149th New York Tree

What This Tree Witnessed

On July 2, the 149th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment had fought in the saddle between the two crests of Culp’s Hill, but with the overnight return of the 2nd Division (12th Corps) brigades of Col. Charles Candy and Brig. Gen. Thomas Kane, the 149th slid north up the hill to a position near to this witness tree. As the Federals awaited the renewal of the Confederate attacks, Lt. Col. Charles B. Randall of the 149th walked among his men and shared whiskey with his officers, apparently having a presentiment that he would be killed this day (he would be wounded, but would not die until 1864, near Atlanta). (1)

Bas relief of Color Sergeant William Lilly repairing the staff of the 149th New York. The sculpture is attached to the west face of the regiment’s monument (dedicated in 1892) on Culp’s Hill.

The rebel assaults came soon enough, and the 149th found itself contending with men from the brigades of Brigadier Generals George H. Steuert and James Walker. At one point in the morning, the 149th was supposed to be relieved by the 1st Maryland Eastern Shore regiment, but the men from that border state ran away after firing at or over the New Yorkers. When the Marylanders finally returned to the breastworks, the 149th stood behind them to make sure they stayed in place this time.

The 149th’s battle flag was hit by scores of bullets, and the staff broken in multiple places. Flag Sgt. William Lilly repaired the staff, splicing it together using wooden staves from a cracker box as splints to reform the staff, and a leather musket strap to hold it all together. Once again, the 149th flag flew proudly over the regiment, as the Confederate assaults were successfully repulsed this day. Lilly’s act is memorialized on the bas relief sculpture appearing on the monument to the 149th New York. 

(1) Gottfried, Bradley M. Brigades of Gettysburg. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012. P. 391.

Flag. Sgt. William C. Lilly (149th NY) Witness Tree

Figure P-1: The Flag Sgt. William C. Lilly Witness Tree stands boldly in the distance alongside Slocum Avenue on Upper Culp’s Hill. The 1900 photo was taken by William Tipton, and appears here courtesy of the Adams County Historical Society.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 116”
Diameter: 36.9”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 6.6 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 225-250 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 12-13”
GPS: 39.818115N, 77.219384W

This largest of trees along the northern stretches of Slocum Avenue stands tall in the area between the monuments to the 149th New York to its south and 78th / 102nd New York to its north. With a diameter of just over a yard, the tree appears in a turn-of-the-century photograph taken by William Tipton from a point about 100 yards south of the tree (see Figures P-1 and P-1a). A conservative estimate suggests the tree’s diameter in 1900 was about half its present diameter, so we can further gauge the growth rate of the tree over the past century and a quarter to be a very typical 6.6 years to grow each inch of diameter. The tree is likely 225-250 years old, so that it was very likely alive at least as far back as the presidency of George Washington, and its diameter probably measured about a foot during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Figure P-1a: As our witness white oak tree has gotten larger and heavier over the last century, it has started to lean a little further to the east. This is a cropped close-up view of the images presented in Figure P-1.

The tree is named for the Flag Sgt. William Lilly of the 149th New York, who enlisted in 1862 at the age of 33. (2) Lilly was wounded while splicing the staff of the flag of the 149th, which was described as having been “riddled and torn by eighty gaping wounds.” (3) When Brig. Gen. George S. Greene’s brigade was transferred to the western theatre shortly after Gettysburg, the 149th New York went with it, and it was at the Battle of Wauhatchie (October 28) that Lilly was mortally wounded, dying on November 1. (4) Lilly’s body was returned to the regiment’s hometown of Syracuse, where it was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. 

Lilly’s heroic actions became famous in Syracuse. The G.A.R. post in Syracuse was named for him, and the monument to the 149th at Gettysburg, dedicated in 1892, bears a bas relief of Lilly repairing the regiment’s flag. The flag that Lilly tended so assiduously is on display at the Onondaga County Court House in Syracuse.

Further details of the story of the 149th New York regiment and Lilly’s repairing the flag can be found here on the “Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park” and here on the site of the Onondaga Historical Association. 

(2) Civil War Data website. Retrieved May 18, 2023: http://civilwardata.com. Record #: U&1613223.
(3) Final report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York), Vol. III, 1902. P. 1015.
(4) civilwardata.com. See footnote #2.

The Lilly Witness Tree stands a few feet in front of the small marker identifying the position of the 147th New York regiment on July 2 and 3. Note the vertical scar on the trunk, a remnant of the lightning suppressor cable that once hung from the tree.