The world can never forget what they did here

Generals gather at the Army of the Potomac Headquarters in Virginia. 
Gettysburg is the most famous battle in American history; and the largest ever fought in the western hemisphere. The small town in south-central Pennsylvania is remembered for the three-day clash of armies in July 1863, and for the November remarks of Abraham Lincoln, quite possibly the greatest Presidential speech ever delivered.

But while its aftermath, in which Illinois’ favorite son spoke of those who gave “the last full measure of devotion,” is well-known, the battle’s origin is not such common knowledge. It began with a group of six Illinois cavalrymen standing in front of an advancing army and setting in motion the events which would turn the tide of the Civil War and save our nation.

As Illinois mobilized for war in 1861, nearly all of the Illinois soldiers who went into the service of the Republic joined General Ulysses S. Grant’s western army for the drive into Tennessee and Mississippi. But in Kane County, in August 1861, the 8th Illinois Cavalry set out in a different direction.

Colonel John Farnsworth’s cavalry troopers boarded a train for Washington, and joined what would become the Army of the Potomac. “Farnsworth’s Abolitionist Regiment,” as Lincoln called them, was destined to fight in some of the biggest battles of the war’s eastern theater, including Antietam and the Peninsula Campaign. The 8th Illinois Cavalry also joined the march north in pursuit of the Confederate Army as it began moving into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863.

Farnsworth was not part of the redeployment, having left the Army to take a seat in Congress in the spring. His nephew, Elon, however, commanded a cavalry brigade in the Army of the Potomac and would be killed in the upcoming battle. He is buried in Rockton, Illinois.

Having smashed the Union Army at the battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May, Confederate General Robert E. Lee now believed that if he won a decisive battle on northern soil, the Confederacy could achieve the foreign diplomatic recognition it sought, and maybe even win the war. Cautiously, the Union Army moved after him, careful to keep between the advancing Confederates and Washington DC.

By the time Lee crossed into Pennsylvania, both armies were spread out over a large area: the Confederates scouring the countryside looking for supplies, the Union Army searching a huge area to try to locate the Confederate main force.

One of those units of the Union Army was its 1st Cavalry Division, commanded by General John Buford. Buford’s 1st Brigade included the 8th Illinois, as well as cavalrymen from New York, Indiana and four companies of the 12th Illinois.

Coming into the vicinity of Gettysburg on June 30, Buford spotted a small portion of Lee’s army moving toward the town. The footsore Confederates had heard rumors of a supply of shoes in Gettysburg, and they were determined to move in and seize them. Buford saw another possibility: the rocky hills just beyond the town would make a daunting fortification for whoever got there first. If he could prevent the Confederates from taking the high ground, it would be possible to win the battle that was sure to come. If they got there first and fortified the hills, it could be another disaster for the Union.

Buford (seated) with his aides.
At dawn on July 1, Buford deployed his division on ridges west of Gettysburg, while sending a messenger racing off to summon reinforcements. A Confederate brigade under the command of General James Archer, made up mostly of Alabama and Tennessee soldiers, advanced down a road called the Chambersburg Pike, directly toward Buford’s line: which had the 561 cavalrymen of the 8th Illinois squarely at its center.

Marcellus Ephraim Jones lived in DuPage County, near present-day Glen Ellyn, when he enlisted in the 8th Illinois Cavalry in 1861. A year later he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. On this hot July morning, he had been assigned by the regiment’s commanding officer, Major John L. Beveridge, to one of the regiment’s sentry posts out in front of the main body of troops, where he and five enlisted men would watch for the advancing enemy. Around 7 a.m. he saw the telltale cloud of dust which heralded the approach of a group of soldiers. When the Confederates came into view, Lieutenant Jones borrowed the Sharps carbine of another soldier at the observation post, Corporal Levi S. Shafer. He balanced the gun on a nearby fencepost and took aim at a Confederate officer on horseback.

Then Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois fired the first shot of the battle of Gettysburg.

Buford’s men repulsed the first Confederate attack, but Archer appealed to his immediate superior, General Henry Heth, for reinforcements. Heth’s Division was able to dislodge the stubborn Union cavalrymen, but not before Union reinforcements arrived. Gradually, the 8th Illinois and the rest of Buford’s division gave way, moving onto the high ground south of town as more reinforcements arrived. Buford had succeeded in holding off the Confederates long enough for the Union Army to seize the heights.

For three days, Lee and Union commander General George Meade brought up more reinforcements, until their entire armies were engaged. Union troops fought off an attack at Culp’s Hill on the right side of their line on the first day, a strike against their left at Little Round Top on the second day, and then stopped the advance against their center—known to history as Pickett’s Charge—on the third day.

Buford’s division, including the 8th Illinois, was so badly hurt by the first day’s fighting that they were removed from the battle line for the remainder of the engagement. The regiment joined in the pursuit of Lee’s Army as it fell back to Virginia. They captured more than 2000 prisoners and 800 wagons during the chase, losing several more men killed and wounded in fighting around Williamsport and Boonsboro, Maryland. The regiment would serve out the remainder of the war in northern Virginia, doing battle with the elite Confederate cavalry unit known as “Mosby’s Rangers.” After the war, Mosby would write in his memoirs that the 8th was, “the best cavalry regiment in the Army of the Potomac.”

Back at Gettysburg, the battle had left thousands of dead from both sides. The armies had moved on, Lee fleeing back to Virginia, Meade in pursuit. The small town was not equipped to handle such a large number of bodies, but the summer heat was adding urgency to an already difficult task. It was out of necessity that the idea for the Gettysburg Soldiers’ National Cemetery was born.

On November 19, 1863, a dedication ceremony was held for the new cemetery. The keynote speaker was Edward Everett, a famed orator who had served as a U.S. Senator, Massachusetts Governor and had been a candidate for Vice President in 1860 on one of the tickets opposing Lincoln. His two-hour, 13,000-word monologue is not remembered by history as anything but an opening act for the most stirring speech in American history.

President Lincoln had been invited to Gettysburg as an afterthought. His two minute, 271-word speech was initially thought by some to be a failure. In ten sentences, he recounted the nation’s founding and the desperate challenge it now faced. He spoke of the appropriateness of dedicating the cemetery, but also of the futility of trying to hallow the ground any more than those who had sacrificed there had already done. Lincoln stated his renewed determination to finish the work for which the fallen had given their lives, so that a better nation might be reborn and our unique system of self-government would endure.

Crowd gathered for the Gettysburg Address.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” Lincoln said. “But it can never forget what they did here.”

The crowd reacted with silence, and then scattered applause. Accounts differ over whether they were so moved by Lincoln’s remarks that they could not immediately react; whether they were caught off guard by the speech’s brevity; or whether the speech had been a failure.

(One local newspaper, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union made up its mind quickly, calling Lincoln’s speech “silly remarks,” and wishing that “the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them.” On the speech’s 150th anniversary in 2013, the paper ran a retraction, apologizing for “a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”)

The Civil War raged on for two more years after Gettysburg. Victory in the east came on April 9, 1865, with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but the celebration was brief. Five days later, Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theater in Washington. As the nation mourned, the 8th Illinois was called into service once more: to stand as the honor guard for the martyred President as his body lay in state in the Capitol. The Illinois soldiers also participated in the manhunt for the assassin.

One soldier of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Sergeant Horace Capron, Jr., of Peoria, earned the Medal of Honor during fighting in Virginia in 1862. The regiment’s commanding officer at Gettysburg, Major Beveridge, was eventually promoted to General. He left the Army in 1866 and returned to Illinois. He was elected Cook County Sheriff, then to the Illinois State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1873 he became the 16th Governor of Illinois.

More than 20 years after the battle, Marcellus Jones and Levi Shafer made a return trip to the spot where that first shot had been fired in 1863. There they helped place a monument – made of Joliet limestone from a quarry near Shafer’s hometown of Naperville – marking the location where the battle began. The monument still stands today, near U.S. Route 30 and Knoxlyn Road on Whistler’s Ridge inside the Gettysburg National Military Park grounds.

Jones left the Army at the end of the war in 1865 and returned to DuPage County, where he worked in construction. He was elected to the Wheaton City Council and served as DuPage County Sheriff. He died in 1900 and is buried in Wheaton. His grave in the Wheaton cemetery marks the final resting place of the man who fired the first shot in the battle which saved the union.