John Gibbon Witness Tree
There are a number of heroes for the north for whom this lonely black walnut tree could be named. Foremost on the list is the clever commander of the Vermont brigade which fought so brilliantly on July 3rd, Brig. Gen. George Stannard, who was shot in the leg during the battle of Pickett’s Charge, and who would lose an arm in Virginia a year later (interestingly, the statue of Stannard on top of the Vermont State Monument portrays him without his right arm, even though he was fully two-armed at Gettysburg). However, park tradition calls this tree the Gibbon Tree, for Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, whose 2nd Corps division held this part of the field during Pickett’s Charge, and whose units he was furiously managing when he was wounded on that afternoon of July 3, 1863.
What This Tree Witnessed
July 3, 1863: The Confederate line, which began its march from Seminary Ridge across a mile-wide front, had shrunk to a width of about half a mile by the time the gray-jackets of Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s divisions had crossed the Emmitsburg Road and were approaching the stone wall which lies to the west of the crest of Cemetery Ridge, where Hancock Avenue runs today. The brigade of Confederate Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper, five regiments of Virginians strong, was on the right, or southern, flank of the Confederate forces, its own right flank completely unprotected.
Union Brig. Gen. George Stannard, commander of the all-Vermont 3rd Brigade (3rd Division, 1st Corps), saw an opportunity, and ordered two of his regiments (the 13th and 16th Vermont) forward into the meadow west of where the Gibbon Tree stands. The Vermonters aligned themselves perpendicularly to the unprotected end of Kemper’s brigade, and commenced a massacre of the Virginians. General Kemper was mortally wounded, his brigade largely shattered before it could reach the stone wall.
During the same part of the battle, both Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon were wounded within view of the tree.
This tree was first photographically identified by Greg Gober, using the 1916 photograph appearing in Figure P-2 below, and a 1906 William Tipton image not reproduced here. Identification of the Gibbon tree in the 1911 photograph shown in Figure P-1 was by the author.
Brig. Gen. John Gibbon Witness Tree
Tree Species: black walnut
Circumference 2023: 112”
Calculated Average Growth Rate (since 1906): 13 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200+ years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 16-20”?
GPS: 39.81010 N, 77.23613 W
The Gibbon Witness Tree on Hancock Avenue is significant for a reason beyond its Witness Tree status, one that marks its importance in park history: over the course of 1916-1917, the Gettysburg Commission (which managed the park on behalf of the War Department at this time) completed a major program to treat those trees which were at the time called “historic (or historical) trees” that were in need of preservation. Under the supervision of park forester William C. Storrick, thirty-three such historic trees were selected to be treated. The trees all had cavities within their trunks which were filled with concrete.
In recent years, only two of these treated trees were known to remain on the battlefield: the Gibbons Tree, and the so-called “God tree” on Culp’s Hill. Sadly, in March 2023, the concrete tower supporting the God tree collapsed, and the fallen blocks of concrete removed by the NPS. The pathetic remains of the tree itself fell a short time later. Thus, the Gibbon Tree remains the only extant tree at Gettysburg filled with concrete from the 1916-1917 project. The concrete can be seen in Figure P-2 in a 1916 photo by William Tipton, appearing as pale patches within the bark of the tree.
As the tree has continued to thrive and grow over the last century, the bark has come to cover up the exposed portions of the tree which on which earlier one could see the concrete – except for a small crevice at the foot of the trunk: here, the visitor can still see – and touch – a portion of the concrete which was injected into the trunk back in 1916-7! A modern photo of this crevice appears in Figure A.
Estimating the Gibbon Witness Tree’s age is impossible, because it has grown at a glacially slow rate since it received the concrete treatment – on average, over the past century, it has taken 13 years for the tree to add each inch to its diameter. Its present diameter is about 35 inches, and one can see in Figure P-1 that the tree simply has not grown very much since 1906, when this picture was taken: the diameter in 1906, I estimate, was probably around 26 inches. Even if we assume a much faster growth rate for the years preceding the filling of the cavity – say, 5 years to grow each inch of diameter (the rate of growth calculated for the black walnut down the street in front of the George Weikert Farm), the tree was likely a century old at the turn of the 19th century, and may have had a diameter of at least 18-20 inches in 1863.
The tree suffered terrible storm damage in 2021, losing the upper part of its primary stem, or trunk. We can see how the tree looked prior to the storm in Figure B. Some rather dark photographs of the Gibbon Tree dating to its happier days can also be viewed at www.GettysburgDaily.com. Fortunately, the tree still thrives, growing a healthy batch of walnuts every summer.
This black walnut is named for Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, commander of the 2nd Division (2nd Corps). Gibbon was furiously directing his troops on Cemetery Ridge when, as he wrote later, “I felt a stinging blow apparently behind the left shoulder. I soon began to grow faint from the loss of blood which was trickling from my left hand. I directed Lt. Moale, my aide, to turn over the command of the division to General Harrow and in company with another staff officer, Captain Francis Wessells, 106th Pennsylvania, left the field, the sounds of the conflict on the hill still ringing in my ears.” A bullet had passed through his left arm, just below his shoulder, breaking his shoulder blade. (1) Gibbons remained in the army after the war, fighting Indians on the frontier, before retiring in 1891, and dying in 1896. Gibbon was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The quote above was adapted from the website www.ThomasLegion.net, which quotes at length from Gibbon’ memoir, entitled “Personal Recollections of the Civil War“. Gibbon wrote in the florid style typically employed by turn-of-the-20th-century writers, but he does show some good humor: for example, after deciding to ride to the side of his men facing the enemy in order to more effectively place them, he wrote, “I spurred my horse in front of it and waved forward the left flank. I was suddenly recalled to the absurd position I had assumed by the whole regiment opening fire! I got to the rear as soon as possible.”
(1) Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Union Generals. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1996.