1. What is a Witness Tree, and why are they important?
A witness tree is a tree old enough to have been alive during an important event that took place in its vicinity. If a tree in Gettysburg was alive at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg (making it older than 160 years old), then it likely “witnessed” regiments marching by it, soldiers shirking behind it, or regiments fighting around it. While not innately valuable – they are just trees, after all – the fact that a given tree was alive in 1863 means it is a living link to the brave men who fought, and were wounded and killed, around it. For a surprisingly large number of people, it is quite moving to be able to see, touch, and ponder these trees.
2. How many witness trees are there?
There are many hundreds of witness trees to be found on Gettysburg National Military Park. Greg Gober, the man who first recognized the ubiquity of these trees, estimates that there are well over 1000 – perhaps even 1500 – witness trees on the battlefield.
On this website, we include only those trees (1) which appear in an old photograph, (2) whose diameter in the old photograph can be estimated by comparing the old photograph to a modern recreation of the image (the popular “then-and-now” style of photo comparison), and (3) whose calculated growth rate based on the comparison of the diameters suggest the tree to be at least 30 years old at the time of the battle.
3. Who found all the trees on this site?
This site presently features 100 witness trees (another 18-20 trees on Little Round Top will be added only after LRT reopens in 2024). Of these 100, Greg Gober was the first to identify 34 of them as appearing in late 19th and early 20th century photographs. I have discovered 61 others, and 3 were identified by us together. Two of the trees – the famous sycamores of Baltimore Street – were previously well-known, one of them being visible in a photograph taken on the day Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. I am responsible for mathematically confirming the witness tree status of every tree on this site. Greg is given explicit and separate credit for each of the trees he identified on the respective pages of those trees. All modern photographs and then-and-now montages appearing on this site are my own work.
4. Are those little round metal tags that are nailed onto some of the trees indicators that they are witness trees?
Maybe, maybe not. No one knows. Despite the assertions made in various online articles, there is absolutely, positively zero evidence that those bronze tags (each stamped with a code number – such as “D-241” – whose meaning has long been forgotten) are “witness tree” tags. I have researched this question in old GNMP archive records and spoken with natural resources representatives of the park, and even contacted the Forest Service. Nobody knows and no one can state with any authority (a) who attached those tags, (b) when they were attached, or (c) for what reason they were attached. As the NPS’s Cultural Landscape Report for First Day uncategorically states, “the origin of these tags has not been documented.” (1)
(1) Auwaerter, John et al. Cultural Landscape Report for First Day – Union 1st Corps Battlefield. Gettysburg National Military Park, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service, Boston, Massachusetts 2021. Page 175, Footnote 377. The CLR refers to the tags as “inventory tags”.
5. Are the lightning suppression system scars that appear on many trees indicators that those are witness trees?
Same answer as for Question #4 above. There is absolutely, positively zero evidence that trees were specially selected at some unknown time in the past to be given lightning suppression systems – that is, a lightning rod attached to the tree at some higher point, combined with a metallic cable running down the length of a tree to redirect the electricity generated by a lightning strike to the ground – because they were “known” to be witness trees. And even if the Gettysburg Commission (managers of the park on behalf of the War Department 1895-1933) or NPS (1933- present) did hang lightning cables on trees at some point in the 20th century, how would they know at that point which trees were witness trees? Without any actual evidence, any linking of witness tree status to a lightning cable scar is nothing better than speculation. (As Greg Gober regularly explains on his Facebook page, a metal cable stapled tightly to a growing tree will cause the tissue of the tree to grow irregularly around the cable, resulting in a “scar).
6. It seems like you call any tree that appears in an old photograph a “witness tree”. Do you ever reject trees?
There are many trees that appear in old photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries which I have not included on this site, since my calculations regarding their ages suggest that they sprouted either around 1863 or later. If my reckoning of the age of a tree (based on the change in diameter over the past century, which I calculate by carefully and conservatively comparing a tree as it appears in an old photograph and a precise or recreation of that photograph) does not suggest it is at least 190 years old (that is, providing a cushion of several decades to allow for the fact that a tree might have grown at a faster rate when it was younger, compared to when it was older), then I reject.
Please take a look here for examples of trees which I have decided not to call Witness Trees, because my calculations of their ages do not give me a high enough level of confidence to do so.
7. When a witness tree falls or is cut down, why doesn’t the National Park Service donate or sell pieces of the tree to a private vendor or craftsman to create mementoes to offer to the public?
According to multiple officials of the Park Service with whom I have spoken, federal law bans the transfer of natural resources, which of course includes trees, from National Parks to private parties.
8. Can I take acorns or leaves that have fallen from witness trees home with me?
It is illegal to remove ANY natural resource from a National Park.
9. Are there witness trees in the National Cemetery?
No. The enormous trees of various species which now grace the cemetery’s walking path were all planted by cemetery landscapers sometime between 1865 and 1870. They were selected specifically for their ability to grow quickly to very large sizes. The much-ballyhooed honey locust tree, thought for no particular reason to have been a witness tree, turns out not to have been a witness tree after all. When this slowly dying tree was cut down in 2022, it was found to have been in fact not a single tree, but three separate trees whose trunks merged together to give the tree the appearance of being a single tree. A ring-count revealed the largest trunk to possess 155 rings, making it too young by a couple of years to have ever been a witness tree.
10. Are there military projectiles, such as bullets and shell fragments, still in the witness trees?
Very likely. Most of the trees on this website were located in the middle of the fierce fighting that took place on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. A retired GNMP archeologist told me that he once waved his metal detector over a large fallen white oak tree, and “the thing lit up all over”.
11. So can a metal detector be used to identify witness trees?
Yes it seems possible. This is something that I will be approaching park administrators about in the future. Remember, it is strictly illegal for members of the public to use metal detectors in the park!
12. Since the trees have been growing for 160 years, won’t all that metal – shell fragments, bullets, etc. – be near the tops of the trees?
No, they will be found in the trees exactly where they lodged 160 years ago. The inner 90% of all large trees, called the “heartwood”, is dead. Only the outer inch of the circumference is alive. Hence, as the tree’s diameter increases, the thickness of the heartwood increases proportionally.
13. Don’t a tree’s individual branches rise higher and higher as the tree grows taller?
No; a branch, for example, that grew off of a trunk 20 feet above the ground in the 19th century, will, if it has not fallen in the intervening time, still be 20 feet off the ground in 2023.
14. Is the battlefield really haunted?
You are on the wrong website.