Proof of Old Trees on the Battlefield
It has been gospel for many years that the total number of Witness Trees in the boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park could be counted on two hands, and perhaps two feet. Thus, it is reasonable for people to be skeptical of the claim that there are actually hundreds of trees in on the battlefield that are well over 160 years old.
Evidence to the contrary can be found and easily accessed on the battlefield itself today. The proof lies in the many stumps and cut trunks of trees that have been left on the battlefield by the National Park Service’s lumberjacks.
The Key Metric: Growth Rate
The key number, or metric, which you should keep in mind as you analyze the age of a tree is its growth rate: this is the number of years to grow an inch of a diameter.
In order to estimate this, (1) count the number of rings in a typical inch of radius, then (2) cut this number in half. This is the number of years it has taken the tree to grow one inch of diameter (this step is necessary to convert from “radius” to “diameter”).
If the density of the rings in the inch of radius you have counted seems to be either consistent for the entire tree’s growth, or an average of the same, then (3) multiply (“the tree’s diameter” x “the growth rate”) to estimate the tree’s age.
The following three cut trees or stumps can be visited and examined on the battlefield today. Photographs of cross-sections of other trees which were completely removed from the battlefield can be found here.
Exhibit 1: 5th New Hampshire Flank Marker White Oak.
About 50 feet south of the main monument for the 5th New Hampshire regiment on Houck’s Ridge sits the regiment’s left flank marker. A medium sized white oak tree growing about 20 feet away from the marker fell a couple of years ago right over the short walking trail that leads to the marker, and so was sawn into pieces by the NPS to open the trail. The tree-cutters left the sections of trunk in the woods.
A careful count of a 12.5 inch section of the radius contains about 225 rings (the central ¾” radius has been effaced, and cannot be counted). Thus, this tree sprouted at least as far back as 1805, but more likely dates back to the late 18th century. Its diameter in 1863 during the battle can be discerned to have been about 6 inches thick, which means it was already a well-grown tree at the time of the battle.
What may shock you is that the tree’s diameter is only about 27”. This means that the growth rate of the tree has been, on average, about 8.33 years to grow one inch of diameter. This is a very slow rate, but actually typical of the white oaks on the battlefield.
Arborists’ charts usually identify the growth rate of a white oak to be a much faster 5 years to grow one inch of diameter. This is likely the source of the skepticism regarding the age of the white oaks on the battlefield.
Click here to see the close-up photographs of the tree’s cross-section, where you can download the photographs and count the rings yourself.
Exhibit 2: Houck’s Ridge Red Oak.
Just a few yards north of the intersections of Ayres and Sickles Avenue, on the west side of the road, lie the remains of a large red oak, which fell in about 2018.
The stump is quite irregular, the diameter varying from 30 inches to 38 inches, depending in which direction you measure it.
The tree has at least 250 rings on it. This means it has kept up an average growth rate of at least 7-8 years to grow an inch of diameter. And while the rate varied over the years, what really interests the observer are the rings of the inner 3 inches of radius, for here are decades worth of rings that are so tight, that one count over 50 rings per inch. This means that when the tree was very young, it took over two decades for the diameter of the tree to grow an inch.
This red oak had a diameter of about 7 inches at the moment the fight for the Rose Woods’ raged around it on July 2, 1863.
Click here to see extreme close-up photos of the rings, in case you wish to count them for yourself!
Exhibit 3: Sykes HQ Cut White Oak.
Another old tree – a white oak – with a shockingly small diameter grew for 200 years on Sedgwick Avenue until 2022.
The two-century old white oak tree immediately behind the Sykes Headquarters Monument on Sedgwick Avenue died in 2022, and was cut down by the National Park Service in the fall of that year. Happily, they left the carcass of the tree lying in the woods immediately behind the marker, and it is easily accessible for anyone wishing to count the rings on the cut trunk.
The trunk has a diameter of only 22”, but one can count just about 200 rings inside. The average growth rate of this tree is thus about 9 years to grow an inch of diameter, a very slow rate.
Click here to count all 200 rings for yourself.
Exhibits 4-7: Cut Trees on Little Round Top.
In February 2022, 59 trees were cut down on Little Round Top, in preparation for the major renovation and restoration project that was to begin that summer. Luckily, for the four intervening months, the stumps of the trees were left for visual inspection, before LRT was closed for what will probably be about 2 years.
By counting rings, Greg Gober identified four witness trees amongst the several dozen that were cut down as now ex-Witness Trees. Interestingly, the four trees were of different species.
The National Park Service actually had the contractors who removed the trees cut a cross-sectional slice (called a cookie) of every tree cut, and sent them all to a company called Timber Ridge Forestry, LLC, to count the rings of each of the trees.
The results of the survey confirmed Greg’s fears: the four trees were all witness trees. What is important for you the skeptic to consider is that none of these trees was particularly large, with one of the Witness Trees, a pignut hickory, being ONLY 17” IN DIAMETER.
The following table presents the data on these four trees:
|Tree ID Number||Tree Species||Tree Diameter (in)||Age based on ring count||Average growth rate
(years/inch of diameter)