Workers at Gettysburg National Military Park last week were cutting up a fallen oak tree on Culp’s Hill, a key location in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, when they hit 148-year-old bullets.
Battlefield trees like this one, still bearing scars and bullet wounds, are called Civil War witness trees. (Another kind of witness tree is found in public land states—a surveyor would blaze a tree near a section corner as evidence of the section boundaries.)
I hadn’t heard the term until I read about the Gettysburg discovery, and it makes perfect sense: Eyewitnesses are long gone, but these trees stood on the battlefields when our ancestors dug trenches, reloaded guns, charged the other side, were injured and died.
Many witness trees are famous and were captured in contemporary drawings or Mathew Brady’s photographs, for example:
- Burnside Bridge Sycamore at Antietam, Md.
- Appomattox Courthouse Pin Oak in Virginia
- Copse of White Oaks near Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Pa.
- Southern Magnolias at Andersonville, Ga.
Sections of the Culp’s Hill tree with bullets will be displayed in a museum at Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Daily blog has posts about witness trees, with lots of photos and directions for finding them.
Here are some Civil War resources from Family Tree Magazine:
- Civil War Genealogy Toolkit: Free article with websites, books and organizations for tracing Civil War ancestors
- Life in Civil War America free webinar with the author of the book Life in Civil War America
- Articles and books on Civil War research available through Family Tree Shop