Copse of Trees Tree

What This Tree Witnessed

By all rights, the chestnut oak tree hanging over the iron fence at the Copse of Trees (1),  just to the left of the High Water Mark monument, should be the most famous tree in America (excepting, perhaps, California’s General Grant and General Sherman giant sequoias); this is a tree, after all, that was not only present during Pickett’s Charge, but was in the middle of the fighting for Cemetery Ridge on that fateful day.

Figure P-1: an 1895 view from the Library of Congress. The Hancock Witness Tree’s forked trunk, with the front stem curving in front of the rear stem, and then outward and forward over the iron fence, is unmistakable.

The Confederates of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s all-Virginia division (comprised of the brigades of Brigadier Generals Richard B. Garnett, James L. Kemper, and Lewis A. Armstead) had finally reached the stone wall on the west slope of Cemetery Ridge; taking advantage of some gaps in the federal defense to the west of the Copse of Trees, grey-backs began to swarm over the wall, and Union officers responded by sending in every nearby regiment to force them back. As rebels surged into the sector, they were met not just by the blast of cannister in their faces, but by frantically charging infantry, men of the 15th, 19th and 20th Massachusetts, the 42nd New York, the 69th Pennsylvania, and 7th Michigan.

Crucially, as reported by Edwin R. Root and Jeffrey D. Stocker in “Isn’t This Glorious!“, soldiers from Virginia had actually reached the trees, and were trying “to force their way through.” (2) Major Edmund Rice of the 19th Massachusetts described the copse as appearing “literally crammed with men”. (3)


This tree was first photographically identified by Greg Gober, using the image appearing in Figure P-4 below. Identification of the tree from the early images of Figures P-1, P-2 and P-3 was by the author.

How the Copse Appeared in 1863

In an 1870 book describing

Root and Stocker quote a visitor to Cemetery Ridge of October 1863 as having counted “50+ oaks”, generally not larger than 2 inches in diameter, and covering an area greater than that which is surrounded by the cast iron fence today. In his book, Pickett’s Charge, historian Phillip Thomas Tucker suggests the clump of chestnut oaks, though not necessarily very tall, was fairly wide, and possessed a distinctive umbrella shape which can be easily discerned in photographs of the copse taken later in the 19th century. (4) In fact, Tucker argues strongly that the copse was indeed the target the Confederate attackers used to guide their attack on July 3, since it was located on a high point of Cemetery Ridge, and thus easily visible from both the west (the direction from which Pickett’s Charge originated) and the west (from which side General Stuart’s cavalry was supposed to attack the rear of the Union line).

Today, there are perhaps a half-a-dozen large trees in the copse, mostly chestnut oaks. As will be shown below, at least one of them is a witness tree, and was likely significantly larger than the sapling-size trees described by the 1863 tourist of the previous paragraph.

(1) The “Copse of Trees” was originally referred to the “Clump of Trees”; GNMP Ranger John Nicholas explains in this video how the battle’s first historian, John Bachelder, deliberately searched for a name to give the thicket a more respectable sounding name!
(2), (3). Root, Edwin R., and Stocker, Jeffrey D. “Isn’t This Glorious!” Bethlehem, PA: Moon Trail Books, 2006, p. 4.
(4) Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Pickett’s Charge. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. P. 148.

Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock Witness Tree

Figure P-2: the older photo was published in the Gettysburg Commission’s 1898 report, “Maine at Gettysburg“.

Tree Species: chestnut oak
Circumference 2023: 83”?
Diameter: 26.6”?
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 8.6 years / inch diameter?
Estimated age: 200-220 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 8”?
GPS: 39.812443N, 77.235778W

Once the High Water Mark monument was dedicated in 1892, and the iron fence constructed around the woodlot behind it, the copse became one of the most photographed locations in Gettysburg (Devil’s Den was the most popular setting). Numerous images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries attest to the great size of our heavily leaning chestnut oak at the time. This oak has an unmistakable fork with a distinctive pattern (when viewed from the east side of the copse), in which the “front” stem, after initially extending to the right, or north, side of the tree, curves sharply across the front of the rear stem and outwards to the left.

Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, or “Hancock the Superb”, for whom the Copse of Trees Witness Tree is named.

I am hoping to get permission one day to soon to enter the iron gate and measure the circumference of this tree. However, using the fence posts as a guide, we can still estimate the size of the tree. The primary posts are 4¾ inches apart, and, by zooming in on a photograph taken some fair distance away from the copse, we can estimate that the diameter of the tree is the same length as the distance of about 5.6 of the 4.75-inch-long segments, for a diameter of about 26.6 inches, which suggests a circumference of about 83 inches.

The various then-and-now shots presented here (which only represent a sampling of the many old photographs of the copse; see Figures P-1 to P-4) consistently demonstrate that at around the turn of the 20th century, the tree’s diameter below the fork was only a little less than half of its diameter today (a ratio of about 0.46, to be exact). If our estimate of the circumference of the tree is reasonably accurate, we calculate then that the tree’s average growth rate over the last century and a quarter to be about 8.6 years to grow each inch of diameter. Extrapolating backwards in time, the tree likely had a diameter of about 8 inches at the time of the battle, and is likely well over 200 years old, perhaps as old as 220 or 230 years.

Figure P-3: A fascinating and rare comparison of the Copse of Trees from its west side. It is possible to find some still-extant trees in the 1900 photograph which was published in the Gettysburg Commission’s report, “New York at Gettysburg“, but their diameters are too small compared to those of the trees in their present state to suggest they are witness trees. Note how the caption to the older image reads “The Clump of Trees”, disregarding John Bachelder’s attempts to rebrand the woodlot as a “Copse”!

There was enough courage and heroism from both armies the afternoon of July 3, 1863, to provide the honorary names for an entire forest of trees. However, a tree of this importance needs an important name, and so we have christened this chestnut oak the Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock Witness Tree. At Gettysburg, General Hancock lived up to his sobriquet, “Hancock the Superb”, from the moment he arrived on Cemetery Ridge on July 1 (having been assigned the management of the growing battle by General Meade, bypassing Generals Howard and Slocum, who technically superseded Hancock in rank), to his ubiquitous presence, and presence of mind, as he directed the troops of the 2nd Corps on both July 2 and 3, up until he was forced to cede the field when he sustained a crippling wound during Pickett’s Charge, when a Minié ball passed through the pommel of his saddle and into his thigh.

Figure P-4: A then-and-now of William Tipton’s 1897 photograph of the Copse of Trees.

For the remainder of his life, the career soldier was plagued by his injury, which for years exuded pieces of broken bone and even pieces of the saddle. Hancock remained with the army after the war, but was in continuous poor health. Hancock was the Democratic nominee for president in 1880, only slightly losing both the electoral and popular vote to James Garfield. Suffering from diabetes, Hancock died in 1886, and was buried near his home in Norristown, PA, in Montgomery Cemetery, not far from the resting place of Maj. Gen. Samuel Zook.

Figure P-3

The second largest tree in the copse of trees is the forked tree that stands immediately behind the High Water Mark monument. Because of its position to the immediate west of the High Water Mark, its trunk is generally never visible in any old photograph of the copse, since the monument usually is exactly between the tree and the photographer.

A study of this forked tree is possible, however, thanks to the unusual decision by the Gettysburg Commission to publish a view of the Copse of Trees from its west side, rather than the east side, as was typically done, in Volume 1 of its 1900 report, “New York at Gettysburg“. Fortuitously, the image is a winter scene, which allows us an unobstructed view of the trunks of all the trees. As can be seen in Figure P-3, the trunk of the Hancock Witness Tree is noticeably larger than that of the other trees in the copse.

The forked tree is also easy to pick out. Its trunk today, as viewed from the rear, is about 8 times as wide as it was in 1900, suggesting that it is very likely a post-war tree.

The large size of the trees suggests this photograph was taken perhaps in the 1950s. The number of large trees was much greater a half a century ago than exists today, creating a poignant reminder of the unavoidable ravages of time.

This is a colorized version of a 1903 Library of Congress photograph of the Copse of Trees. A close examination of the leaves reveals that all of the trees in the copse were chestnut oaks, perhaps providing a definitive answer to the question, “what kind of trees populated the copse in 1863?”