Of the thousands of men – Union and Confederate – who died on the farm fields and in the streets of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, none is more important than another. But only one has the distinction of being the first.
And strangely enough, the first casualty came before the first official shot of the three-day battle.
George Washington Sandoe, a local boy growing up in the hills surrounding Gettysburg, mustered into service on June 23, 1863. He was 20 years old. He served in Capt. Robert Bell’s Independent Cavalry, later to become the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry.
On June 26, Sandoe and fellow cavalryman William Lightner were scouting the roads around Gettysburg three days later. As they came upon an area known as McAllister’s Mill, an Underground Railroad site just yards from Rock Creek south of Gettysburg, the two came upon Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s brigade “hidden behind brush and bushes.”
Gordon’s men ordered Sandoe and Lightner to halt. Lightner quickly turned his horse around and rode down the Baltimore Pike to safety. Sandoe did not. His horse fell as he tried to mount and ride off. A southern soldier shot him as he tried to flee on foot.
And of course the first official shot was recorded early morning on July 1st.
Sandoe would never know what would come in the week ahead. Four days after his death, Union Gen. John Buford would arrive and encounter an onslaught of Confederates in the first day of the three-day long battle.
That battle would become the turning point of the Civil War and go down in history as the biggest conflict on American soil.
Two monuments stand in Gettysburg today to honor the men of the 21st Cavalry, both along Baltimore Pike not far from where the young Sandoe lost his life. Among the 1,300 monuments and markers in Gettysburg, he is the only private memorialized on this battlefield.
Today, the McAllister’s Mill Underground Railroad site is part of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. During the summer, tours of the site are given every Saturday at 10 a.m. by a fellow Sandoe – Debra McCauslin. Click here for more information.
As well, members of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry regularly set up camp in Gettysburg at the American Civil War Wax Museum.