Stevens’ Knoll Tree

What the Tree Witnessed.

Battery E of the 5th Maine Light Artillery was occupying McKnight’s Knoll (now called Steven’s Knoll) on July 2, 1863, when its commander, Capt. Greenlief Stevens (for whom the knoll is now named) was shot through both legs while observing the enemy. Lt. Edward Whittier took over command of the battery. At 4 PM, the battery became engaged in a ferocious duel with Confederate gunners on Benner’s Hill, a fight about which is written in the battery’s history, “Nowhere on the field at Gettysburg was such havoc wrought by artillery on artillery.”

Later in the evening, when Confederates of Early’s division crossed the fields north of Steven’s Knoll in a futile attempt to capture East Cemetery Hill, the 5th Maine enjoyed a clear view of the attackers, pouring devastating fire into the southern ranks.


This tree was first photographically identified by Greg Gober, using the 1898 image shown below in Figure P-2.

Pvt. John F. Chase (5th Maine Light Artillery) Witness Tree

Figure P-1. The breastworks leading to Culp’s Hill have eroded over the decades, but the John F. Chase Witness Tree remains healthy and massive. The older image is published courtesy of the Boardman Photographic Collection.

Tree Species: yellow poplar (aka tulip tree, tulip poplar)
Circumference 2023: 158”
Diameter: 50.1”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 4.0-4.3 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200-210 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 10-12”
GPS: 39.81993 N, 77.223712 W

There are not many very mature yellow poplars, or tulip trees, on the battlefield that survive from 1863. This monster lies not far from the fieldworks that parallel Slocum Avenue near Stop 14 on the official GNMP auto tour at Stevens’ Knoll. Getting to the tree is a bear, as it is surrounded by high grass, thorns and other odd plants that make any approach a minor horror.

We have two William Tipton photographs of the tree, both taken in the late 1880’s, both taken from where the parking area to Stop 14 sits today (see Figures P-1 and P-2). Determining the age of the tree is made difficult by the lack of any monument, rock, or other landmark of fixed size, but we can get a rough estimate by aligning an old and modern picture of the tree in close-up, since the tree has a distinctive upward-curving branch (which resembles an arm of a saguaro cactus) that existed even in 1863 (see Figure A). We can conservatively estimate that the diameter of the tree in 1888 was a third of what it is today. The tree’s present-day diameter is 51″, so we can calculate the tree’s growth rate to have been approximately 4-4.3 years to grow each inch of diameter since the late 19th century, which in turn allows us to estimate its diameter to have been a mature 10-12 inches at the time of the battle.

The tree is named for Pvt. John F. Chase of the 5th Maine Light Artillery, whose heroics at the Battle of Chancellorsville just two months prior would later earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the artillery’s battle with Confederate guns on Benner’s Hill on July 2, 1863, a shell exploded near Chase, tearing off his right arm, blinding him in his left eye, and famously filling his chest with 48 shell-fragment wounds. Chase was left for dead, but miraculously recovered, and went on to live until 1914, working as an inventor and lecturer, and a family man (fathering 7 children). Chase was buried in St. Petersburg, Florida. A much-published photo of the wounded Chase can be found here, and the battery’s history appears in the Gettysburg Commissions report on Maine at Gettysburg (1898). His biography can be found here at the Library of Congress website.


Figure P-2: Image taken from but a few feet away from that of Figure P-1. The older photo is by William Tipton.

Figure A: We can approximate the relative sizes of the diameter of the John F. Chase Tree by setting an old and modern image of the tree side-by-side, and adjusting the heights until the main branch aligns, as shown by the upper horizontal lines. Trees’ branches do not “rise” as the tree grows taller.

Figure B: the John F. Chase Witness Tree in winter. Tulip poplars are easy to identify in the off-season, as they keep their upward-pointing flowers throughout the winter.