28th Massachusetts Tree

What This Tree Witnessed

Figure P-1: the earlier image is on Webster & Albee cardstock, and is presented here courtesy of the Boardman Photographic Collection.

The first wave of Union defenders in the Wheatfield and Rose Woods had been forced back, and the woods were now controlled by Confederate forces under Generals Joseph Kershaw and “Tige” Anderson. Brig. Gen. John Caldwell, commander of the 1st Division (2nd Corps), having just arrived on the Wheatfield Road, sent in three of his four brigades to halt the rebel advance. One of the brigades, was famous Irish Brigade, under the command of Col. Patrick Kelly, marched straight over the crest of the Wheatfield, turned right, and entered Stony Hill, slamming into Kershaw’s South Carolinians, fighting side-by-side with Brig. Gen. Zook’s brigade to drive the Southerners out of the area now encircled by “The Loop”.

Kelly was to lose 37% of his men this afternoon. The 28th Massachusetts regiment, under the command of Col. Richard Byrnes, fared the worst of Kelly’s troops on July 2, 1863, suffering 44% casualties.

The Col. Patrick Kelly (Irish Brigade) Witness Tree

Figure P-2: The Col. Patrick Kelly Witness Tree, c. 1885. The older image is reproduced here courtesy of the Boardman Photographic Collection.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 93”
Diameter: 29.6”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 7-7.75 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 220-230 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 8-9”
GPS: 39.79729 N, 77.24563 W

We have nearly-identical photographs of the Col. Patrick Kelly Witness Tree from the late 19th century. The earlier one, from about 1885, is likely by Levi Mumper (see Figure P-2), and the later one, captured c. 1890, is on Webster & Albee cardstock (Figure P-1). Both of these images show a fairly non-descript oak tree pointing straight up towards the sky, with no distinguishing features of note. Here is a case where having two images taken from different angles helps to confirm the identity of the tree, since both pictures can be reproduced, as shown in the Figures.

The ratio of the diameter of this witness tree, for both 1885:2023 and 1890:2023, is about 0.40. The tree’s average growth rate, then, over the last 130-140 years is reckoned to be about 7-7.75 years to grow each inch of diameter. We can thus estimate the tree to be about 220-230 years old, and its diameter during the fight here in 1863 would likely have been in the range of 8-9 inches.

Colonel Patrick Kelly (1821-1864)

This witness tree is named for Col. Patrick Kelly, commander of the famed Irish Brigade, which lost over a third of its strength in the fighting in the Wheatfield and Rose Woods. The Tuan, Ireland, native was born in 1821, and orphaned by the age of 9. In 1850, the now-married Kelly emigrated to New York City, where he became a successful mercantile businessman. (1)

At war’s outbreak, Kelly enlisted as a private in the 69th New York Militia, which fought at First Bull Run. Kelly was rapidly promoted, and was tapped for lieutenant colonel of the all-Irish 88th New York Volunteer Infantry in September 1861. He commanded the 88th at Antietam in 1862 in its famous attacks on Bloody Lane, at which the regiment was decimated, losing a third of its men. Promoted to Colonel in October, Kelly led the regiment once again at Fredericksburg, where the men were called on to attack Marye’s Heights. Once again, the 88th was slaughtered.

After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Kelly was raised to command of the whole Irish Brigade, which he led into the Wheatfield, helping to drive Kershaw’s confederate brigade out of the Stony Woods.

Kelly had originally commanded the men of the 88th New York, and as such was a veteran of the battles on the Peninsula and Antietam, the latter during which the regiment also lost a third of its strength at the fight for Bloody Lane. Kelly had been promoted to lead the Irish Brigade after the fight at Chancellorsville, just two months prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Kelly met his end leading the Irish Brigade during an attack on Petersburg on April 16, 1864. His body was returned to New York, and he was buried in Queens, NY.

Encomiums to Col. Patrick Kelly can be found by clicking on any of these links: TheGettysburgExperience.com, WarfareHistoryNetwork.com, and IrishCentral.com.

(1) All biographical information in this article was adapted from McGinley, John Joe. The Irish Central website. The Irishman Who Led from the Front in the Battle of Gettysburg. Dated March 14, 2023. Retrieved August 18, 2023.