"I don't believe the truth will ever be known,
and I have a great contempt for history."
- George Gordon Meade, 1871
During 1953, Douglas Southall Freeman addressed the Richmond Civil War Round Table on "matters of historical critique that a historian of the war of 1861-65 encounters." He advised caution regarding eyewitness accounts written more than twenty years after the war - not only because memories grow foggy with age, but because the witness "has told his tale over and over again . . . until it becomes exceedingly difficult to ascertain the fabric of fact that underlies the embroidery of fancy." Although it's possible to weave a readable, even convincing, patchwork from fragmentary accounts regarding the first shots fired at Gettysburg, the result is . . . . well, patchy.
By June 29, 1863, tendrils from the Army of Northern Virginia were at the Susquehanna River: Albert Gallatin Jenkins' cavalry sparred with Yankee National Guardsmen at Camp Hill and a brigade from Jubal A Early's infantry division was at Wrightsville. Meanwhile, elements of Lieutenant General AP Hill's corps funneled through the mountain pass from Fayetteville to Cashtown. The next morning brought abandonment of all designs on the Susquehanna, however, as Confederate forces hastened to comply with Robert E Lee's orders that his army concentrate "at Cashtown or Gettysburg, as circumstances might require." Major General Henry Heth's division of Hill's corps, already camped at Cashtown, did not have to move on the 30th and, consequently, no one thought it would hurt if some of Harry's men seized the opportunity to do some "shopping" at Gettysburg. It was an eight-mile hike on the Chambersburg Pike from the center of Cashtown to Gettysburg's town square. A column set out under J Johnston Pettigrew but returned empty-handed by late afternoon because "long lines" of blueclad cavalry were seen entering Gettysburg from the south. Not feeling authorized to start shooting, Brigadier Gen'l Pettigrew returned to Cashtown, leaving pickets about four or five miles from Gettysburg. Heth went to Hill with Pettigrew's report and proposed to take his entire division to Gettysburg come morning - July 1 - as long as the corps commander had no objection." "None in the world," replied Hill, adding that he thought Pettigrew merely chanced across a "detachment of observation." Only that morning, Gen'l Lee told Hill that his best information indicated the Army of the Potomac no closer than Middleburg, Maryland, 18 miles south of Gettysburg.
Lee was misinformed. Brigadier General John Buford and two brigades of his cavalry division were in Gettysburg by late afternoon, June 30. Though far below their full strengths, these eight volunteer regiments still amounted to nearly three thousand men, and Battery A, 2nd US Artillery, was near at hand for added clout. The first brigade, under 8th Illinois Cavalry Colonel Wm Gamble - a 44-year-old civil engineer who had seen action with the First US Dragoons in the Florida War - was comprised of 34 companies. The Eighth Illinois & Eighth New York regiments each boasted 12 companies, there were 6 from the Third Indiana, and 4 of the Twelfth Illinois. Buford's second brigade was led by the 41-year-old Colonel of the Sixth New York Cavalry, Thomas Casimir Devin, and it contained 31 companies - 12 from the Ninth New York, 7 from the Sixth New York, 10 from the Seventeenth Pennsylvania, and 2 from the Third West Virginia. An hour or so before midnight, after the return of scouting parties he had sent out in every direction from which the Johnnies might approach, Buford was able to send information to the headquarters of Meade and Reynolds: "AP Hill's corps is massed back of Cashtown . . . His pickets are in sight of mine . . . The road from Cashtown running through Mummasburg and Hunterstown on to York pike at Oxford is terribly infested with roving detachments of cavalry . . . Rumor says Ewell is coming over the mountains from Carlisle." While Gen'l Buford wrote these dispatches, his men settled down for the night. Tents were pitched and cook-fires lit along the Chambersburg Pike between McPherson's Ridge & Seminary Ridge. Cavalry picket posts - with vedettes out in front of them - extended from below the Fairfield Road, along the east bank of Willoughby Run, to the railroad cut, then northeasterly to Oak Hill.
Cashtown began to bristle with Confederates during a predawn shower on Wednesday, July 1. Gen'l Hill had ordered Harry Heth to (a) have his division ready to march at 5 o'clock that morning, (b) see that each man wanting an issue of whiskey received one, (c) "not bring on an engagement." No special attention was given to the place different units had in the advancing column. General JJ Archer's brigade was in front, followed by the brigade of "Joe" Davis, then Pettigrew's North Carolinians, and Field's Virginia brigade under Colonel JM Brockenborough. This 7,500-man force was complemented by Major Wm J Pegram's 20-gun artillery battalion. With Archer's brigade far ahead of the other units, Heth's string of 17 regiments and 5 batteries followed the Chambersburg Pike through early morning mist toward Gettysburg. The Thirteenth Alabama Regiment and four companies of the Fifth Alabama Battalion were in the van, led by Colonel Birkett Davenport Fry, who had been a lieutenant of filibuster William Walker in Nicaragua during 1856.
A member of Fry's 13th Alabama, WH Moon, recalled
"we had camped at Cashtown . . . where we washed our clothes and took a bath preparatory to meeting 'our friends the enemy.' On July 1, about seven A.M. . . . we began the advance on Gettysburg. We had gone only three or four miles when we saw Federal cavalry approaching on our right front. The 5th Alabama Battalion, being front of the column, was sent out with a detail from the 13th Alabama Regiment, and formed a skirmish line fronting the cavalry . . . In this formation Archer's column continued to advance along the road . . . Occasional shots were exchanged by the cavalry and the skirmishers, and these were the first shots fired in the beginning of the battle of Gettysburg . . ."Other Confederate accounts bear out Moon's description in that Colonel Fry halted his men west of Marsh Creek, half a mile beyond the village of Seven Stars, while he reconnoitered. A blueclad vedette appeared on the right and then dashed off across the Marsh Creek bridge. Upon word from Fry, General Archer ordered three companies of the 13th and all of the 5th Alabama Battalion deployed ahead of his brigade as skirmishers.
Yankee cavalry stayed in Heth's face every step of the way and compelled his cautious, time-consuming advance. It took the Confederates two hours to cover the two miles between Marsh Creek and Willoughby Run. All the while, more and more blue skirmishers joined the fight until Rebel infantry found themselves fighting a full-blown battle line of dismounted cavalry arrayed on Herr Ridge. Moreover, a Federal battery had deployed behind the strengthened cavalry, across Willoughby Run on the western slope of McPherson's Ridge. The first US artillery round at Gettysburg was loosed by a three-inch ordnance rifle belonging to Lt John Haskell, Calef's Battery A, 2nd US Artillery, its lanyard yanked by Lt John W Roder. After a bit of difficulty in locating good firing positions, Major Willie Pegram's battalion fired the first Confederate artillery shot. Although Gen'l Heth maintained this came from one of the four guns in Edward A Marye's Fredericksburg Artillery and preceded the Yankee artillery, others argued that the first round was launched in reply to US cannon by a napoleon gun in Crenshaw's Richmond Battery of Virginia Light Artillery commanded by Lt Andrew Bell Johnston. 1
Buford's troopers soon yielded Herr Ridge to Heth's overwhelming infantry and took a new defensive position east of Willoughby Run - Gamble's brigade formed along McPherson's Ridge from the Fairfield Road to the artillery positioned at the railroad cut, and Devin formed his regiments from the cut toward Oak Hill. At this point, the 2.5-to-1 ratio of Confederates to Unionists was on the brink of going to 5-to-1 because 64 pieces of artillery and 7,000 men in Major Gen'l Pender's division were arriving behind Heth's line. Eight thousand more Rebels, under Major Gen'l Rodes, were well along on their way from Biglerville to Gettysburg, threatening Buford's right. In the nick of time, however, Brigadier General James S Wadsworth's I Corps division was able to relieve the cavalrymen and Buford's two brigades lost only three percent of their number that morning. Infantry of Solomon Meredith's "Iron Brigade" held the US line south of the railroad cut while Lysander Cutler's regiments deployed north of it. The first fire from US infantry undoubtedly came from Wadsworth's troops, but the 56th Pennsylvania of Cutler's brigade and 2nd Wisconsin of Meredith's would long argue over who had initially dosed the Rebs with lead. The result of General Buford's delaying action was that the climactic battle of Southern invasion was fought at Gettysburg.
As it receded into America's past, the battle of Gettysburg steadily gained significance and meaning. The ground where it took place was made a national shrine. Many a survivor of "the battle which decided the course of American history" would come to see his participation as a permanent basis of social identity. Three men who surely felt that way arrived in Gettysburg twenty years later with a five-foot shaft of limestone they had lugged over 600 miles from Naperville, Illinois.
In 1883, when he returned to Gettysburg with Alex Riddler & Levi Shafer, Marcellus Ephraim Jones was 53 and sheriff of Du Page County; twenty years earlier, he had squeezed off a shot at Colonel BD Fry's men as they crossed Marsh Creek on their way to the momentous battle. The three veterans had a marker made and purchased a patch of ground "just over the fence from the Chambersburg pike, in a private dooryard, on the summit of the ridge . . . east of Marsh Creek." They erected their monument, burying nearly half its length in the ground for a firm foundation, "to tell the true story of the opening of the great and decisive battle of the war, on the morning of July 1, 1863."
John Lourie Beveridge, former congressman and governor of Illinois, outlined Jones' claim to fame in a February, 1885, address to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the US (MOLLUS), Illinois Commandery. Breveted as a brigadier general of volunteers in 1865, Beveridge was a captain-acting-as-major of the 8th Illinois Cavalry at Gettysburg and eventually attained the regiment's colonelcy. "The 8th New York sent a picket-force down through McPherson's Woods to the southwest," explained Beveridge.
"The 8th Illinois sent a squadron out on the Chambersburg pike . . . and picketed the ridge east of Marsh Creek, posting an advance picket on the pike at a blacksmith's shop near the bridge over Marsh Creek. The 12th Illinois and 3rd Indiana picketed the ridge to the right of the 8th Illinois picket line . . . In the early morn, our pickets on the ridge east of Marsh Creek observed a cloud of dust rising at the foot of the mountains, over Cashtown, seven miles away. This cloud came nearer and nearer, as Heth's division . . . marched down the pike toward Gettysburg town. As the enemy in gray neared the stone bridge across Marsh Creek, an officer, riding at the head of his column, halted by the stone coping to allow his men to pass. Lieutenant Jones, in command of the 8th Illinois picket-line, standing in the pike, took the carbine of Sergeant Shafer, raised it to his shoulder, aimed at the officer sitting on his horse, and fired 'the first shot at the battle of Gettysburg.' Archer's Tennessee brigade crossed the bridge, deployed skirmishers . . . and advanced."Jones gave a similar version in recollections written during 1897 but added that, at a little after 7 o'clock, he had just sent a note to Beveridge about the approaching column, when Confederate troops appeared on "the hill west of Marsh Creek a mile or so away." After sending "the horses and one-quarter of the men to the rear," Jones stated he borrowed Shafer's carbine and fired "at an officer on a white or light gray horse.2
Though Jones was confident enough about his "first shot" status to raise a monument, there were other claims by units in Buford's division. Vedettes from the 6th New York Cavalry felt they were the first who blazed away at AP Hill's approach, but they had been riding hard back to their reserves and fired in the enemy's general direction without taking aim. Members of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry were fond of not only saying they had been the first Army of the Potomac unit to enter Gettysburg on June 29, 1863, but that it was their pickets on the Carlisle Road who "were the first troops to receive and return the fire of General Ewell's troops . . . at the same hour, a squadron of the 8th Illinois . . . were attacked on the Chambersburg pike."
Veterans of the 9th New York Cavalry - part of Devin's brigade on July 1, 1863 - also maintained that one of their number had fired the first shot early that morning. Their tale involved a 20-year-old redhead from Lakewood NY - Cpl Alpheus Hodges, Company F. During the evening of June 30th, the picket line of Devin's Brigade was in charge of the 9th's Colonel, William Sackett, who was brigade officer of the day. The regiment was placed on picket on the several roads running in a northerly direction from Gettysburg, its line extending from the Chambersburg Pike, across the Mummasburg Road, Carlisle Road, the road leading to Hunterstown, and Harrisburg Road. Before dawn of July 1, Cpl Hodges was placed in charge of "a four-man picket post on the Chambersburg Pike where it crossed Willoughby Run." His instructions were, "as soon as any foes presented themselves, to at once send a man in each direction to notify Colonels Devin and Gamble." At about 5 o'clock in the morning, a mounted party was seen approaching on the road beyond Willoughby Run, nearly a mile away. The young corporal "immediately sent his men to notify the line and the reserve, while he advanced across the stream and rode to higher ground far enough to see that the men approaching were Confederates." He then turned back, and as he did so they fired at him. Hodges "retired to the Run where, from behind the abutments of the bridge," he fired several shots at the enemy. The Corporal added "this could not have been later than 5:30 A.M.3
The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) had been incorporated during April of 1864 "to perpetuate the history of the battle in its simple truth and to that end to make the battlefield its own interpreter." In 1868, the Pennsylvania legislature appropriated $6,000 for the Association and this was used to purchase land on Culp's Hill and East Cemetery Hill where breastworks & artillery lunettes "were yet in good shape", as well as a parcel on the slope and summit of Little Round Top. During the summer of 1878, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post of Erie, Pennsylvania, placed a tablet on Little Round Top to mark the spot where Gen'l Strong Vincent fell, and a Philadelphia post placed another where "Bucktails" Colonel Fred Taylor was killed while leading a charge in front of Round Top. These two markers were the first memorials of any kind placed on the battlefield, outside of the National Cemetery. When three monuments were erected in 1882 and seven more during the following year, the GBMA drafted rules governing the materials used for memorials and their inscriptions and location.
"I was greatly embarrassed to come into apparent conflict with the claim of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, many of whose officers were my personal friends," remembered Bentley, "I knew no temptation could induce them to make any claim which they did not believe they were entitled to, and that there must be some misapprehension of facts." On the night of June 30, 1863, he "had charge of the right of the brigade pickets of Devin's Brigade, and was in the saddle nearly all night, but personally did not establish the picket on the Chambersburg Pike which was placed by Colonel Sackett of my regiment." In order to resolve the problem, Bentley had Alpheus Hodges and officers of the Ninth's survivors association meet him at the battlefield.
"At Gettysburg, we drove out first on the Mummasburg Road where Willoughby Run crosses the Road, and I asked Corporal Hodges if that were not the bridge where he fired upon the enemy. He said: 'No, this is not the place. I was never in the country before the battle of Gettysburg, I have never been here since; I have never talked with anyone since, who was on the Chambersburg Pike that morning, but I want to say to you that the bridge where we were fired upon and returned the fire was of peculiar construction - on one side was a long wing of faced masonry extending for some distance from the bridge in an oblique direction, evidently intended to turn the water into a straight channel as it passed under the bridge and thus save the abutments from washing . . . if there is one anywhere near here of that description, that is the place. I do not know the names of these roads, nor did I then.' We then drove to the Chambersburg Pike where it crosses Willoughby Run, and found the bridge exactly as he had described it, and he also called attention to the pool of water above the bridge which he said was exactly as it was at the time of the battle, and that they rode their horses into this pool . . ."Dedication ceremonies went ahead on July 1, 1888, but two days later veterans of the 9th NY Cavalry appeared before the GBMA - "a body which had the power to regulate all inscriptions upon monuments, and was the court of last resort to settle all contentions." Jamestown resident Newel Cheney, 1st Lieutenant of the 9th's Company C at Gettysburg, presented a written summary of the regiment's position. According to Bentley, his group reasoned that
"the difference in time stated in the inscriptions on the marker of the 8th Illinois Cavalry and that on the monument of the 9th NY Cavalry, namely, two and one half hours, made it plain that General Gamble as soon as he had been informed that our pickets had 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."Replying to Beveridge's statement that the 9th had never picketed the Chambersburg Pike, Bentley said it was a "mistake easily made . . . Devin's pickets extended northerly from the Pike at Willoughby Run" but, "as soon as the fighting commenced, Gamble's brigade extended their line across the Pike to the open railroad cut, and Devin's left rested upon the railroad cut." Veterans of the 9th NY Cavalry managed to convince - or at least intrigue - the GBMA that day, because it was decided that they had established their claim regarding who fired the first shot on July 1 "to the entire satisfaction of those present."
In keeping with Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation that "the only sin which we never forgive in each other is difference of opinion," the "first shot" controversy continued despite the 1888 GBMA hearing.
Newel Cheney's portrayal of Alpheus Hodges firing the first shot was not only quoted by William F Fox in New York at Gettysburg, but it appeared in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War as a supplement to Henry J Hunt's "First Day at Gettysburg." Its inclusion in the popular four-volume edition of Battles and Leaders provoked veterans of the 8th Illinois Cavalry and revived the "first shot" war of opinions in the National Tribune. Between 1891 and 1915, this GAR newspaper ran many letters written by veterans in support of Jones, Hodges, and various other "first shot" yarns. During October of 1903, Chas H Howard - General OO Howard's brother and member of his staff at Gettysburg - read a paper to the Illinois MOLLUS which repeated Beveridge's account of Jones firing the first shot. Howard received a lengthy letter from Wilber Bentley, in which he said that the "first shot" controversy was "not a very important matter, except that it is always important to be right."
Vulnerable but resolute, Beveridge and his fellow veterans again petitioned the GBMA during 1890. As a result, the 8th NY Cavalry's monument was moved a thousand feet south of its original placement on Reynolds Avenue so that the 8th Illinois monument could be erected "to accurately mark the regiment's main battle line on July 1, 1863." In addition, carved on the face of this Illinois memorial was "Lieut Jones Co E fired first shot as the enemy crossed Marsh Creek bridge."
Jones and Hodges made no claims to heroic deeds, but they felt entitled to one distinction. My conclusion? What happened at Gettysburg can only be told through stories that overlap (in the same way as the picket lines).