I know that two years of campaigning had hardened private Marcellus Jones to the small discomforts, like sleeping through the night in “a drenching rain”, under a wet woolen blanket, with only his McClellan saddle as a pillow. But it took a toll, and an officer now, at 31 his body was beginning to protest the mornings after. Waking just before dawn, to drizzle and fog, he rode forward to check the 35 men scattered along the ridge in skirmish positions. But Marcellus found himself hungry for the warmth of comradeship. So after making certain that Privates Kelly, Hale, Heim and Dodge stationed in front of the blacksmith's house along the pike were alert and ready, and sending Sargent George Shafer to check with the New York and Hoosier boys on the flanks, Second Lieutenant Marcellus Jones then trotted his horse 300 yards down the Chambersburg Pike across the Willow Run bridge and then another 300 yards up Herr's ridge, to the company headquarters in the tavern.
Marcellus Jones (above) was proof that American lives do indeed have second acts, and even thirds. At 17 the blue eyed 5'7” seventh child of a Vermont wagon maker worked his way across upstate New York and Ohio as a carpenter. By 1854 he had established his own factory in the Wolf River village of Weyauwega, in Wisconsin territory . He met with success and on May 1, 1856 he married Sara Reese. Then, two years later, the factory burned down leaving him $4,000 in debt, and soon after Sara died in childbirth. Marcellus was not yet 30.
Seventy-six year old Fredrick Herr had bought his two story brick tavern at a sheriff's sale, 35 years ago, expecting the Chambersburg Pike to bring business to his door. But Herr was forced to rent his basement to a felon named “Louie The Robber”, who shaved the silver off silver dollars, and renting the second floor to prostitutes. But, Louie was arrested, Fredrick lost his liquor license, and the upstairs ladies moved on. By the time Marcellus scrapped the mud off his boots on the front steps, the hotel was up for sale again. Inside, Lt Jones was greeted by his friend and E company's commander, Captain Elishas Kelly. The familiarity and the coffee were free, but Marcellus had to pay Mrs. Herr for a hot biscuit.
After Sara's death, Marcellus made a new life for himself as a builder in Danby, Illinois, and became a respected member of the local Republican party. In the spring of 1860, after Lincoln called for Volunteers to defend the union, Marcellus joined with his friend Elishas, fellow builder William Gamble and Congressman John Farnsworth in forming the 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, also known as “Farnsworth's Big Abolitionist Regiment” When offered an officers ' commission Marcellus said he wanted to learn the trade as a private. And thus began Marcellus Jones' second life, as a trooper in the federal Army of the Potomac.
Marcellus had just bitten into his breakfast when Private George Heim came pounding up the steps. He announced that Sargent Shafer (above) needed the lieutenant at the picket post at once. Stuffing the biscuit into his blouse, Jones ran for the door, while Kelly sent the regiment's battle cry of “Tally Ho” after him Somebody looked at their watch. It was just twenty after seven in the morning. Marcellus mounted his horse, and then he and Heim splashed through puddles back over the Willow Run bridge at a gallop.
The infantry were fond of saying they never saw a dead cavalryman. In fact private Marcellus Jones and the Illinois 8th were in constant contact with Jeb Stuart's rebel cavalry, probing for weaknesses and information, studying the bloody trade for “twenty long, weary months”, back and forth across “the God-forsaken soils of old Virginia.” But they learned. And on Tuesday, June 9. 1863, the union First Cavalry Division (including the 500 men of the 8th) surprised and embarrassed Stuart at Brandy Station, Virginia. At the end of June, at Hanover, Pennsylvania, union cavalry even shoved Stuart aside, leaving Robert E. Lee's advancing rebel Army of Northern Virginia vulnerable and groping blind. That same day union troopers had ridden into Gettysburg, and by chance the 8th was assigned to picket the ridge lines to the west and north of town. Ringing in their ears was the prediction of their craggy Division commander, General John Buford: “Within forty-eight hours a great battle will take place on a field within view.”
As they approached the crest, where the Knoxlyn Road ran into the Chambersburg Pike, Lt. Jones and Pvt. Heim pulled up their horses in front of the two story brick home of blacksmith Epharaim Wisler and his family (above). Handing their reins to private Dodge, Hiem and Jones joined Sgt. Shafer behind the split rail and stone (above, mid-distance center) fence along the crest. The Sargent handed Jones a spyglass, and explained, “There's that old familiar flag.” Seven hundred yards down the gentle western slope, Marcellus could make out the indistinct form of men in column on the Chambersburg Pike. And they were coming directly at him.
The third corps of the Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac River beginning on Tuesday, June 23rd, but despite outward appearances this was not an invasion. It was a 73,000 man foraging expedition, each disconnected part searching for supplies no longer available in war ravaged Virginia. On Friday, June 26th a brigade of rebels under Major General Jubal Early had entered Gettysburg via the Chambersburg Pike (above), frightened off some Pennsylvania militia and confiscated 2,000 rations from railroad cars. But the next morning the rebels had to move on, looking to feed and clothe themselves for another day. When Buford's cavalry trotted into Gettysburg two days later, there were no rebels present, and the union First Cavalry division was now in the very middle of the disjointed Confederate army.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jones realized Sargent Shafer had lifted his Spencer carbine to his shoulder. Marcellus knew the carbine had no chance of hitting anything over 150 yards, and the Marsh Creek Bridge was about 700 yards away. But the sound of the shot would carry back to Herr's tavern at 640 miles an hour, and from there word would quickly be sent up the chain of command - Rebel soldiers are coming down the Chambersburg Pike. And just as quickly it would tell the rebels they were facing armed men. Without cavalry, the enemy infantry would have to deploy, and probe, slowing their advance to a crawl. Marcellus Jones held out his arm. He told the sergeant, “'Hold on, George. Give me the honor of opening the ball.” Reluctantly Sargent Shafer handed over his carbine.
Laying the weapon in a crook of the rail fence, Lt. Jones aimed at what he took to be “an officer on a white or light gray horse”, just beyond the Marsh Creek bridge. The troops in column were 105 Alabama rebels under Colonel Birkett Davenport Fry, lead element of General James Pettigrew's brigade, advance party for Major General Henry Heth's 7,500 man division. Needing shoes for his men, Heath had come down this road foraging for shoes. Without cavalry, Heth had no way of knowing his own third corps had learned three days earlier there were no shoes in Gettysburg. But when Lt. Marcellus Jones pulled the trigger on the Spencer, the CRACK snapped everyone to attention. And Marcellus' second shot confirmed the shock.
Expecting they were faced by untrained militia, Fry's rebels crossed the Marsh Creek bridge and spread out in a skirmish line on either side of the Chambersburg Pike. That took twenty minutes. When they then advanced, they were forced back by rapid fire from the 35 breech loading Spencers of Jone's concentrated skirmish line. In the pause that followed, Epharaim Wisler stepped out of his house to judge if his family was in greater danger staying or running. As he stood in the middle of the Pike, two Parrot guns from Willie Pegram's rebel battery fired at the ridge line, expecting the militia there to scatter and run.
The first shell was long, but the second was right on target. Wisler (above) saw it leave the gun 1,000 yards beyond Marsh Creek, watched mesmerized as it sailed directly at him, and saw it plow into the road ten yards in front of him. The concussion knocked Epharaim down, and showered him with broken earth and stones. The 31 year old farmer, blacksmith, husband and father of two young boys was physically uninjured. His scars were emotional. He staggered to his feet and back into his house. He took to his bed and never left it until he died a month later. He was the first casualty of the coming apocalypse.
When the reinforced rebel infantry advanced again, an hour later, they were met by 275 veterans under William Gamble. The federals did not run even though outnumbered, but kept up their rapid fire . Again the rebels were thrown back. More rebel artillery was brought forward. More rebel infantry was thrown into line. Another hour was bought, while the First Cavalry division was concentrated, and federal infantry marched closer.
This time, as the rebels advanced in greater numbers, the federal cavalry fell back toward Herr's ridge, where the process would be repeated, with larger numbers. And after Herr ridge came McPherson's ridge, where union infantry under General James Reynolds would slam into the rebel lines and throw them back. And after McPherson's ridge would come Seminary Ridge, and then Missionary Ridge and Cemetery Hill and ridge, Culps Hill and Little Round Top.
Over the next three days some 7,863 men would be killed outright, 14,146 would be wounded, and another 11,199 men would be taken prisoner or reported missing from their units. It was the greatest single man-made disaster to have ever happened in North America. It was the Battle of Gettysburg. And it all began with the first shot that hit nothing, by Lt. Marcellus Jones, fired at about 7:30 in the morning of Wednesday, July 1st, 1863.
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