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Battle of Gettysburg: Who Really Fired the First Shot

By J. David Petruzzi 
Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: July 26, 2006 
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Until July 1, 1863, Lieutenant Marcellus Jones' service in the 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry had been undistinguished. In the rising humidity of that early morning, lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac were poised to clash just west of the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Jones commanded a forward outpost of cavalry videttes that spotted the Confederate advance along the road leading to Cashtown and Chambersburg. He carefully rested a borrowed cavalry carbine on a fence rail beside 31-year-old blacksmith Ephraim Wisler's home, took and held a breath and touched off a shot. It was about 7:30 a.m.

Jones meant to give warning to Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's column and rapidly forming skirmish line. The mounted Southern officer on whom Jones drew a bead was still some 600 yards away. Little did Jones realize that his bullet would have far-reaching consequences, igniting a raging decades-long war of opinions among the veterans of Brig. Gen. John Buford's cavalry division over who fired that 'first shot.'

This first shot controversy is not unique — many arguments of both major and minor consequence arose from the Gettysburg battle, and dozens have spilled over from spats among veterans to quarrels among modern-day historians. What makes this controversy one of the more interesting, however, is that the dispute over whose trigger ignited the pivotal battle ultimately became a fight over the placement of and wording on the cavalry regiments' battlefield monuments.

Marcellus Ephraim Jones was born in Rutland County, Vt., in 1830, the grandson of a Revolutionary War officer. At age 17, Jones struck out on his own and sold jewelry out of a horse-drawn buggy. After a year of little success, he traveled to New York and then Ohio, working as a carpenter. In 1854 he relocated to Wisconsin, got married and established a sash and door factory. The path of his life seemed to be set until his business was destroyed by fire and he lost all his savings. Penniless and with a pregnant wife, Jones' situation was bleak. It took an even grimmer turn when his wife died of complications during childbirth, and the newborn died within a few days.

Distraught and yearning for a fresh start, Jones moved to Danby, Ill., where he had earlier worked for a short time. Through his hard work and ingenuity, he soon became a prominent builder. But when Illinois called for troops as the Civil War began, Jones was among the first to respond. On August 5, 1861, he enlisted in and helped recruit Company E of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. Jones admired the regiment's second-in-command, Lt. Col. William Gamble, who was also a skilled builder and had likewise left behind a lucrative business to enlist. Additionally, both Gamble and Jones were staunch abolitionists, fitting members of the 8th Illinois, which was nicknamed the 'Big Abolition Regiment.' Due to his prewar dragoon experience as a drill sergeant, Gamble primarily trained the regiment, and the greenhorn Jones learned much from Gamble's stiff discipline.

Although Jones had no prior military experience, he was popular with his comrades. When they volunteered him for an officer's commission, he modestly declined. Having enlisted as a private, Jones promised to consider the offer after he gained some command skills. Gamble's instruction stuck, and true to his word, Jones accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in December 1862.

In the spring of 1863, the 8th was placed in Buford's newly formed 1st Cavalry Division. As Buford's troopers marched north toward both armies' date with destiny in Pennsylvania, Jones was as happy to be out of the Old Dominion as any of his comrades. Later he would recall that 'for twenty long, weary months?we had been marching and counter-marching, camping and fighting on the slave-accursed and God-forsaken soils of old Virginia?.' June 29, the day he reached the Mason-Dixon line, Jones recalled, 'was one of the most delightful of my army life.'

The cavalrymen camped that night at Fountaindale in the pass above Fairfield, Pa. General Buford is recorded as making a dire prediction there as he peered eastward toward the rolling hills in the direction of Gettysburg, where he was ordered to march to scout the enemy: 'Within forty-eight hours a great battle will take place on a field within view.' In his wildest dreams, Lieutenant Jones couldn't have imagined the hand that fate was about to deal him in that envisioned battle.

Rising long before dawn in a thick fog on the morning of June 30, the troopers countermarched south after an unexpected skirmish with Confederates camped at Fairfield. Turning north again from Emmitsburg, Md., Buford marched his weary horsemen to Gettysburg. The rotation of the day put the 8th at the head of the column. A squadron spotted the advance guard of Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew's Confederate infantry brigade to the west on the Cashtown Pike. The rest of the cavalry brigade, now commanded by Colonel Gamble and consisting of the 8th and 12th Illinois, 8th New York and 3rd Indiana regiments, followed and set up position on the road just west of town.

'We advanced one mile to the old [Herr's] tavern on the ridge west of Willoughby Run, where we made our headquarters,' Jones later recalled. A forward picket outpost was sent farther west along the pike to Knoxlyn Ridge to keep an eye on the Rebels. 'It fell to my lot to have charge of the picket and with 35 men went forward one mile further,' Jones stated. The videttes settled along Knoxlyn Ridge for the night. Jones wrote that'spreading their blankets with their saddles for pillows, they lay down to rest.'

Buford's elaborate network of videttes covered all roads leading to Gettysburg from the west, north and east, serving as an early warning system of any approach by the Rebels. After visiting the picket line at dawn the next morning, a hungry Jones rode back to his reserve near the tavern to the east for some breakfast. No sooner had he arrived, Jones later remembered, than Private George Heim came galloping from the picket post at 'full speed, who said that Sergeant [Levi] Shafer wanted me at once. Springing into my saddle?I was soon there and could see a cloud of dust rising above the trees some distance up the mountain.' It was Heth's Confederate division leading the march of A.P. Hill's Third Corps toward Gettysburg from Cashtown.

Dismounting and running to the post set up along the pike in the side yard of Wisler's brick home, Jones saw Heim raise his gun to fire. 'Hold on, George,' Jones implored. 'Give me the honor of opening the ball.' Jones then asked Shafer for his Sharps carbine. He later wrote, 'I took aim at an officer on a white or light gray horse and fired — the first shot at the battle of Gettysburg.'

That first shot honor also was claimed by a member of the 9th New York Cavalry of Buford's 2nd Brigade, commanded by Colonel Thomas C. Devin. The brigade included the 17th Pennsylvania, 6th New York and a battalion of the 3rd (West) Virginia. Corporal Alpheus Hodges of the 9th New York's Company F declared that fully two hours prior to Jones' shot, Hodges had fired a carbine bullet at some Confederates. At the time, he had been in command of an advanced picket post northwest of Gettysburg along the Newville Road near the Samuel Cobean farm. The 9th New York corporal spent the rest of his life claiming the honor of that first shot.

Born in 1843 in Cambridge, Pa., Hodges was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Waterford upon the death of his mother when he was less than a year old. At age 10, Alpheus moved back with his father — who had since married his deceased wife's sister — to their farm near Ashville, N.Y.

Hodges hankered after adventure beyond the rigors and monotony of farm life. In September 1861, at age 18, he enlisted in the newly organized 9th New York Volunteer Cavalry. Hodges proved to be a competent soldier and was appointed corporal in Company F the following September. When Devin's brigade followed Gamble's through Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Hodges and his regiment marched northeast past Gettysburg's Pennsylvania College and set up camp with the rest of the brigade along the Mummasburg Road. Hodges and three troopers of his picket post were detailed farther north along the Newville Road to watch for the enemy, as Jones' post was doing to their southwest.

'At daylight on the morning of July 1, men were seen approaching on the [Cashtown] road beyond Willoughby Run, and nearly a mile away,' according to the 9th's regimental history. 'Acting on his orders, Hodges sent his men to notify his line and the reserve while he advanced across the stream stopping to water his horse, then rode to the higher ground beyond far enough to see that the men approaching were Confederates.' As he turned back to report, Hodges claimed that those men fired at him. 'Hodges retired to the bridge where?he fired several shots at the advancing enemy,' the regimental history continues. 'This occurred at about 5:20 a.m., and this exchange of shots is believed to be the first shots fired at the battle of Gettysburg.'

There is a fundamental problem with Hodges' claim, however. No pickets of the 9th New York were posted along the Cashtown Pike. The farthest south any of their pickets were posted was the Mummasburg Road, several hundred yards to the north of the road to Cashtown. Therefore, Hodges and the unit's regimental history appear to have confused the road names. But if Hodges did indeed confront and fire at Confederates so early that morning north of town, who were they?

The answer may lie in events of the previous day, June 30. After marching through Gettysburg to the north of town with his brigade, Colonel Devin ordered squadrons of his regiments out several roads to scout for signs of the enemy. 'About 5 o'clock that afternoon, a patrol of eighteen men of the 9th N.Y. rode out the Hunterstown road northeast as far as Hunterstown and returned by the Harrisburg road,' stated the regimental historian. 'On the way out the patrol after passing a cross road a little way found some of the enemy had ridden in behind them. The patrol immediately turned about and charged, capturing one man.' Very early the following morning, July 1, the history claims, the patrol party returned to Hunterstown and again confronted 'four mounted Confederates.' Eventually all four were captured, after Hunterstown locals claimed to the Federal cavalrymen that about 300 Confederates were in the area of the town, just four miles northeast of Gettysburg.

The Confederates confronted by the 9th New York's patrol, as well as those who possibly shot at Corporal Hodges, may have been troopers of Lt. Col. Elijah White's 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. White's 250 troopers were attached to Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's Second Corps.

A division of that corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, had marched through Gettysburg four days earlier on its way north to Harriburg. Squads of White's men were scattered throughout the countryside north and east of Gettysburg foraging and scouting, and it is reasonable to presume that several may have been in and near Hunterstown. The Rebels that Hodges could have fired at during the morn-ing of July 1 might have been some of White's men. No records specify if those Southerners were mounted, so they could even have been stragglers from Ewell's infantry left behind a few days earlier. Some of Early's stragglers had in-deed been captured by Buford's advance guard when it first arrived in Gettysburg on June 30.

Regardless, elements of the 9th New York, supporting Gamble's brigade, were skirmishing with Confederates of Heth's left flank shortly after Jones' shot, since the 9th New York's 24-year-old Corporal Cyrus W. James was shot and killed prior to 9 a.m. James is often claimed to be the first Federal killed on July 1. Troopers of the 9th New York also captured a Confederate near the Mummasburg Road about that time, perhaps the first prisoner of the battle, and he was promptly marched off to General Buford for the 'honor' of a quick interview.

The 9th New York, however, was not the only other cavalry regiment to erroneously claim that it picketed the Cashtown Pike that morning, or to have fired the opening shot. Private Freeman P. Whitney of Company B, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Devin's brigade, also put in a first shot bid. Stating that he was part of the regiment's picket post on the Cashtown Pike, he maintained that he fired a shot at Rebels advancing east on the road prior to 6 a.m., much earlier than Jones' shot and nearly as early as Hodges. Like Hodges, Whitney is mistaken about his road names, as pickets of the 17th Pennsylvania were actually posted on the Carlisle and Harrisburg roads that morning. If Whitney indeed fired a shot at any enemy forces so early on July 1, it too may have been at elements of White's Virginia Cavalry Battalion or at Early's stragglers.

Other members of the 17th Pennsylvania also claimed to have traded shots 'at dawn' with Rebels of Ewell's corps, among them Captain Henry M. Donehoo, commanding Company B. 'For this honored distinction,' notes the regimental history, 'Governor [Andrew] Curtin sent a personal letter to Captain Donehoo thanking him for his meritorious conduct in checking the advance of the enemy on that occasion.'

If Donehoo also skirmished with Confederates so early, it may have been with Southerners the regiment had likewise found the previous evening — some distance out the Harrisburg Road. After the war, Sergeant Joseph E. McCabe of the 17th Pennsylvania's Company A recounted his experience that evening along the road: 'We had gone about three miles when we met the enemy's advance guard coming toward Gettysburg?.We captured one of the Rebs, the other escaped. We continued on about half a mile, when we could see the Rebs forming into column and getting [into] position to await an attack from us; but we returned with our squadron to the command in haste, and reported our discoveries.'

After the war, just as the fervor of regimental ornamentation on the Gettysburg battlefield began heating up in the 1880s, Marcellus Jones (promoted to captain by war's end) determined to memorialize his first shot for all time. Jones commissioned and paid for a small shaft marker to be carved of Naperville, Ill., granite, on which he had inscribed 'First Shot at Gettysburg — July 1st, 1863 — 7:30 AM — Fired by Capt. Jones with Sergt. Shafers carbine — Co. E, 8th Ills Cavalry.'

In 1886 Jones traveled to Gettysburg with two regimental comrades to place his monument, among the earliest erected. Purchasing a tiny piece of ground from James Mickley, a former Union officer who then owned the Ephraim Wisler home, Jones' small party had the monument permanently installed just west of the home along the Cashtown Pike to mark the spot, where it still stands today. Its permanence was assured by sinking half its length into the ground. Since it was erected on private ground, it was not subject to the regulations or approval of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA).

Knowing nothing of Jones' monument, the monument committee of the 9th New York Cavalry met in Niagara Falls the following summer to begin the planning and design of a regimental monument at Gettysburg. One of its primary goals was to include inscriptions that prominently stated the regiment fired the first shot of battle on July 1, based on Alpheus Hodges' popular telling of his story.

The front of the monument, in fact, is boldly inscribed 'Discovering the Enemy' and depicts a large relief sculpture of a 9th New York picket ready to fire the first shot. Staying true to Hodges' claim, the back of the monument reads, 'Picket on Chambersburg Road fired on at 5 am.'

When the 9th New York's Gettysburg monument was set in place on McPherson Ridge, ready for dedication on July 1, 1888, members of the 8th Illinois Cavalry (who were also beginning the design of their regimental monument) vehemently objected to the GBMA's acknowledging the 9th New York's claim to the first shot. Although the subject of the opening shot had been debated within veteran circles since the battle, the protest caught the New Yorkers by surprise. The Battlefield Association, concerned for the validity of monument inscriptions, insisted that the New Yorkers prove their claim.

The dedication proceeded as planned, and on July 3, the 9th New York's committee, led by former regimental colonel Wilbur G. Bentley, presented its testimonials to the GBMA. Impressed, the association voted unanimously to allow the inscriptions to remain. In its published proceedings, the GBMA stated that Bentley's committee 'established to the entire satisfaction of those present that this regiment fired the first shot of July 1, 1863.'

What Bentley's group did, in fact, was to convince the GBMA that Hodges' post of New Yorkers picketed the Cashtown Road on the morning of July 1, and therefore fired the initial pre-dawn salvos. Evidently no one thought of the fact that Heth's Confederates had barely left their Cashtown camps by then. After Hodges retreated, according to Bentley, Jones and his Illinois post came forward and fired their shot. Bentley's claims were spurious, of course, but the GBMA apparently thought the compromise explanation was acceptable.

During his keynote address to his New York comrades at the dedication of their monument, Bentley made sure to announce all four of the 9th New York's claims: that they fired the first shot to open the battle, killed the first Confederate, took the first prisoner and suffered the first Union fatality. Bentley meant to leave no doubt as to his regiment's important role at Gettysburg.

Undeterred, the 8th Illinois Cavalry went forward with plans for its own regimental monument at Gettysburg, choosing to make its claim for the first shot less conspicuous but still noticeable on the front of the monument. Apparently, veterans of the 8th Illinois preferred to allow Jones' small marker to speak for itself. Dominated by a carving of a cavalryman's saddle, the inscription on their simple monument, dedicated in 1891, reads in part: 'One squadron picketed ridge east of Marsh Creek and supported by another squadron met enemy's right advance. Lieut. Jones, Co. E, fired first shot as the enemy crossed Marsh Creek bridge.' The wording, despite the claims of the 9th New York veterans, was approved by the GBMA. At the dedication ceremony, John L. Beveridge (major commanding the 8th Illinois at Gettysburg) said of Jones' monument, 'This stone, beyond the domain of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, far removed from the many monuments on the Gettysburg field stands alone, a solitary and silent witness to tell the true story of the opening of the great decisive battle of the world….' Beveridge then took the time to address all other claims to the first shot, calling them 'preposterous.' He stated, 'From investigation, I am satisfied, to Capt. Jones belongs the honor of firing the first gun at Gettysburg?he opened the fight.' During subsequent reunions at Gettysburg a popular activity for veterans of the 8th Illinois, after visiting their regimental monument, was to travel two miles east on the Cashtown Road and gather around Jones' marker for photographs and small speeches.

Controversy and arguments among the veterans for the rightful claim to the first shot carried well beyond battlefield monuments and dedicatory speeches. The pages of the National Tribune were a popular outlet for the stories and reminiscences of Union veterans after the war. As one might expect, a percentage of them were questionable and self-serving, and others easily proved to be erroneous in light of known facts. Debates and claims over the first shot at Gettysburg appeared in several articles by a number of troopers, each purporting to have been an eyewitness to the events.

Private Morgan Hughes of Jones' Company E, 8th Illinois Cavalry, started the debate in an 1891 submission just a week prior to the dedication of the regiment's Gettysburg monument. After reading a previous article by a member of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry stating that the 'Iron Brigade' of the Army of the Potomac opened the Gettysburg battle, Hughes determined to set the record straight. Lest Buford's cavalry's role prior to the general infantry fighting on the first day be forgotten, Hughes recounted his regiment's arrival at Gettysburg on June 30, and his posting at Jones' reserve headquarters at Herr's Tavern. Riding forward with Jones to the picket post at Knoxlyn Ridge, Hughes watched as Jones 'took a carbine from one of the boys' and fired at the advancing Confederates. 'The opening of the battle of Gettysburg,' Hughes concluded, 'belongs to the 8th Ill. Cav.'

A few months later, Private Thomas Benton Kelly, also of the 8th Illinois' Company E, chimed in after reading Hughes' article. Kelly had just returned from the monument dedication at Gettysburg. Kelly wrote that he, along with Private James O. Hale, were the two troopers posted at Sergeant Shafer's picket position along the Cashtown Road at Knoxlyn Ridge. He was beside Jones as he took the shot. Kelly said: 'Let no one say they opened the battle from any other point, for no rebels came to Gettysburg on any other road until near 10:30 a.m. This ought to convince the most skeptical or ambitious of any of the regiments engaged.' Undoubtedly, Kelly had been party to discussions of the first shot controversy during the 8th Illinois' recent monument dedication.

Frank E. Willett, who was a private in the 8th New York Cavalry's Company F, wrote the Tribune in December 1892 that his regiment met the first Rebel advance and that he personally fired the opening shot: 'The rebels made their advance on the morning of July 1, 1863. Gen. [James] Archer, with his command, appeared at the gray dawn of morn between the Fairfield road [south of the Cashtown Pike] and the Seminary building about 4 o'clock. It was as clear and still as a church at a benediction, when my carbine spoke its warning of the advance of Gen. Archer's command….The play was on.' Willett's claim has never been taken seriously, however, since his assertion that Archer's Brigade of Heth's Division appeared at 4 a.m. is fully one hour before the Confederates began marching out of their Cashtown camps.

Some minor mentions followed over the next several years, but in 1901 an article appeared by Seth W. Clark, who was a second lieutenant in the 9th New York's Company G. That year the 9th New York's regimental history was published, listing the regiment's numerous claims of 'firsts.' Clark repeated all of them in his article and espoused Alpheus Hodges' account. 'Well to the front [of our regiment] we had videts; one, at the bridge over Willoughby Run, was in charge of Corp'l Alpheus Hodges, of Co. F. of our regiment….Between 5 and 6, and I think nearer to 5, the enemy appeared, and Corp'l Hodges fired the first shot, from the Union side, in that great battle,' Clark wrote. 'The formation of the Union lines, and the direction of the Confederate advance, put the 9th N.Y. Cav. into action long before the 8th Ill. Cav. fired a gun.'Clark's account must be reconciled with the fact that his regiment did not picket the Cashtown Road. Clark appears to have been one veteran for whom time enhanced his recollections; for instance, he signed his article as 'Major,' although records indicate he was mustered out as a first lieutenant. The 9th New York's regimental history also states, with a hint of skepticism, that Clark 'claims he received five wounds in action' although his file lists only one.

More debate took place over the next 10 years in the Tribune, other periodicals and published regimental histories as the 50th anniversary of the battle approached. No doubt more arguments among the veterans flared at the event. Regardless of which regiment could claim that first shot, whether it was fired at a Confederate line of battle, detached Southern cavalrymen or a noise in the dark by a jittery young trooper, the shot carried no tactical significance whatsoever. But such a claim was evidently important to a small group of rapidly aging and often stubborn old cavalrymen who could argue over the most minute details as if the fate of the world depended on it. We can surely understand if, to them, it indeed did.

Marcellus Jones led a colorful life after the war and went to his grave in 1900 insisting on his place in the annals of the Battle of Gettysburg. At the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1913, 13 gray and aged veterans of the 8th Illinois Cavalry gathered around Jones' marker to pose for their final photograph as such a group at such a spot. At one end of the gathering waves a small American flag that someone placed on the fence rail where Jones had rested Levi Shafer's gun to fire. Standing erect and proud at the other end of the gathering is Shafer, holding hands with his wife, where, for one instant in time no longer than a muzzle blast, fate met history.


This article was written by J. David Petruzzi and originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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