Fifth Corps Group
TREES OF SHAME
Compared to other sectors of the battlefield, the area around the 5th Corps monuments on Sedgwick Avenue did not see much action. The second day of the battle saw blue-clad troops being rushed to the Wheatfield through the fields opposite the woods here, and perhaps retreating from the Wheatfield as well. Battery L of the 5th Corps’ 1st Ohio Light Artillery, commanded by Capt. Frank C. Gibbs, was stationed here late in the day on July 2, firing into the Plum Run valley. Elements of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s 6ht Corps filed into the area around these monuments later on July 2, and remained there through the morning of July 3.
Because there is a lack of exciting action here to which to tie our witness trees, it feels appropriate to dedicate the trees located behind the 5th Corps monuments to those participants in the Battle of Gettysburg who failed to measure up to the standards of manhood expected of a soldier on a Civil War battlefield. Indeed, we call the trees honoring these failures, “Trees of Shame”.
There is a remarkable photograph taken by William Tipton (see Figure P-1), dating from 1920, (1) a frontal view of the cannon representing the 5th Corps Headquarters on Sedgwick Avenue. Behind the tube can be seen 4 witness trees, all slow-growing white oaks, that remain extant today (a fifth tree, the one closest to the camera, died in 2022, and was felled in the fall). A careful comparison of the diameters of the trees reveals that all four of them had a diameter 1920 that was about half of what they are today, despite their varying sizes. This suggests that each tree is about 200 years old.
(1) actually, the Tipton image appears twice in the Tipton collection held by the Gettysburg National Military Park. Image #2800 (a park service identification number) is dated “c. 1913”, and #3328, “1920”. In analyzing the growth rates and ages of the trees, we conservatively assume the latter date to be the correct one.
Our candidates for the Trees of Shame represent excellent examples of the Peter Principle at work: individuals who perform their jobs well will get repeatedly promoted until they reach a level or rank at which they demonstrate incompetence. In the Civil War, men of lower rank were rapidly promoted to fill the many officer roles which became vacant, due to the large number of wounds and deaths that were the product of every major battle. Here are four men who performed well in the first half of the war, only to fail when the job became too great for them.
Witness Tree #1
Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson (CSA) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 88”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 7.4 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 6.3”
GPS: 39.797315 N, 77.234006 W
The Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes had marched from Harrisburg on the morning of July 1, arriving at Oak Hill in the early afternoon. Rodes was not at his best today, as he allowed his brigades to attack in a piecemeal fashion the Union 1st Corps troops pouring into the sector. From Oak Hill, Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson led his North Carolinians across to the west side of Mummasburg Road and ordered his troops to march south and attack the Federals on Oak Ridge. To his eternal shame, Iverson remained behind as his brave Tarheels marched in and out of the swales in the field between the Forney farm and the ridge. They were unaware that the Union regiments of Brig. Gen. Henry Baxter were hiding behind the stone wall at the top of the ridge. As Iverson’s men rose out of a swale only 50 yards from the Union line, the Federals rose up and poured a slaughtering fire into the Tarheels. Unable to either retreat or move forward, the leaderless Confederates hugged the ground. When it was all over, the North Carolinians had lost 903 of their 1384 men, a casualty rate of 65%.
Philip Laino explained that Alfred Iverson, a Georgian, was deeply disliked by his men. (2) As a result of his poor performance, both here and at Chancellorsville just two months before, Robert E. Lee transferred Iverson south to take charge of the forces of the state of Georgia. (3) Surprisingly, 1864 found Iverson leading a brigade of cavalry in the Army of the Tennessee. His greatest moment in the war occurred when he defeated Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s 1400 horse soldiers as that officer was raiding south, attempting to reach Andersonville, at the Battle of Sunshine Church. Not only did Iverson capture 500 Union soldiers, but he captured Stoneman himself, the highest-ranking officer to suffer capture in the Civil War.
Iverson engaged in various business activities in the post-war years, including growing oranges in Florida. The old general died in Atlanta in 1911 at the age of 82, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery.
(2) Laino, Philip. Gettysburg Campaign Atlas. Gettysburg: Gettysburg Publishing, 2014. P. 114.
(3) Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. P. 378-9.
Witness Tree #2
Col. John M. Brockenbrough (CSA) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 80”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 8.1 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 5.7”
GPS: 39.797165 N, 77.234159 W
After Brig. Gen. James Archer’s brigade had been sent reeling back through Herbst Woods by the Iron Brigade in the opening battle of July 1, the arriving brigades of Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew (2600 men from North Carolina) and Col. John M. Brockenbrough were ordered to counterattack the Federals now holding the woods. As Pettigrew’s Tarheels courageously plowed directly into the Iron Brigade troops, Brockenbrough led his men in two “half-hearted” assaults against the Pennsylvanians deployed in the fields just west of the McPherson farm. (4) Laino writes that Brockenbrough “does not perform well this day”, allowing his men to “slide behind Pettigrew’s brigade and out of the fight.” (5)
The colonel’s performance did not improve as the days passed. On July 3, Brockenbrough’s brigade was to march on the left flank of the Confederate assault which was to become known as “Pickett’s Charge”. Brockenbrough inexplicably split his small command in two, then allowed his half of the brigade – two regiments – to fall behind the other, before urging his unwilling command to catch up to their comrades.
As Brockenbrough’s brigade, trailing the rest of the division, and unsupported on its left, reached the area of the Bliss farm, Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer. leading the 8th Ohio, saw an opportunity: he led his roughly 200 men north to a position approximately where the McDonald’s restaurant on Emmitsburg Road is standing today, and began firing into the exposed left flank of Brockenbrough’s brigade. The attack of the unenthusiastic Virginians, who were now being shot at from the front and side, sputtered to a dismal end, as these poorly led men and boys individually turned around and returned to the safety of the woods on Seminary Ridge.
Brockenbrough’s poor service at Gettysburg is evidenced by his brigade suffering only 22% casualties over the three days.
When the campaign ended, Brockenbrough was removed from brigade command, returning to lead the 40th Virginia. He retired from the Army of Virginia in January 1864 when his lieutenant colonel was promoted to Brigadier General ahead of him. Brockenbrough died in Richmond in 1892 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.
4. Gottfried, Bradley M. The Maps of Gettysburg. California: Savas Beatie, 2007. P. 98.
5. Laino, p. 135.
Witness Tree #3
Brig. Gen. William Smith (CSA) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 110”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 5.9 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 7.8”
GPS: 39.7972079 N, 77.233987 W
A pair of glaring errors on the part Brig. Gen. William Smith during the Battle of Gettysburg led to the immediate end of the military career of this elderly former governor of Virginia.
Born in 1797, William Smith was the oldest general on the field in either army at Gettysburg. A trained lawyer, Smith established in 1831 a series of mail and passenger delivery lines in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Smith’s ability to wrangle “extra” payments from the government for the many spur lines arranged earned him the nickname “Extra Billy.”
From 1836 to 1861, Smith served as a state senator and Congressman, and as governor of the state of Virginia from 1846-9. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Smith was offered a brigadier’s commission, but, to his credit, he refused the offer, acknowledging his complete ignorance of military “drill and tactics”. (6) Just before the Battle of First Manassas, Smith was appointed colonel of the 49th Virginia. Smith led his regiment in all of the Army of Northern Virginia’s battles in 1861 and 1862, being wounded five times in this period. He was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1863. (7)
Gettysburg: July 1.
Smith, who in the summer of 1863 was once again governor-elect of Virginia, led a small of brigade of three regiments totaling just over 800 men into Pennsylvania on those hot summer days of June 1863. On July 1, after the brigades of Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon and Brig. Gen. George Doles had driven the Union 11th Corps off of what is now known as Barlow’s Knoll on East Howard Avenue, Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early ordered Smith, whose brigade had been in reserve during the division’s attack, forward to take part in pursuing the fleeing bluecoats. Smith demurred. reporting the presence of Federal troops on the division’s left on the York Road. Unclear about the situation, Early sent the brigades of Smith and General Gordon to the York Road to feel out the situation. (8)
Gordon and Smith found nothing. What it was that Smith thought he saw on the York Road remains a mystery to this day. The result of his possible flight of imagination was that Early was deprived of two of his four brigades for the pursuit of the Union troops south through town, and perhaps also contributed to the decision of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, who was now 2000 men short, to famously refrain from attacking Culp’s Hill. (9)
Gettysburg, Day 3.
Guarding Lee’s left, Smith did not participate in the Confederate attacks on July 2. On the morning of July 3, Smith arrived on the flank of the Confederate line at Culp’s Hill, where his 49th and 52nd Virginia regiments took a position behind the stone wall located between Rock Creek and today’s East Confederate Avenue, on the northeast side of Spangler’s Meadow. Here Smith’s men were fortunate to be in position to help repulse the ill-advised attacks of the 27th Indiana and 2nd Massachusetts across the meadow.
If Smith had left well-enough alone, his men would have considered themselves lucky to avoid any action at Gettysburg. Unfortunately, Smith ordered his two regiments two counterattack across the meadow, which was now covered with dead and wounded Federals. Needless to say, the assault was a complete failure, and Smith’s men were repulsed with great loss. (10)
In Jubal Early’s after-battle report, only one general failed to receive commendation: William Smith. As a result of this slight, General Smith resigned from the army. He served as governor of Virginia from 1864-5, then retired to life as a farmer, finally dying at the age of 90 in 1887. Smith was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. (11) The cemetery website provides a detailed synopsis of the life of the colorful governor and general.
(6) Hollywood Cemetery website. William Extra Billy Smith. Retrieved June 30, 2023: https://www.hollywoodcemetery.org/william-smith.
(8) Laino, p. 149.
(10) Gottfried, p. 248.
(11) Warner, p. 285.
Witness Tree #4
Brig. Gen. James Barnes (USA) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 66”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 9.8 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 200 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 4.7”
GPS: 39.797126 N, 77.234178 W
Witness Tree #4 is another example of an exceptionally slow-growing white oak, possessing a diameter of only 21 inches despite being around two centuries old. The sedate growth can be explained by the fact that this tree is immediately adjacent to several large rocks, which causes the roots to struggle to find water and nutrients from the poor soil.
July 2, 1863: The Wheatfield
The Federal brigades of Col. P. Regis de Trobriand (3rd Corps) and Col. Jacob B. Sweitzer had successfully repulsed the initial attack of Confederate Brig. Gen. George “Tige” Anderson’s Georgians towards the Wheatfield, sending them reeling back into the Rose Woods. As the southerners were reforming for another assault, the Union brigade of Col. William S. Tilton arrived to support its comrades. Fighting on Stony Hill, Tilton was on the receiving end of a charge by two regiments of Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw. As the pressure mounted, the “nervous Colonel Tilton, who had never commanded a brigade before”, requested permission from his division commander, Brig. Gen. James Barnes, to leave the field, and Barnes, “not a lion on this day,” order Tilton to withdraw. (12) (13)
Many of Tilton’s men were unhappy with the order. Barnes proceeded to order Sweitzer off the field, leaving Col. de Trobriand (whose brigade was not part of Barnes’ division) dismayed at what he was seeing. He kept his courageous men in position, hoping to hold back the Confederates, but, severely outnumbered, eventually was forced to retreat. (14)
Barnes was wounded later in the day on July 2, and was forced to step down from command of his division. Unfortunately, though he recovered from his wounds, Barnes, apparently perceived as having “lost control of his troops” (15), was never to be trusted with combat troops again, serving out the rest of the war in prison and garrison duty. Barnes survived the war by only a few years, dying in 1869 at the age of 67 in Springfield, MA, where he was buried.
12. Both quotes from Gottfried, p. 168.
13. Laino writes that Tilton personally asked Barnes to “voice his concerns”, and that Barnes, in a “strange decision”, told him to use his discretion, “and to withdraw his brigade if he deems it necessary…it will not be long before he deems it necessary.” Pp. 229-230.
14. Gottfried, p. 168.
15. Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
The Fifth Corps HQ Witness Stump
The tree appearing in Figure P-1 nearest to the 5th Corps headquarters cannon was a white oak which had died over the winter of 2021-2022, and was cut down by the NPS in October of 2022. While the stump’s rings are not easy to count, the rings located on the log immediately behind the stump are. The log was not the section of tree immediately above the stump: the section of the main stem immediately above the stump was dragged back about 20 feet to the right and rear of the stump. We find that there are just about 200 rings on the section immediately behind the stump, and with a diameter of about 85″, the growth rate was about 7.4 years to grow an inch of diameter. By being able to count the rings fairly precisely, we can also confidently state that the diameter of the tree was about 4 inches in 1863. Click here to see close up pictures of the cross-section of the tree to count the rings yourself!