Witnesses to a Battle...
The Story of Witness Trees
Of the thousands of trees which dotted the agricultural landscape of Adams County in July 1863, many of them would be ravaged by the massive Battle of Gettysburg which swept through the Southern Pennsylvania Countryside that summer. Of these, many would be killed as a direct result of the carnage brought about during the desperate conflict. Such vegetation was often ripped in half by bullets and pieces of artillery shell while others slowly died as the lead within them slowly leached lead, killing the tree over time.
Even decades following the war, old timers reflected upon the days when they had smashed baseball bats into trees and youths - listening for the fall of Minnie Balls from the rotted centers and limbs of the trees. Even in the present, there are approximately twenty known Witness Trees still standing throughout the Gettysburg Battlefield. However, one can never fully recognize other potential Witness Trees until they are claimed by Mother Nature. Counting the rings is the only sure way to determine the age of the tree. Today, these silent and living sentinels awe historians and novice visitors alike, not only because of their majesty and grandeur, but of the stories they could tell.
The Copse of Trees near "The Angle" on the Gettysburg Battlefield became the symbolic "High Water Mark" of the Confederate Cause in the years following the American Civil War. Southern troops used these saplings (which were much smaller at the time of the battle) as a visual marker to guide themselves to the converging point in the Union defenses. This clump of trees was memorialized in 1887 by battlefield historian John Bachelder and the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. Although none of the original trees from 1863 remain, this section of small woods has come to represent the valor displayed in one of the most pivotal military actions in all of history.
Although the Witness Trees of today were fortunate enough to survive the battle, many were not as lucky. As is displayed in this July 1863 photo, a relatively large tree is riddled with black spots of bullet holes and fragments of artillery shells. When more closely examining the background of the photo, one can view countless smaller trees which have been shredded in half by projectiles. The Union division of General John White Geary counted they fired in excess of 227,000 rounds of ammunition on July 3 alone. Obviously, much of this lead would strike the trees of Culp's Hill and the surrounding areas - ultimately leading to the demise of several of these silent sentinels of the battlefield.
Did You Know?
In the days and weeks following the Battle of Gettysburg, many eyewitnesses claimed a large number of trees had fallen victim to the conflict's wrath - riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel. This was especially the case on Culp's Hill, where outnumbered Union defenders waged a stubborn defense against equally determined Confederates. There, one Union soldier claimed an entire generation of young saplings had been wiped out (as seen in the photo above) due to the fact they had been ripped in half by the amount of lead flying through the air.
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