This week marks the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, the most famous battle of the Civil War. The Union victory July 1-3, 1863, checked the northern invasion of Robert E. Lee and is considered the turning point of the war.
Several Illinoisans played key roles at Gettysburg, including Lt. Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, who borrowed a carbine from a fellow soldier and fired the first shot of the battle around 7:30 a.m. July 1.
“The shot missed,” laughed John Heiser, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. “But it’s a nice moment in history, and it makes him a sort of celebrity.”
Jones’ shot is commemorated by a marker three miles west of Gettysburg. Born in Vermont in 1830, Jones was a builder in Glen Ellyn before the war. He later served as postmaster of Wheaton before his death in 1900. His home in Wheaton still stands and has been renovated for use as a law office.
His regiment was one of three from Illinois in the battle and one of two in the cavalry division of Brig. Gen. John Buford, who grew up in Rock Island. Buford’s stand July 1, the first day of the battle, delayed the Confederate advance and is considered by historians as key to the eventual Union victory.
“He contributed to the site where the battle would be fought, and he chose what ground to hold,” remarked Heiser. “Buford saw the importance of Gettysburg both for communications and for defense, and has received much credit from writers and comrades over the decades.”
Pop culture has also enhanced Buford’s reputation. His stand at Gettysburg was emphasized by Michael Shaara in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel The Killer Angels, and actor Sam Elliott gave an acclaimed portrayal of Buford in the 1993 movie Gettysburg, which was based on Shaara’s book. However, Buford died of typhoid five months after the battle at age 37.
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Buford came from a family of interesting names. His older half brother, Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, was a leading Quad Cities-area businessman and also a Union general. Brothers Thomas Jefferson Buford and James Madison Buford each later served as mayor of Rock Island. Their father was a friendly political foe of Abraham Lincoln.
An Illinois flair was also found in the opposing side at Gettysburg. Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett is best remembered for “Pickett’s Charge,” a sweeping frontal assault that failed July 3, the final and decisive day of the battle. Though born in Virginia, he spent his much of his teen years with an uncle, Andrew Johnston, who was a Quincy lawyer.
A newspaper editor and political force, Johnston used his connections to help secure an appointment to West Point for his nephew from Congressman John T. Stuart of Springfield, who was Lincoln’s law partner. Legend has wrongly claimed that Lincoln actually sponsored Pickett’s nomination, but Lincoln was not in the U.S. Congress at the time.
Dr. Cullom Davis, the former director of the Lincoln Legal Papers project, believes that Lincoln and Pickett would have had minimal, if any, contact. “I doubt that Lincoln was around Pickett very much,” said Davis, a professor-emeritus of history at University of Illinois-Springfield. “I don’t remember Pickett’s name in any of Lincoln’s documents. I can’t see much connection between them.”
Pickett eventually graduated last in the West Point class of 1846. His name is forever linked to the failed charge at Gettysburg, though he neither commanded the attack, nor led the largest number of the 15,000 troops in it.
Tom Emery is an award-winning writer from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392, or email@example.com.