5th New Hampshire Group
What These Trees Witnessed
Around 7 PM on July 2, 1863, two brigades of U.S. Infantry (2nd Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres, 5th Corps) arrived on Houck’s Ridge to support the troops of Brig. Gen. John Caldwell’s division (2nd Corps), which was still slugging it out with the Confederates on Stony Hill and in the Rose Woods. But Ayres’ timing proved to be of not much help, as the assault of Brig. Gen. William Wofford’s rebel brigade down the Wheatfield Road tilted this sector of the battlefield to the side of Robert E. Lee’s army once and for all. The men of Ayres’ 2nd Brigade, led by Col. Sidney Burbank, had entered the Rose Woods and Wheatfield, only to find themselves surrounded on three sides by southern forces, and were quickly shredded by enemy fire. Burbank lost 47% of his men this evening, and his retreat was so sudden that the 1st Brigade (also made up of U.S. Infantry), which was lined up on Houck’s Ridge, never entered the fight, yet still lost a quarter of its soldiers in the retreat east across Plum Valley.
On this page we identify two Witness Trees which appear in turn-of-the-century photographs of the 5th New Hampshire Monument (see Figure P-1, P-2 and P-3). The trees are well to the rear of the monument, and the two William Tipton images demonstrate the necessity of creating accurate then-and-now photographs in order to facilitate identification of witness trees. Though in the pictures the two trees appear to be near or next to each other, the trees are actually as far apart from each other as they are from the 5th NH monument itself.
Witness Tree #1
Pvt. Ira S. Pettit (11th U.S.) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 119”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 5.4-5.9 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200-220 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 8-10”
GPS: 39.79502 N, 77.241406 W
This large tree – with a diameter of almost 38 inches – stands right alongside the southern curve of Ayres Avenue, on the road’s south side. Standing as it does over 100 feet away from the 5th New Hampshire Monument, gaging its size at the time William Tipton took the photograph (1911) shown in Figure P-1 is a bit tricky. I conservatively estimated the ratio of the tree’s diameter from the late 1900’s to today to be about 0.44-0.5. A little math suggests the average growth rate of the tree over the last century and a decade to be about 5.4-5.9 years to grow each inch of diameter. If that growth rate is representative of that of its younger years, the tree could be over 200 years old. Its diameter in 1863 was likely 8-10 inches, making this a fairly mature tree at the time of the battle.
Witness Tree #1 also photobombed a 1908 Tipton photograph of the 2nd U.S. Infantry tablet which sits alongside Ayres Avenue on its northern curve (see Figures P-2 and 2a). The trees distinct elbow-shaped indentation (or “crook”) in its lower trunk can be discerned in both photographs, and, not surprisingly, the tree has leaned further to the west as it has grown heavier over the decades.
The tree is named for ill-starred Private Ira S. Pettit, a Niagara County, NY, native who enlisted in the 11th U.S. Infantry in 1862. Pettit is well-known today for having kept a diary of his experiences in the war, which was later published under the title, Diary of a Dead Man; Pettit was wounded in the head at the Battle of the Wilderness, and then captured in June 1864 while he was guarding a wagon train near Mechanicsville, VA. The unlucky soldier was sent to Andersonville Prison in Georgia, where he died from the effects of scurvy just four and a half months after his capture.
The diary of Ira Pettit can be found online at www.archive.com, but you do need to create a free account to read it.
Witness Tree #2
Col. John Wheeler (20th IN) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 85”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 6.8 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 180-185 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 3.5”
GPS: 39.79507 N, 77.241618 W
This smaller white oak (diameter 27″) is tucked inside the wood line about 60 feet to the east of the monument to the 5th New Hampshire, and about 25 feet south of the southern end of Ayres Avenue. Once again taking a conservative approach, I estimate the ratio of the diameter of the tree from the late 1900’s to present to be about 0.42, which suggests the tree’s growth rate to be a leisurely average of 6.8 years to grow each inch of diameter over the last 110-115 years. The tree is likely then to be at least 185 years old, and probably possessed a diameter of around 4 inches in 1863, a sapling.
The tree is named for Col. John Wheeler, commander of the 20th Indiana, which fought about 50 yards west of the 5th New Hampshire monument. The 20th Indiana took part in the initial battle on Houck’s Ridge, repulsing the oncoming Confederates of the 3rd Arkansas as the latter came crashing through the Rose Woods, then driving the rebels back through the woods. Col. Wheeler, a Connecticut native who had raised a company for the 20th Indiana at the war’s beginning, was mortally wounded when he was shot in the head during this fight. Wheeler had only been promoted to command of the regiment in March 1863.
In his official report, Wheeler’s brigade commander Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward wrote, “The twentieth Indiana lost its colonel (shot through the head), than whom a more gallant soldier and efficient officer did not exist. The great State of Indiana may well feel proud of John Wheeler, the hero, the patriot, and the honest man. He was worthy to command the glorious Twentieth, and his command was proud of him.”
Wheeler’s remains were returned to Indiana, where he was buried in the town of Crown Point. A history of the 20th Indiana can be found in a commemorative work published by the state of Indiana on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; the report mistakenly states that Wheeler was killed in the Peach Orchard. A middle school in Crown Point is named for Col. Wheeler.