Devil’s Den Witness Tree

What the Tree Witnessed

Sitting high above Devil’s Den, this massive white oak tree, on July 2, 1863, not only “witnessed” all the fighting around it on Houck’s Ridge and below it amongst the boulders and in the Slaughter Pen, but also had a balcony “view” of the action that took place on the western slope of Little Round Top.

On the blazing afternoon of July 2, Col. A. Van Horne Ellis’ 124th New York regiment was stationed on the left flank of Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’ entire Third Corps (placing it in the region just to the north of this witness tree) when Lt. Gen. James Longstreet launched the attack of his Confederate 2nd Corps from Warfield Ridge. The 1st Texas was the first southern unit to reach the Triangular Field, heading directly towards Ellis’ tiny regiment of 220 men. Ellis famously maintained an unperturbed demeanor so as to keep his men steady, before accepting a suggestion from a subordinate to launch a counterattack against the Texans. Despite the protests of a captain, Ellis insisted that he and his other field officers ride into the fray on horseback, stating, “The men must see us today.” The attack of the 124th successfully, if temporarily, sent the Texans reeling, but Ellis was killed in the attempt. His body was returned and laid on the rock on which his statue now stands. (1)

(1) The story of the 124th New York’s attack on the Texans is delightfully told, as expected, by Gettysburg National Military Park Ranger Matt Atkinson in this YouTube video.

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade Witness Tree

Figure P-1: The Maj. Gen. George G. Meade Witness Tree, also known as the Devil’s Den Witness Tree, as it appeared in an uncredited 1899 photo album.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 162”
Diameter: 51.6”
Calculated Average Growth Rate:  3.7 years / inch diameter
Estimated age:  190 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 8”
GPS: 39.791866 N, 77.242645 W

It has been accepted lore for many years that the large white oak tree standing on the sharp curve above Devil’s Den, across from the monument to Smith’s 4th Battery (New York Light Artillery) is a witness tree, but photographic evidence has been lacking. If you follow witness tree discussions on the internet, you will find unconvincing claims that the tree appears in various old photographs (see this American Battlefield Trust video, for example), or that the tree can be picked out from photographs taken from Little Round Top (a distance of 1600 feet, or almost a third of a mile, no less!). But until now, no credible evidence has been found, or at least presented.

But evidence has now been found. The image of the Devil’s Den Witness Tree (which we name after General Meade) can be seen, we believe, in the image seen in Figure P-1, which appears in an 1899 publication, an anonymous photo album entitled “Gettysburg: America’s Greatest Battlefield.” The picture is captioned “Smith’s Battery on Devil’s Den Hill”, and the tree in question has just snuck into the shot at its right extreme.

Is this our tree? The only pieces of evidence to suggest it is are (1) the location matches exactly with the modern-day then-and-now photograph, and (2) the tree is a white oak, which, if you peruse this website, you will learn, has a very slow growth rate of typically 6-9 years to grow an inch of diameter anywhere on the battlefield.

Figure P-2: a cropped then-and-now close-up of the Devil’s Den Witness Tree. In the far-right image, I have added dotted lines to help identify the trunk of the tree.

But, as Sherlock Holmes was fond of pointing out, “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” If that is not our tree in the 1899 photograph, then it must be true that the tree which is in the photograph must have died and been removed, or fallen, to be replaced by the brand new tree which grows there now, in which case the entire tree would have to have grown to its present size in only 122 years, which would require the tree to have grown at a rate of at least 3.1 years per inch of diameter, a rate not even remotely seen on any white oak tree anywhere on the battlefield (if our tree were to have sprouted later than 1899, it would have to have grown to its present size even more quickly). 

We assume, safely we believe, that this is our tree. You may believe what you will.

Comparing diameters of the tree is tricky, because the stem, or trunk, of the tree has forked so many times that it cannot really be recognized as the same tree through any unique characteristics (see the close-up of the images in Figure P-2). However, I estimate the ratio of the diameter of the tree 1899:2022 to be about 0.35, so that the diameter of the tree in the old image is about 18 inches. Notwithstanding what we wrote above, this suggests a very fast growth rate of only 3.7 years to grow an inch of diameter. We may extrapolate to estimate the age of the tree to be only about 190 years, and its diameter during the Battle of Gettysburg to have been only about 8-8.5 inches.

It is only right that the most famous witness tree at Gettysburg be named for the most important Union soldier on the field, Maj. Gen. Geoge G. Meade, despite the legitimate objections of GNMP legendary volunteer Jon Pople, who argues that because Meade was never in this part of the battlefield on July 2, the tree should not be Christened with his name. We demur.

George Gordon Meade was born in Spain into a wealthy Philadelphia family. He attended West Point, and then worked for a few years as an engineer, before re-enlisting in the army at the outbreak of the Mexican War. Remaining in the army afterwards, Meade served as an engineer, building lighthouses. Meade’s rise to the pinnacle of the Army of the Potomac was sudden and unexpected, when he was selected by Abraham Lincoln to take over the army after the President fired Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker on June 28. The Battle of Gettysburg commenced only three days later.

Meade had planned to have the Army of the Potomac form a defensive line at Pipe Creek in Maryland, but events overtook him, as his army collided with Lee’s army at Gettysburg. Meade appointed Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock to manage the growing battle, until Meade himself arrived at Gettysburg. Although criticized by the President for his slowness in pursuing Lee after the latter’s retreat, George Meade still deserves credit for being in charge of the Army of the Potomac for its decisive victory over the Army of Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg.