70 percent of its men, returning to Pennsylvania with only thirty-two of the original members.
After his return home, Williams was elected sheriff of Dauphin County in 1850, running as an independent.
Volunteered again in Civil War
When the Civil War broke out, Williams again stepped forward and had the distinction of being the state’s first volunteer officer to enter the service. He was made colonel of the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry and was later promoted to general. Records show the Ninth participated in 41 major engagements and numerous skirmishes. It is believed to have fired the last shots of the war in General Sherman’s Army.
The old soldier died on Feb. 18, 1902 at the age of 82 and is buried in the St. John’s (Chapman) United Methodist Cemetery, Port Trevorton, Snyder County, Pa.
Sunbury American newspaper, Aug. 25, 1899
The Story of Snyder County, G. F. Dunkelberger, 50th anniversary edition, 1998
Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of Dauphin County PA, J. M. Runk & Co., 1898