Faded Hoofbeats – Marcellus Jones, 8th Illinois Cavalry

As promised, and as we approach the anniversary of the Gettysburg battle, here’s another profile.  This is of Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, the officer in Col. William Gamble’s brigade (Buford’s division) credited with firing the “first shot” of the battle on the morning of July 1, 1863 against massed Confederate troops.  In the July 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine, my feature article “Opening the Ball at Gettysburg: The Shot that Rang for 50 Years” (click to read the online version) featured detail on Jones, his shot, and all known claimants to that distinction.

(Many thanks to Jeff Labuz, a descendant of Marcellus’ younger brother Nelson, for much of the biographical details.)

To nearly any student of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lieutenant Marcellus Ephraim Jones of Company E, 8th Illinois Cavalry, is known as the Union trooper who fired the first shot of the battle at advancing Confederate infantry along the Chambersburg Pike.  Jones was commanding an advance vedette post at the intersection of the Pike and Knoxlyn Road, west of town, when he fired a borrowed carbine at a target some 700 yards away, thus opening the great battle that July 1st morning in 1863.

Jones was described in the “Portrait and Biographical Record of DuPage and Cook Counties, Illinois (1894)” as “…one of the valiant defenders of the Old Flag during the late war.”  Jones was born in Poultney, Rutland County, Vermont, on June 5, 1830, a son of Ephraim and Sophia (Page) Jones.  On his father’s side, he appears to be descended from Captain John Stark of Revolutionary War note (and not the “General John Stark” as is the lineage commonly encountered – they were two different soldiers). 

Jones’ father, Ephraim, was a wagon maker by trade.  Spending his entire life in Vermont, the elder Jones was killed during a severe tornado in 1858 when the timbers of a barn, in which he was taking refuge, fell on him.  Ephraim and Sophia had seven children:  Marcellus, Frank, Nelson, Libbie, Lola, Annis, and Henrietta.  Brother Frank, who had been a hospital steward with the 14th Vermont Infantry in the Civil War, died in Dorset from illness in 1864. 

Marcellus, who grew up in Bennington and Rutland counties in Vermont, lived in that state until the age of 17, when he struck out as a traveling jewelry salesman with his horse and buggy.  A year later he went to Niagara County NY, then to Medina County OH, spending a year and a half in those two locations working as a carpenter.  On December 23, 1850, Jones arrived in Chicago IL and worked as a carpenter for four years.  Moving to Weyauwega WS, he married Sarah Reece and worked as a carpenter, and also built a sash and door factory that was later destroyed by fire.  The loss destroyed all his savings, some $4000.  A son was born to Marcellus and Sarah, but the child lived only 13 days and Sarah died at about the same time.

In 1858, Jones moved to DuPage County IL and soon became a prominent contractor and builder with a large workforce.  He made his home in Danby (now Prospect Park), and continued working his trade until the Civil War broke out and a call for volunteers from the state came out.  Jones was among the first to respond from Danby, and enlisted in Company E of the 8th Illinois Cavalry on August 5, 1861.  The comrades in his company wanted Jones to become an officer, but he modestly declined the honor, saying that all things military were new to him and he felt unqualified.  However, he agreed to consider the offer later after gaining some experience and if the others still wished him to be promoted.  Jones had helped to organize his company’s recruitment and, holding to his intention, enlisted as a private.  He was 31 years old, 5’7″ tall, had brown hair and blue eyes, and listed his occupation on the muster roll as “carpenter.”

The newly-organized 8th formed at St. Charles IL and camped at Camp Kane, but received its drill and training at Washington DC, leaving for the city on October 13.  Arriving on the 17th, the regiment camped at Meridian Hill, then went into camp near Alexandria VA on December 17th.  The unit’s Lt. Colonel, William Gamble, was largely responsible for training it.  The regiment would participate in numerous battles and skirmishes throughout 1862, and captured the colors of the 12th Virginia Confederate Cavalry at Poolsville.  Jones was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant on December 5, 1862, First Lieutenant July 4, 1864, and Captain on October 10, 1864.  All three commissions were signed by Illinois Governor Richard Yates.

During the evening of June 30, 1863, as Division Commander Brigadier General John Buford made his picket and vedette dispositions west of Gettysburg to receive the expected enemy the following morning, Jones commanded one of the 8th’s vedette posts along the Chambersburg Pike, a major road between the town and Cashtown, and the route by which the General expected the Confederates to advance.  Shortly after sunrise on July 1, after having visited his posts, Jones purchased some bread and oats from one of the locals.  While at the reserve line east of the advance vedettes, Jones received a message from one of the sergeants along the Pike to come “at once.”  Mounting, Jones rode west along the pike until he reached the post at the intersection of the Pike and Knoxlyn Road, atop Wisler Ridge.  From his vantage point, Jones could see a cloud of dust rising to the west, signaling the advance of the expected Confederates from the area of Cashtown.  Spying Jones’ post, the Confederates deployed skirmishers on both sides of the road and advanced to the stone bridge spanning Marsh Creek, about 700 yards west of Jones’ position.  Sending horses and horse-holders to the rear, Jones borrowed Corporal Levi S. Shafer’s carbine, rested it on a fence rail, and touched off a shot at “an officer on a white or light gray horse” and thereby opened the battle (later, Confederate Colonel W. Marion McCarty would claim to have been at the head of that advance column, but his participation has never been documented).  Jones’ journal entries for the period of June 27th through July 1st are linked below.  After the battle, Jones would participate with his regiment in the actions at Williamsport, Boonsboro, Falling Waters, Chester Gap, Sandy Hook, Culpeper, further actions at Brandy Station, the raid to Falmouth, Raccoon, Ford, Liberty Mills, Mitchell Station, and Ely’s Ford.  After the regiment was mustered out of the service on July 17, 1865, it was ordered to Chicago to receive final pay and discharge.  At the Briggs House in Chicago, now-Captain Jones paid off his men.  While at the house, an officer informed Jones that he was to go to room number 55, and, upon arrival, the Captain was given “an elegant silver set,” as a gift from the men, who “held him in the highest esteem… and thus manifested their love and respect.”

Jones remarried on September 1, 1864.  Naomi E. Mecham, daughter of Mathew and Phoebe, was described as one who “did what the rebels could not do – capture the Captain.”  Mecham’s great-grandfather, who had settled in Massachusetts from England, had served in the Revolution.  He eventually settled in Vermont, to which he had frequently traveled on hunting expeditions.  A son, Seth Benson, served in the War of 1812.  Mecham’s parents eventually settled  in DuPage County in 1854 when Naomi was 12 years old.  Until she married Jones, Mecham was a teacher and had attended Wheaton College.

As soon as the war ended, Jones and his new wife located in Wheaton where he worked at his trade as a builder and house-mover.  In 1872, the Joneses moved to Colorado and worked a ranch for four years.  In 1876, they moved back to Wheaton permanently.  Jones had built a home in 1865 on the southwest corner of Naperville and Indiana Streets in the town (this house still stands, having been moved to a new location a block away by a law firm that purchased and restored it in 1977).  He is related as being one of a group of men who, after the war, had forcibly taken the county records from Naperville and helped to set up Wheaton as the new county seat.  Jones served in various public positions in his post-war career; he served as Township Collector, City Councilman, and in 1882 was elected County Sheriff for four years.  In 1890 he was appointed Postmaster by President Harrison.  Jones was a prominent charter member of E.S. Kelley G.A.R. Post 513, and was its first Commander.  He was a member of the Masons (of the Blue Lodge of Wheaton, Chapter of Naperville), as well as the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows’ Society.  Jones was described as a “stalwart Republican,” and that “his official, army and private life are alike above reproach.”  Always remembered as the man who “fired the first shot at Gettysburg,” Jones remained a prominent member of the community and in Grand Army circles until his death on October 9, 1900.

To memorialize the location of his “first shot” at the Gettysburg battle, Jones traveled to the spot in 1886 and placed a marker shaft made of Naperville Illinois Granite to memorialize his deed.  This “First Shot Marker” sits today on the north side of Rt. 30 (Chambersburg Road) at its intersection with Knoxlyn Road.

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Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 11:01 am  Comments (14)  

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. J.D.,

    Great stuff the past few days. Great reading. :)

    Will just add what J.D. and I always tell folks when visiting the first shot marker at Gettysburg. Be careful out there as that section of Route 30 is very busy. Best bet is to park on Knoxlyn Road and walk across the street to see the marker.

    It really is a great site, and you can see the bullet holes on the house there as well.

    Regards from the Garden State,

    Steve

  2. Thankfully, the Friends of Gettysburg were able to purchase the Wisler home (where the marker rests) and now the NPS has it. At this point, visitors are able to pull into a gravel driveway next to the house, but it’s still dangerous and you must exercise caution.

    Rt 30 is posted 35mph I think, but folks fly on that road over 50 and you must be very, very careful when visiting the location.

    J.D.

  3. JD,

    Great ARTICLE!!! I just showed this to Bev and she says, Hey I have been out there!

    Its gotten to be one of my favorite “forgotten spots” that I love to take people to! It still doesnt get the visits like other parts! And at least I know that part of my dues went to good deed!

    Thank you!
    Jim

  4. It’s obviously one of mine, too, Jim – anyone who goes out there with me probably figures that out :)

    I’m so glad that the Wisler home and property were saved for the NPS, and that generations will be able to enjoy it and hear the story of where it all began.

    J.D.

  5. [...] of members).  Next I’ll post my biography of 9th NY trooper Alpheus Hodges, who vied with Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry for the honors of firing the “first shot” of the battle that [...]

  6. JD,

    I was wondering if Capt. Jones ever had any children with his second wife. I am a descendent of a Captain Jones, Great granddaughter of Fred & Louise Jones. Louise possessed his Civil War Saber until it was passed on to her son, Harold Jones and I know that Capt. Jones was from Illinois. Just wondering if I might have the right Capt. Jones. I know there is more than one.

    Thanks for you time,

    Miss Leslie Maahs

  7. Well what great writing, very impressed. I was looking for my gggrandmother Nancy Jones b. circa 1802 in Virginia. She died in Coles County, Oakland, Ill. 1865. These dates have not been confirmed by me yet, but she was found in the 1850 census with James D. Hunt and children. I like to confirm until I am satisfied but losing steam for this one. Sarah Hunt married twice but my ggggrandfather was Nicholas Curtis. I think of Scottish descent.

    • You might have a look at a Mormon Damily History Library. They have the most extensive genealogy data. Much of it on line and you can order microfilms from their main library in Salt Lake. I found things on my own family I didn’t know exist. One reason their data is so complete is that it is a Mormon requirement that all members trace their ancestry back at least 5 generations. Don’t worry, they won’t try to convert you. They are very helpful. And I am not a Mormon. With any luck, you will tie into a family tree already done and be able to trace your ancestry back many generations. I made it back to the year 430. No royalty either.

  8. Enjoyed reading your story, especially as I’m writing a feature about the Battle of Gettysburg for our website. Could I have permission to use the photo of the memorial that sits on the spot of the first shot? Thanks so much. Carol Martino

  9. I’m from Glen Ellyn (Danby) and we were NEVER taught this stuff in school! Anyway, if any of you would like to visit here, there are still a lot of the very old homes that were here when Marcellus lived here. Albeit, most of the old Victorian homes here were built after the war, the town has a charm. However, when the men/boys came back from the war, there was a band of young boys who didn’t come back the same way that they went (obviously PTSD issues). They called them “The Boys From Danby” and they were notorious for drinking and being generally violent. Once journal entry from a Danby citizen around that time states that he witnessed the following: “A drunk on the Northwestern Railroad commuter train from Chicago heading west was asked by the conductor for his ticket. The conductor asked sternly, ‘Where you headed!’ The drunk responded, ‘I’m goin’ ta hell!’ The conductor responded, ‘Then I’ll drop you off in Danby because that’s the closest to it we go!”
    Things seemed to have calmed down in the early 1870’s and they just think that the ‘boys’ settled down and married. Women from around here traditionally would NEVER have stood for alcoholic husbands, not ones that didn’t wake up without their wives waking them up with a 2X4 anyway. LOL
    The town has gone through many, many changes over the years and I’m proud to have been a part of some of those changes. I hope some of you would like to visit Glen Ellyn and tour Wheaton and Naperville as well.
    Take care!
    Julie Moskal

  10. I am the great grandson of Nelson Whisler who served in Company C of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. He was incorrectly listed as John Whistler however. My great grandfather missed out on the Gettysburg battle as he was recovering from wounds suffered in a previous battle. However he engaged in every other battle during the war.

    I am really curious about the Whistler House at Gettysburg. Spelling of my last name is interchangeable with or without the T. If anyone happens to have more information on the Civil War owner of the Whistler House, please contact me. There is a strong possibility he was also a relative

    Great site. I have the book on the 8th Illinois Cavalry written by the unit surgeon.

    My great grandfather was wounded 11 times. He died in 1928 at the age of 89. After the war he was owner and captain of a river boat on the Mississippi and other rivers. No not one of those big white gambling boats. His riverboat was smaller and mainly hauled logs, but also other cargoes.

    • The book on the 8th Illinois Cavalry written by the unit surgeon is by a Colonel Hard. If you look around good you should be able to obtain a copy. I don’t have the book handy so cannot provide the publisher.

  11. Good site, and good reading. I would have to correct one thing, just because I’m unsure. I think the monunment is made of limestone, not granite. It has some considerable wear to it, and appears to me to be made of limestone — I would confirm that it was from the Naperville Quarry.

    Here’s a couple of interesting factoids:
    * I went to the site with NPS permission and took a casting of the monument. My grandfather, Morgan Hughes, was a bugler for the 8th, Company E. His bugle sounded the first notes of the battle. We passed it along through the generations and it is now in the new Gettysburg Museum.
    * Levi Shaffer, the Sergeant who was issued the carbine that fired the first shot (by Marcellus E. Jones) returned to Naperville, and became a master carpenter. He built the staircase at the Martin Mitchell home in Naperville, which is now part of Naper Settlement.

  12. […] Gettysburg.  What made it extra special was that we were there, on that spot where 150 years ago Marcellus Jones fired that first shot of the […]


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