The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most well documented historical events of all time, complete with soldier’s letters, diaries, memoirs that serve to create literally thousands of books on the subject. Despite all these resources, occasionally history throws you a curveball; a mystery that can’t be solved. One of those mysteries surrounds the first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg.
On September 3, 1891 veterans of the 8th Illinois Cavalry gathered at a local Gettysburg hotel in preparation to dedicate their monument on the battlefield where the regiment had been under fire twenty nine years prior. Sitting on the veranda that morning to enjoy his after breakfast cigar was Thomas B. Kelley, a former member of Co. E. Soon a carriage arrived in front of the hotel and the occupant asked if this might be where the 8th Illinois was quartered. Arising from his chair and saluting, Kelley informed the man that he had reached the right spot.
Alighting from the carriage, the man introduced himself as Col. W. Marion McCarthy of the First Texas Legion and inquired if a Lt. Marcellus E. Jones was at the hotel. Kelley informed McCarthy that Jones was indeed present and quickly went to fetch his old commander. When Jones arrived, McCarthy opened the conversation with “They tell me you fired the first shot in the Battle of Gettysburg?” Jones replied in the affirmative. McCarthy then asked for a description of the target that day. Jones went on to describe a Confederate officer on a white horse at the head of the column on July 1. The Confederate then responded, “That man was Col. W. Marion McCarthy, sir, and you came damned near getting him!” This discovery of an adversary from long ago both surprised and pleased the old lieutenant.
After a few moments of conversation, McCarthy proposed that the two step across the street and have their picture taken as a remembrance of the occasion. Jones agreed but only if Kelley accompanied them. “It’s a go!” McCarthy responded and the image was recorded for posterity.
The story of the first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg and the claim of Marcellus Jones is well known, if not entirely agreed upon. Union cavalry arrived at Gettysburg on June 30 and quickly fanned out to the north and west to search for Confederates. On the morning
of July 1 the picket posts were doubled with two men on each post with a corporal or sergeant in charge. On the Chambersburg Pike, Pvts. Kelley and James O. Hale with Sgt. Levi Shafer manned Vidette Post No. 1. Around 6:10 a.m., Kelley and Hale spotted dust clouds about three miles distant coming from the west. The two soldiers studied the situation for the next thirty to forty-five minutes until Confederate infantry appeared along the Pike. Already mounted on his horse, Kelley shouted to Hale “If Shafer comes back tell him I’ve gone to alarm the reserves; he’ll know the rest.” He then galloped the 264 yards back to find Lt. Jones and the 8th Illinois reserve gathered close to the Chambersburg Pike.
Jones had only just returned from the picket posts, having purchased bread and butter for himself and some oats for his horse along the way. He had just handed his purchases over to his servant when he spied Kelley galloping toward him. “The Johnnies are coming,” shouted the private. Jones quickly mounted and headed for the front. Upon arriving, he wrote a note to the 8th Illinois commander, Major Beveridge, that a heavy column of the enemy was approaching. Jones soon heard the shrill ring of “boots and saddles” from the 8th Illinois’ main camp and then successively taken up by the other regiments.
By now, Sgt. Shafer had reappeared at the picket post. Turning to him, Jones said “Lend me your carbine,” and taking aim, fired at a Confederate mounted on a white horse, but missed. Marcellus Jones had written his name into history as the first Union soldier who fired at the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1886, Jones and two other veterans returned to the ridge to place a monument to the first shot on the opposite side of the road from where it took place at the Whistler Homestead. Today, the monument is sought by hardcore enthusiasts of the Gettysburg battlefield.
But what of the Confederate veteran that came to the hotel in 1891? Col. W. Marion McCarthy of the First Texas Legion. Despite research into his background, he proves to be an enigma. To begin, the First Texas Legion did not serve in the Army of Northern Virginia. But, then again, perhaps his unit was recorded incorrectly? No record exists of a Col. W. Marion McCarthy in Lee’s command, much less the entire Confederate States of America’s armies. So who was he? An imposter? A man bent on making a name for himself that he had the gall to represent someone else? Or was he telling the truth and was simply a victim of misidentification?
McCarthy (if that was his real name) and his motives are now long lost, another one of the many Gettysburg mysteries that will never be solved. Today, we are only left with a picture and a reason to ponder.
Ranger Matt Atkinson, Gettysburg National Military Park