Letters from Readers — November 2006 America’s Civil War Magazine

I enjoyed the July issue, particularly J. David Petruzzi’s article “Opening the Ball,” as well as Dana Shoaf’s editorial on the “first shot.” I too have been researching the opening engagements at Gettysburg and the 9th New York.

Mr. Petruzzi, however, makes a few misstatements based upon a couple of easily understandable misperceptions, which, for the sake of historical correctness, should not go unchallenged.

On P. 32 of Mr. Petruzzi’s otherwise fine article, he erroneously states, “At the time, he [Corporal Alpheus Hodges of the 9th N.Y.] had been in command of an advanced picket post northwest of Gettysburg along the Newville Road, near the Samuel Cobean farm.” But on P. 106 of Brevet Major Newel Cheney’s history of the 9th New York, the regimental historian clearly states the following: “On the night of June 30th, Col. Wm. Sackett of the 9th N.Y. Cavalry, was brigade officer of the day, in charge of the Second Brigade [Devin’s] picket line and had his headquarters near the Lutheran Seminary. The advanced picket post on the Chambersburg Road was held by a Corporal and three men, relieved every two hours, with orders not to fire on any one approach ing from the front….At daylight on the morning of July 1, Corporal Alpheus Hodges, of Company F, 9th N.Y. with three men were on duty at this post.”

Upon the arrival of Buford’s cavalry division in the Gettysburg area earlier that day, the general’s primary concern was the Confederate forces he then knew were beginning to advance from the northwest, probably along the Chambersburg/Cashtown Pike and Mummasburg Road. Buford therefore assigned Colonel William Gamble’s 1st Brigade to deploy pickets on a wide area from the Fairfield/Hagerstown Road to the Chambersburg/Cashtown Pike, and asked Colonel Thomas Devin to do the same from the Pike northward beyond the Mummasburg Road, as well as picket and patrol all roads entering Gettysburg from the north and east. Both brigades initially deployed their pickets along McPherson’s Ridge, but Gamble soon after extended his line farther west to take advantage of the higher ground along Herr’s Ridge. Hence Colonel Sackett’s cautionary orders not to fire upon potentially friendly troops traversing the Pike to and from Gamble’s new picket line. Both brigades then posted three- or four-man “vidette” teams a mile or so beyond their main picket line. In doing so, however, Gamble’s videttes along the Pike were now about a mile beyond those of Devin.

As officer in charge of Devin’s pickets that evening, Sackett could assign those on picket duty from each of the brigade’s four regiments anywhere he so chose, without regard to designated sectors, as the brigade’s videttes, pickets and picket reserves were acting as one body for the defense of the brigade. Corporal Hodges’ team from the 9th New York was assigned to Herr’s Ridge, so Mr. Petruzzi is mistaken in assuming that the lines formed by various regiments as depicted on the detailed map (left) accurately reflect where individual pickets from those regiments were posted during the night. As a 2nd Brigade picket, therefore, Corporal Hodges could have theoretically been posted anywhere along the brigade’s wide front.

A substantiation of this argument can be found on P. 107 of the 9th New York’s regimental history as the writer describes what transpired later that morning: “About 8 a.m. a force of the enemy’s infantry was seen approaching on the Chambersburg Road, and, before reaching Willoughby Run, deployed to the north toward the Mummasburg road. The 9th N.Y. was then watering its horses by squadrons in Rock Creek. As soon as each squadron returned [to the brigade’s bivouac] it was ordered out on the Mummasburg road to support the pickets [at that point].” A few hours later, as the advance of Rodes’ Division of Ewell’s corps finally began moving toward the pickets of the 9th N.Y. and 7th Pennsylvania posted north of town, the entire skirmish line was shifted farther to the north and west to provide coverage for those areas as well. Devin’s skirmish line thereafter ran from the unfinished railroad cut all the way to Rock Creek, while maintaining his pickets out the York Pike and Hunterstown and Harrisburg Roads. Only the highly mobile, small-unit independence of the cavalry could have provided such coverage.

This explains how pickets from the 9th N.Y. and 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiments could have engaged their enemy from locations different from where their regiments ended up after 8 a.m. Such was the case with both Corporal Hodges and perhaps Private Whitney of the 17th Pennsylvania.

It is quite possible that Hodges could indeed have fired the first Union shot at Gettysburg at Rodes’ scouts on the Wisler’s Ridge Road.

Bruce J. Kennedy
Naples, Fla.

J. David Petruzzi responds: I’m very glad you enjoyed my article on the first shot at Gettysburg. It has been a subject that has long interested me, and the topic is a major part of the tours I give on the battlefield several times a year. I too have an affinity for the 9th New York Cavalry — my wife happens to be from Brockton, N.Y., just a stone’s throw from Westfield, where the 9th N.Y. was trained and mustered. Having collected an enormous amount of material on the regiment, including in excess of 500 letters from troopers throughout the war, I plan to pen a modern regimental history of the old “Westfield Cavalry” one day soon.

In your letter, you state that Cheney’s regimental history of the 9th claims that Hodges picketed the Chambersburg Road. It is correct that the history states this; however, it is not true. As pointed out in my article, there were many claims by others to have picketed the Chambersburg Pike on June 30/July 1, and these spurious claims gave rise to the controversy of which post fired the first shot at Heth’s advancing column.

The actual progression of events, agreed upon by most serious historians of the first day’s actions and supported by all primary sources, is this: On June 30, 1863, when Buford’s column was approaching Gettysburg along the Emmitsburg Road, a force of Confederates was spotted west of town (which turned out to be the advance of Pettigrew’s Brigade). Colonel Gamble dispatched a squadron of the 8th Illinois Cavalry (which was leading the column’s march) through town and out the Chambersburg Road to follow Pettigrew’s subsequent withdrawal.

Gamble’s brigade then followed west of town, and set up its brigade line from the Fairfield Road north to the railroad cut — not just to the Chambersburg Pike as you state. Even the regimental monuments on the battlefield show this — the monument of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry of Gamble’s brigade is today located north of the cut. Gamble’s headquarters were set up at the Lutheran Seminary. Devin, having marched through town to the northwest past the Gettysburg College buildings, set up his brigade’s pickets from the railroad cut to the Hanover Road, and located his headquarters in the field just south of the Mummasburg Road, near where present-day soccer fields are located. Sackett, Devin’s brigade officer, had his headquarters east of the John Forney farm along the Mummasburg Road, and Gamble’s brigade officer Colonel George Chapman’s was located in the Seminary yard.

Additionally, your contention that Gamble’s videttes somehow extended beyond, or were in front of, Devin’s videttes simply is not true. This theory, as related in my article, is one of the unsubstantiated claims that were used to support Hodges’ spurious claim. The map accompanying my article is indeed quite correct. Sackett was not responsible for the forward outposts placed on the Chambersburg Pike — they were manned by 8th Illinois troopers of Gamble’s brigade. Post No. 1 at the Wisler home, manned by Privates Kelly and Hale, was commanded by Sergeant Levi Shafer. Shafer reported to Jones, whose post was located at the Herr Tavern along the picket reserve line. Sackett’s vidette line did not begin until north of the railroad cut on June 30 and thereafter.

All your further contentions and assumptions lead, therefore, from the initial incorrect placement of Hodges’ and the 9th New York’s regimental reserve, and vidette line. After the war, it was quite understandable for many to come forward to claim that “first shot.” In my article, I believe I explained and documented sufficiently that only the 8th Illinois Cavalry was in a position to do so along the Chambersburg Pike, and that the honor indeed belongs to Jones, which is generally accepted by those who have examined the multitude of primary source material available. One must look far beyond the claims in Cheney’s volume. You may also wish to see my article “John Buford: By the Book” (America’s Civil War, July 2005) which explains the dispositions of Buford’s cavalry on June 30 and the morning of July 1 in great detail.

I wish you good luck in your continued research of the 9th N.Y. Cavalry and in this fascinating topic of the Gettysburg battle.

Battlefield Behavior
Editor’s note: In February, fools pulled down and heavily damaged several monuments at the Gettysburg National Battlefield. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments expressed below about that criminal behavior.

Every year my 8th grade class and I travel to Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg. It is our responsibility to instruct every generation on the importance of every American battlefield, the cost those sites represent and the importance of the monuments, and I remind my students of the proper way to behave on a battlefield. It seems a few people simply did not learn or perhaps were not instructed in the meaning of the monuments at Gettysburg. We need to do a better job.

Mark Trenier
Wauwatosa, Wis.

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