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.