Gettysburg’s First Shot Monument

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The First Shot Monument, Gettysburg

As with all of the previous times I had traveled west on Route 30 from Gettysburg, I missed the marker. No sooner had I passed the coordinates when the GPS began screaming for me to find a place to turn around and head back east.

“Did you see a monument?” I asked. Zech answered that he too had missed the marker. I found a place to turn around and thankfully there were no vehicles behind me as I slowly drove back towards the location where the GPS claimed the monument was located.

“There it is,” Zech pointed a a small, white monument on top of a hill at the junction of Chambersburg Pike (Route 30) and Knoxlyn Road. After making a quick assessment of the area I decided to turn around once again and return to the location, hesitantly pulling off on the northern edge of Route 30.

I grabbed my camera and got out. “You coming along?” The look on Zech’s face told me I was on my own. I walked westward along the very busy Route 30. The monument is located roughly three miles west of Gettysburg on top of a small hill on the north side of Route 30. It stands only a couple yards away from a nearby house and in all of my trips through the area I assumed that the marker was part of the homestead. I remained along the edge of the road until I arrived at the limestone marker. Making my way up the hillside on a well-worn path, I found myself standing at the monument known as “The First Shot Monument.”

I walked around the monument reading the words chiseled into it. On the front side of the monument – the southern side that faces Route 30 – is engraved: First shot Gettysburg July 1st 1863 7:30 am. Making my way around the monument, I took in the writing on the other sides of it. The eastern side states: Fired by Cap. Jones with Sergt. Shafer’s carbine. Co. E 8th Ills. The northern face reads: Erected 1886. And the west side of the monument reads: By Capt. Jones, Lieut Riddler, Sergt. Shafer.

While many people have claimed to have fired the first shot, especially the Ninth New York Calvary, the first shot fired by Lieutenant Marcellus E. Jones is considered to be the “official” shot that opened the Battle of Gettysburg. Note: Captain Jones, as listed on the memorial, was Lieutenant Jones during the battle.

Lieutenant Jones was a member of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry and he, together with members of the Twelfth Indiana and the Third Indiana Units, had been assigned picket duty along the Chambersburg Pike. Watching for signs of the Confederate army, the units took command of a small hill west of Gettysburg overlooking the Chambersburg Pike. This advantage point was at the home of local blacksmith and gunsmith Ephraim Wisler.

Around 7:30 on the morning of the July 1, 1863, dust was spotted coming from the direction of Cashtown. Those on picket duty watched as the cloud of dust grew and soon a division of the Confederate Army, under the command of Major General Henry Heth, appeared. The pickets waited and watched as the Confederate troops started crossing Marsh Creek, about a half mile west of Wisler’s yard.

It was then that Lieutenant Jones decided to take action. Borrowing a carbine from Sergeant Levi Shafer, Jones rested the rifle on the rail fence and took aim at a mounted officer and squeezed the trigger. It is not recorded if he hit his target or not, but the shot was enough to draw the attention of the advancing Confederate forces. The Confederate artillery under the direction of Major William R.J. Pegram returned fire. The first round of cannon fire destroyed the trees above the Union soldiers.

The Union forces would soon retreat and the Confederates would take control of Wisler’s farm.

The monument was placed in 1883 by Jones, Shafer and Riddler and was dedicated that same year. They brought the shaft of Illinois limestone to the Wisler farm, which was owned by James Mickler at this point, and purchased a small plot of land to erect the monument. Over half of the shaft is buried in the ground providing stability to the monument. At the time of the placement, the Chambersburg Pike was level with the marker, due to time and resurfacing the road over the years, the road has been lowered, placing the monument on top of a hill along the road.

As I stood there scanning the region, I realized in the years of exploring the battlefield, I never knew that the opening shots of the Battle of Gettysburg happened miles away from the main battlefield. I finally crossed the yard to the vehicle and left the monument, heading eastward to explore other areas of the battlefield.

Note: In researching the history of the monument, I found an interesting story regarding Ephraim Wisler and a mystery that surrounds his death.

According to many early sources, after the firing began, Mr. Wisler stepped out of his house to see what was going on. As he emerged from the building, a Confederate cannon ball hit the ground immediately in front of him, covering him with dirt. This was enough to send him back into his house. Mr. Wisler was said to have immediately taken to bed, suffering from paralysis and was never to rise again, dying soon after the battle.

While the shock may have played a part in his death, I question the cause of his death. In the days following the battle, Ephraim filed a claim for loss and destruction of property. If Mr. Wisler was alert enough to file the claim, then something other than shock must have been the cause of death.

If Ephraim didn’t die of shock, then what killed him? One possibility is disease carried by soldiers. His house was used by the Confederate Army during the battle as a hospital and it is possible Mr. Wisler contracted a disease from the soldiers treated there. If left unchecked, it is possible he died from one of the numerous diseases soldiers carried throughout the war.

However there is a more logical cause for his death. If the story of the cannonball exploding in front of him is true, then it may be possible that Ephraim died of wounds from the skirmish. When the cannonball exploded, it may have fragmented and injured Wisler, causing his eventual death. If this is the case, then Jennie Wade was not the only civilian who was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg.

What is known to be fact is Ephraim Wisler died August 11, 1863 and was buried in the Lower Marsh Creek Presbyterian Cemetery.

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