First Shot Controversy at Gettysburg
In 1883, twenty years after the battle, three men arrived in Gettysburg from Naperville, Illinois. What set Marcellus Ephraim Jones, Alex Riddler and Levi Shafer apart from the many veterans that returned to Gettysburg was a five-foot shaft of limestone they brought with them. Any local farmer will tell you that the Gettysburg area has more than its fair share of rocks, so bringing a large stone 600 miles from Illinois might seem unusual. But the men from Naperville understood two things: they had taken part in a unique moment in history, and the best way to make their claim and pass it on to the ages was to carve it in stone.
Jones, Riddler and Shafer had been in Company E of the 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment. Lieutenant Jones was in charge of a group of men picketing Chambersburg Pike, one of the roads leading into Gettysburg like spokes on a wheel. Riddler and Shafer were stationed at an advanced outpost on the east bank of Marsh Creek about four miles west of town.
Since first light on July 1, 1863, they had been watching a dust cloud make its way down the road from Cashtown. By about seven a.m. they could pick out individual men, with “the old Rebel flag” in front. They alerted the picket reserve, which quickly brought Lieutenant Jones up to the outpost. Jones sent a note to his regimental commander, Major John Lourie Beveridge, and ordered horses and horse holders to the rear.
Then, according to one version of the story, Jones borrowed Shafer’s Sharps carbine and, using the top of a nearby fence to steady his aim, squeezed off a shot at a mounted officer about half a mile down the road. A variation, told by Major (later Brigadier General, Illinois congressman and Governor) Beveridge, has him standing in the middle of the road to fire.
Jones was firing at the brigade of Confederate General James Archer. The 5th Alabama Battalion and the 13th Alabama Regiment were leading the column that morning, and there was a good chance Jones was firing at Colonel Birkett D. Fry, commander of the 13th Alabama Infantry, who was known to have reconnoitered the area west of the Marsh Creek in advance of his regiment. Whoever he was firing at, Jones missed.
But the single shot did what was intended. Colonel Fry ordered the 5th Alabama Battalion and three companies of the 13th to deploy as skirmishers. The march slowed to a crawl as the skirmishers worked their way forward through the brush and trees on both sides of the road, trading shots with more and more cavalrymen. They had not yet reached the west side of town when they suddenly ran into large numbers of "Black-hatted fellers," the Iron Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. Buford's cavalry had bought the time it needed for the main army to come up, and the great battle was on.
Twenty years later Gettysburg was recognized as a turning point of the war and the man who was there at the start of it sensed his place in history. Now the Sheriff of DuPage County and in his early fifties, Jones had a stone cut in a Naperville quarry. It was five feet long, tapered from 18 inches wide at the base to nine inches at the top, and was inscribed, “First shot at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, 7:30 A.M. Fired by Captain M. E. Jones with Sergeant Shafer's carbine, Co. E, Eighth Regiment Illinois Cavalry. Erected by Captain Jones, Lieutenant Riddler, and Sergeant Shafer (note: their ranks at the end of the war). Erected 1886." The three men purchased a plot of ground on the summit of the ridge overlooking Marsh Creek, and firmly planted their monument in the pages of history, "to tell the true story of the opening of the great and decisive battle of the war, on the morning of July 1, 1863." (See more photos of the monument and a map to its location.)
There were other claims. Throughout the morning of July 1st, Union cavalry bumped into Confederate forces advancing toward Gettysburg from several directions. The 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry had opened fire on scouts of Richard Ewell's Confederates on the Carlisle Road, and both the Sixth and Ninth New York Cavalry were fired on northwest of town. But these were brushes with scouts, not contact with a main body of Confederate infantry.
Corporal Alphonse Hodges of the 9th New York had a stronger claim. A twenty-year-old corporal from Lakewood, New York, Hodges was in charge of four men who, according to his story, were posted on the Chambersburg Pike where it crossed Willoughby Run. At around 5 a.m. he saw mounted men coming up the Pike. He notified his supports and flanking units, then crossed the stream and rode up the slope toward the oncoming men to get a better look. Satisfied they were Confederates, he turned back, and as he did so they fired at him. Returning to the bridge, he sheltered behind the abutments and returned several shots, at what he estimated was about 5:30.
So, according to their testimonies, both Jones and Hodges had supposedly fired the first shot of the battle at different times and at different bridges along the same road.
None of this was a real issue until 1888. The 25th anniversary of the battle prompted the placement of dozens of monuments, among them that of the 9th New York Cavalry. The monument features a handsome bronze relief of a cavalry scout entitled, "Discovering the enemy, " and the back of the monument states, "Picket on Chambersburg Road, fired on at 5 A.M." Wilber Bentley, a major in the 9th New York at Gettysburg who had lost his leg in the Battle of the Wilderness, was to make the dedication address on the day of the anniversary.
Less than a week before the dedication he received an alarming communication from the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the governing organization for monuments. Bentley was astonished to find that the 8th Illinois had protested the 9th New York's inscriptions, and the Association was requiring the Ninth to either make good their claims or remove them. Bentley had good friends among the 8th Illinois, and knew "no temptation could induce them to make any claim which they did not believe they were entitled to." He could not personally contribute to the evidence, as he had not placed the pickets himself; that had been done by the regiment's Colonel Sackett, who had been mortally wounded at the Battle of Trevillian Station in 1864. So Bentley had Hodges and members of the Ninth's survivors association meet him at the Gettysburg.
They first explored the possibility that Hodges had been on the next road north, Mummasburg Road, which also crossed Willoughby Run. But when they took Hodges there, he was certain that it was not the place. He remembered the "peculiar construction" of the bridge he had used as cover and described it in detail. And sure enough, when the group next visited the Chambersburg Pike bridge, it matched exactly.
The dedication was allowed to proceed, and two days later the Ninth New York defended themselves before the Monument Association. A written presentation had been prepared by Newal Cheney, 1st Lieutenant of the Ninth New York's Company C at the battle. The main argument was that both Hodges and Jones were correct. Hodges and the Ninth had their encounter at first light, and then, "General Gamble as soon as he had been informed that our pickets had been repulsed, sent out a squadron of the 8th Illinois Cavalry and they followed these Confederates back about two and a half or three miles to the advancing column of Hill's corps, and did just what they claimed they did at 7:30 A.M. and on the identical spot where they placed their marker."
The Gettysburg Battlefield Monument Association must have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief. Here was a solution that was well thought out, plausible and did honor to everyone concerned. The Ninth's claim was considered established "to the entire satisfaction of those present."
The Hodges story went on to appear in print in New York and Gettysburg and in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War. This prompted a counterattack from the 8th Illinois in the National Tribune, the newspaper of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization for Union Civil War Veterans. Volleys of letters and reports and presentations kept the exchange going for another quarter century.
But perhaps the final shot was fired in 1890, when the 8th Illinois Cavalry monument was finally placed on the battlefield. After petitioning the GBMA, Beverage and his comrades of the 8th Illinois succeeded in having the 8th New York Cavalry monument moved a thousand yards to the south so that the 8th Illinois monument could be placed just off Chambersburg Pike. And carved on its face is the inscription, "Lieut Jones Co E fired first shot as the enemy crossed Marsh Creek bridge."
What really happened? It is almost certain that both Jones and Hodges were where they said they were and did what they said they did. Which of them fired the true first shot of the battle is probably a matter of definitions. In the words of Wilber Bentley, the first shot controversy was "not a very important matter, except that it is always important to be right."
One thing is certain: if you're trying to make your mark in history and want to add weight to your argument, it doesn't hurt to do it with a five-foot shaft of granite.