Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gettysburg Day 1 - First Shot - Where Fate Meets History

This is part of my real time Sesquicentennial series.  Originally published on forbes.com on July 1, 2013.

My covivant and I rose early this morning, because I wanted to be there for the first shot.

The site of the first shot is the Ephraim Wisler Home on Chambersburg Pike.  John Buford had moved into town the day before and sent out pickets in an arc to the north and west.

Credit for the first shot is accorded to Lt. Marcellus Ephraim Jones. According to the flyer that was handed out at the event:

A little after 6:00 AM, Pvt. James Hale at this post noticed a cloud of dust rising to the west along the pike.  Pvt. Thomas Kelly (Jones' cousin) galloped back Herr's Ridge to notify Lt. Jones, in charge of the posts in this area, of the advance of a large Confederate column which turned out to be Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's Division.  When Jones arrived here, he borrowed a Sharps carbine from Sgt. Levi Shafer, rested it on a fence-rail in the corner of the yard, and fired at the column - the First Shot to open the Battle of Gettysburg.

The flyer was a surprise.  The "First Shot" event was unofficial.  The earliest official event was at 8:00 AM - cannon fire at the Lutheran Seminary, which is having a grand opening for a new museum.  I was sure that there would be people at the spot regardless.  CV was skeptical.  Although the house is now property of the Park Service, they don't own much around it, so you could understand the logistical problems that prevented them from staging an event there.  We parked in a church parking lot just a little past the spot and walked up to it.  At 6:50 AM, there were only a couple of people there.

The crowd gradually grew and then someone came along and started handing out flyers.  David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley, authors of The Complete Gettysburg Guide had arranged a brief ceremony. An actual bugler, with a battered bugle from riding on a horse was there.  He represents a member of the 2nd US Regulars, Company H.  He played several calls including Boots and Saddles, To Horse, Commence Firing, Cease Firing and Recall.  We had a long discussion of the organization and reorganization of the US Cavalry.

Mr. Petruzzi spoke and it is to him that I owe the line "where fate meets history".

Thankfully for posterity, there were some actual reporters covering the event which ended up including about seventy people.  Among them were Terry Burger of Public Opinion who wrote:

Even at an estimated 70 people the little side yard to the Wisler's old house, now empty and owned by the National Park Service, was crowded. People chatted, compared re-enactor gear, and took photos of their kids leaning against the small stone set to commemorate Jones's actions.

I came up with seventy independently, so it is probably a pretty good estimate.

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote:

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."

My sentiments exactly, Professor Guelzo.

After the ceremony, CV and I retired to the parking lot of the Lutheran Seminary beneath the very cupola from which Buford scanned the horizon hoping for relief.  The cannons were firing as scheduled, but frankly after a couple of blasts it can be a bit tedious.  There were preparations for the grand opening under way, but we were not there for it.  We had another mission, which will be the subject of my next post.

You can follow me on twitter @peterreillycpa.


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