53rd Pennsylvania Tree

What the Tree Witnessed

The 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment did its duty when it took part in the counterattack made by Col. John Brooke’s 4th Brigade (1st Div., 1st Corps) first into the Wheatfield, and then, as the brigade kept moving forward, even as the division’s other brigades remained behind, into the west end of the Rose Woods, where the monument to the 53rd (as well as the other regiments of Brooke’s brigade) stand today. Led by Lt. Col. Richard McKnight, the 53rd suffered the highest casualties of any of the regiments serving under Brooke this day, losing 59% of its men.


This tree was first photographically identified by Greg Gober, using the 1897 image of Figure P-1.

Lt. Col. Richard McMichael Witness Tree

Figure P-1: The Lt. Col. Richard McKnight Witness Tree stands tall with a diameter of near a full yard. The photo from 1897 was taken by William H. Tipton.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 105”
Diameter: 33.4”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 7.0 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 230 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 10”
GPS: 39.795181 N, 77.2457025 W

The mighty white oak standing only a few feet to the south of the monument to the 53rd Pennsylvania has a present diameter of 33 inches (see Figure P-1). The ratio of its diameter in 1897:2023 is about 0.46, which means that it is a slow grower, having an average growth rate of 7 years to grow each inch of diameter for the last 126 years. The tree is easily well over 200 years old, and probably stood with a diameter of about 10 inches in 1863, a fully mature specimen at the time of the battle.

The tree is named for the commander of the 53rd, Lt. Col. Richard McMichael. McMichael, a veteran of the Mexican War, had led the 53rd Pennsylvania since the Maryland campaign of 1862. As reported on the website www.behind.aotw.org, it was during the battles of the spring of 1864 that McMichael exhibited a problem with the bottle; about the fight at the Wilderness, “a soldier later remembered”,

Hancock’s only significant casualty was Lieutenant Colonel Richards McMichael of the 53rd Pennsylvania. Well fortified with drink, he skinned his nose on a tree, complained loudly about being the only man wounded in his regiment, then unsteadily led the way several hundred yards ahead of his troops. Somehow he survived until darkness, when he attracted a crowd by beating his horse to punish it for sniffing conscripts. Such was the drama of our officers who freely indulged in that dark beverage of hell, a witness declared.”(1)

McKnight was thereafter “relieved and discharged for disability”, but then returned to the army as commander of the 194th Pennsylvania for the second half of 1864, before being mustered out of the army permanently. McKnight lived to be 88, dying in 1894, and was buried in his hometown of Reading, PA, beneath a gravestone which calls him “a hero of two wars.”

(1) Accessed March 26, 2023.