Reynolds Grove Group

Street view of the two white oak witness trees behind the interpretive tablets on Reynolds Avenue.

Those visitors who decide to drive the official National Park Service auto tour at Gettysburg typically begin at Stop #1 on Reynolds Avenue, where they inevitably read the obligatory pair of official tablets which describe the action that took place here in Reynolds Grove.

What most people don’t realize is that they are also, at that moment, directly facing two white oak Witness Trees.

How To find the Trees

Simply drive to Reynolds Avenue. Park in one of the spaces provided near Stop 1 on the National Park Service’s official Auto Tour.

Walk to the two brand new interpretive signs located at the north end of the grove. As you face the signs, directly in front of you stand two witness trees.

What These Trees Witnessed

Figure 1: Reynolds Grove was a veritable woodland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but most of those trees, including the large leaning witness tree seen in the 1945 image above, are long gone. Still standing, though, are Witness Trees #01 and #02, both white oaks. Also visible in the photographs are the McPherson Barn (A), and the John Reynolds equestrian statue (B). The tree labeled (C) was removed in recent years, and its stump, though cut down to ground level, can still be seen. National Park Service, Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum Collection, GETT #41135; text added by author.

1 July 1863, morning: Brig. Gen. James Archer’s Confederate brigade had infiltrated the Herbst Woods to the west of these trees. However, the Union’s Iron Brigade – tough westerners that comprised the Army of the Potomac’s 1st Corps, 1st Division, 1st Brigade – were hurrying onto the scene. The commander of the 1st Corps, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, arrives in front of the woods and directs the 2nd Wisconsin to drive the Johnny Rebs back. Elements of the 2nd Wisconsin likely passed by these trees, the remaining brigades filing into the woods to the left of these Badgers. The Iron Brigade did its job this morning, steamrolling Archer’s Tennesseans and Alabamans back across Willoughby Run.

Witness Tree 01, on the edge of Reynolds’ grove, with the McPherson Barn and Reynolds equestrian statue in the distance. This tree is 35 inches in diameter and is like at least 250 years old.

1 July 1863, afternoon: Confederate Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew’s all-North Carolina brigade attacked the Iron Brigade from the west, and the exhausted Federals slowly retreated out of the woods, many no doubt passing by these trees, and back to Seminary Ridge. The 151st Pennsylvania arrived in a futile attempt to slow down the driving Confederates, and lost 337 men – almost 3/4 of the regiment, in the process.

For the southerners, next up was the division of Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender, whose job it now was to drive the retreating Federals off of Seminary Ridge. The left of the line was held by the North Carolinians of Brig. Gen. Alfred Scales, whose 22nd North Carolina regiment likely passed by these trees, as the brigade would in just a few minutes be slaughtered by Union artillery on its left flank.

The Trees

At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, and into the 20th century, the nearly two acres of land fronting the Reynolds Death Monument were filled with trees. Now there do exist turn-of-the-20th-century photographs of the pack of trees near today’s informational tablets. However, it has been impossible to identify the still-remaining trees in these old photographs: this is because of the combination of factors that, (1) the extant trees were much smaller back then, and (2) they were mixed together with many other trees of various sizes that still stood back in 1900.

However, I have discovered a photograph of this lot of trees in the GNMP archives, a 1945 image in which our trees can finally be identified (see  Figure 1).

Tree #02 is one of the perhaps dozen trees remaining on the battlefield that still has a small bronze inventory tag nailed into it, about 10 feet off the ground. We will note, however, that no one actually knows who was responsible for putting those tags on the trees, or when, or why (see Question #3 on our FAQ page for more on this topic).

Witness Tree #01

Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds Witness Tree

Tree #01.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2022: 110”
Diameter: 35.0”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 8-11 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 220-250+ years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 15-20”
GPS: 39.834636 N, 77.250445 W

Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds (1820-1863). Library of Congress.

This very slow-growing white oak, with its distinctive curve, may very well be at least 250 years old, and, at the time of the battle, it was already a substantial tree, with a diameter of well over a foot.

This tree is named for the commander of the Union 1st Corps, the beloved Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds. The Lancaster, PA, native was born in 1820, and graduated West Point in 1841. Reynolds spent most of his pre-war years on garrison duty on the frontier, before being appointed Commandant of Cadets at West Point in September 1860.

Reynolds, appointed a brigadier general in August 1861, was actually captured during the Peninsula Campaign (on 27 June 1862), before being exchanged in August of that year. By December 1862, he was leading the Army of the Potomac’s 1st Corps as a major general.

After the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863), Reynolds was offered command of the army, but declined the honor. (1)

At Gettysburg, Reynolds was directing the approaching Iron Brigade into Herbst Woods to repel the approaching Confederates, when he was shot through the back of the head or neck, just as he had cried out, “Forward, men! Forward, for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of those woods!” (2)

Tree #01, leaning to the left, stands in the right foreground, while Tree #02, leaning right, stands in the left mid-ground. The monument to the killing of John Reynolds can be seen in the distance between the two trees.

Kent Masterson Brown, in his indispensable Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command, argues that it was primarily because of General Reynolds that a battle was fought in Gettysburg, PA, rather than in Maryland, as General Meade had wanted; Reynolds was actually ordered to use his 1st Corps only to feel out Lee’s army, to cause Lee to bring his army together, and then to withdraw his corps back to Maaryland. However, once Reynolds had committed the Iron Brigade to fighting in Herbst Woods, and sent other elements of the Corps across the Chambersburg Pike to hold off Confederates north of the road, the job he was assigned to perform would have become almost impossible to accomplish; and because Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, who succeeded Reynolds to command of the 1st Corps upon the latter’s death, had no idea of the role his corps was supposed to be playing, he continued to commit the army to the fight at Gettysburg. (3)

After being carried back into Gettysburg by his aides upon his death, Reynolds’ body was removed to his home in Lancaster, where he was buried on July 4. An account of Reynolds’ death by the Herbst Woods can be found here.

(1) Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Pp. 396-7.
(2) Laino, Philip. Gettysburg Campaign Atlas. Gettysburg: Gettysburg Publishing, 2014. P. 102.
(3) Brown, Kent Masterson. Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command. The University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

Witness Tree #02

Lt. Col. George K. McFarland (151st PA) Witness Tree

Witness Tree #02 is in the foreground, and #01 in the background.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2022: 86”
Diameter: 27.4”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 8.1 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200-220 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 7-8”
GPS: 39.834534 N, 77.250598 W

The roots of Witness Tree #02 are beginning to show themselves above the ground.

This white oak witness tree is not quite as impressive as Tree #01, but it is an old tree nonetheless. With a growth rate of about 7-8 years to grow, it is probably at least two centuries old, and sported a diameter of over half a foot at the time of the battle.

Witness Tree #02 is named for the commander of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, Lt. Col. George K. McFarland. McFarland was born in Swatara, PA, in Dauphin County in 1834. Before the Civil War commenced, McFarland worked as a teacher, even running the Freeberg Academy for four years. At the outbreak of war, he recruited what would become the 151st Pennsylvania (nicknamed the Schoolteacher Regiment, because many of the recruits were students and instructors of the Lost Creek Academy, of which McFarland was principal, in Juanita County), and was elected lieutenant colonel of the regiment. (4)

Lt. Col. George McFarland (1834-1891).

Having fought well throughout the war’s first two years, McFarland’s moment of glory – or devastation – occurred in the afternoon of July 1, 1863, near Herbst Woods. Here the 151st was ordered forward to stem the tide of onrushing Confederates, who had forced the Iron Brigade, which was now slowly retreating to Seminary Ridge, out of the woods. In a desperate stand to cover the retreat of the westerners of the Iron Brigade, the 151st lost 377 out of 467 men (51 killed, 211 wounded, and 75 captured) – a staggering 72% casualty rate. (5)

During the retreat from Seminary Ridge, McFarland, who had survived the holocaust at Herbst Woods unscathed, was shot in both legs. His right leg had to be amputated below the knee, and the right was permanently crippled due to his ankle being smashed. The regiment was mustered out after the battle, and McFarland returned to Juanita County in Pennsylvania to recommence his career in education, founding an orphan’s school. (6)

In 1888, on July 1, George McFarland returned to Reynolds Grove to deliver the dedicatory address at the unveiling of the monument to the 151st Pennsylvania.

McFarland lived until 1891, and was buried in Harrisburg Cemetery.

The story of the Schoolteacher Regiment can be found on the Berks County History website here; an article on our hero written by a descendent appears here; and further details on the 151st’s Gettysburg experience can be found here.

(4) The Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishing Co., 1874, pp. 663.
(5) Laino, p. 458.
(6) Miele, Peter. Gettysburg Times website. George McFarland’s Civil War Experience. Retrieved January 01, 2024: