150 years on, commemoration of first shot fired at Battle of Gettysburg 'the place to be'



GETTYSBURG -- The same cool mist fell on the same kind of warm overcast morning that soldiers woke to exactly 150 years earlier as a few dozen Civil War historians and enthusiasts gathered at the small memorial to the first shot fired in the Battle of Gettysburg,

"The single shot taken here seems to pale in comparison to the hundreds of tons of lead to fly that would slake the thirst of any god of war ... But here it began," said J. David Petruzzi, who organized the gathering with his writing partner, Steven Stanley.

Together they have brought maps and tours of Civil War battlefields into the digital age, overlaying modern roads on the battle terrain.

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The marker stands in the small side yard of a brick house on the Lincoln Highway that belonged to 31-year-old blacksmith Ephraim Wisler on July 1, 1863, when Union cavalry set guards there to watch for Confederate troops they spied the day before.

Because the yard was so small the organizers of the early morning commemoration made it invitation only. Those gathered included leading scholars of the battle.

"Few know of this spot or this little monument," Petruzzi said.

When it was erected in 1886 by the veteran who claimed that first shot and some of his friends, "there was no grand dedication ceremony, and no famous dignitaries came here to give speeches or lay wreathes. Historical books of the time rarely mention it, and even today this spot is not high on the list of guided tours. But it is fitting and proper, to use the words of a martyred president, that we come here today to remember, and perhaps re-dedicate this little stone that few ever notice, and to commemorate it in honor of all those who stand up and fight for an ideal."

Although his brief remarks didn't touch on the issue, Mr. Petruzzi admitted there is room to doubt whether Union Lieutenant Marcellus E. Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry did indeed borrow a Sharps carbine from his sergeant and take the first -- and second -- shot at grey-clad soldiers crossing a bridge 700 yards away.

"The veterans had a whole lot of dispute" over the first shot, he said, with at least 15 men from the 9th New York and 17th Pennsylvania cavalry regiments claiming to have pulled the initial trigger a half mile to the northwest.

But Captain Jones -- the rank he would muster out with -- told a popular story that may well be true. The property is part of Gettysburg National Military Park, which gave permission for the 7:30 a.m. ceremony.

Allan Guelzo, a professor from Gettysburg College and among the leading historians of the Battle of Gettysburg, was dressed for work, but wore the cap of a Union foot soldier. He is an exceedingly busy man as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the battle that drove General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army back to the South.

But he felt an inexorable pull to the first shot marker.

"Where else would you want to be at 7:30 in the morning on July 1?" he asked. "It's really something spectacular to be able to stand right here where they stood exactly 150 years ago and under exactly the same weather conditions."

He comes to the first shot marker often with his students, and alone for personal reflection.

"It's one of the places on the battlefield where one is least likely to be disturbed," he said. "You have a little peace to imagine the skirmishers and flankers running into Union cavalry. Imagination is part of what history people need to do to re-create the situation."

Ethan Rafuse who teaches military history at the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., had spoken at an event the day before and was headed to do research in the archives of the Army War College in nearby Carlisle.

But on this gray morning he brought his 10-year-old daughter, Corinne, to the site of the first shot to give her a memory whose significance she might not yet grasp.

"Of all the places to be on this morning, this is the place to be," he said.

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published July 1, 2013 2:30 PM


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