9. Sickles Witness Tree
What This Tree Witnessed
Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles had been instructed multiple times on July 2, 1863, to deploy his 3rd Corps on Cemetery Ridge, so as to connect with the remainder of the Union line to the north. Unhappy with the order, however, Sickles moved his men forward, so that they instead ended up in an unsupported line, their right occupying the Emmitsburg Road , the left extending south through the Peach Orchard, the Rose Woods, and Houck’s Ridge.
Sickles himself set up his headquarters on the property of the Trostle family near the large, still-extant barn. When the Confederate attack began that evening, southern artillery made the Trostle yard a dangerous place to be. While on his horse, Sickles was struck by a shell which severely damaged his right leg. Sickles slid off his horse, and, recognizing the critical nature of the wound, instructed his aide to tell Maj. Gen. David B. Birney (commander of the 1st Division) to take command of the corps.
As Sickles was carried off the field on a stretcher, he made a point of smoking a cigar in a nonchalant manner so that his men would not be alarmed. a surgeon soon after amputated the leg, which the general donated to the Army Medical Museum.
Another dramatic event took place later in the evening in front of the Trostle barn. The Mississippi brigade of Brig. Gen. William Barksdale had been on a rampage, destroying one Union regiment after another as it raged up the Emmitsburg Road. Now, with the 21st Mississippi Infantry (which had separated from the rest of the brigade) heading towards the Trostle Farm from the Wheatfield Road, Capt. John Bigelow, commanding the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery, was ordered to make a stand at the Trostle farm. Bigelow deployed his guns in front of the wall that ran south from the Trostle farm lane (today’s United States Avenue), and when the rebels appeared from over the ridge to the southwest, Bigelow’s men blasted the foe with cannister. The Mississippians came on time and again, and, with numbers on their side, eventually forced the Bay State battery to retreat.
The slaughter was inconceivable. Bigelow’s battery had lost 27 men, and 80 horses were shot down. Bigelow himself was severely wounded, but thanks to the efforts of his bugler, Charles Reed, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions, he was saved from capture. Four guns were abandoned to the rebels, only two saved. (1)
This tree was first photographically identified by Greg Gober, using the 1896 image shown below in Figure P-1.
(1) Browne, Patrick. Historical Digression website. 9th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg. Retrieved May 27, 2023: https://historicaldigression.com/2013/06/23/9th-massachusetts-battery-at-gettysburg/.
The Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles Witness Tree
Tree Species: swamp white oak
Circumference 2023: 194”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 3+ years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 190+ years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 9+”
GPS: 39.801930N, 77.243140W
This famous white swamp oak is the largest witness tree on this site, sporting a massive 194-inch circumference and 61.8 diameter at breast height. Gauging an accurate measure of the diameter of the tree in the 1896 photograph taken by William Tipton (see Figure P-1) is tricky, though, thanks to the lack of any nearby landmarks by which to accurately match up the then-and-now photographs. Adding to the uncertainty is that the road (now United States Avenue), which ran straight in the late 19th centuries, was later rerouted to curve gently to the south in front of the barn.
However, if we use the Sherfy House in the far distance as an anchor, we may very conservatively estimate the tree’s diameter to have been a third of its present size in 1896. If this is accurate, then the tree has been growing at an average rate of 3 years to grow each inch of diameter. By extrapolation, its age would not even reach two centuries, and its diameter in 1863 would have been about 9 inches.
A 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine quotes an NPS spokesperson as estimating the tree to have been 75 years old at the time of the battle, which would make it about 230 years old today, not terribly far off of our very conservative estimate. (2) A contemporaneous portrait of the tree included in a sketch of Sickles’ headquarters (see Figure B), drawn by Charles Reed – the same man who saved Capt. Bigelow from capture – shows the tree to be at least a foot in diameter.
Despite the uncertainty in pinpointing the exact age of this tree, we can be confident that this arboreal behemoth was a mature tree in 1863, and a witness to the battle that swirled around it on that summer day of July 2, 1863.
The tree is named after 3rd Corps commander Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. Of the numerous eccentric characters preserved in Civil War lore, Sickles was one of the most colorful. A brief relation of the highlights of the flamboyant man’s life can barely do him justice.
Daniel Sickles was born in New York City in 1819. After attending NYU and studying law, the ambitious young man entered politics, rising to the level of senator to Congress, serving in this capacity 1857-1861. While residing in Washington, DC, Sickles famously assassinated Phillip Barton Key, his wife’s lover, and son of Francis Scott Key (composer of the Star-Spangled Banner) near or in Lafayette Park across from the White House. The cuckold was acquitted, however, thanks to the plea of his lawyer, Edwin M. Stanton, of temporary insanity, the first time in legal history this defense was successfully claimed.
When war broke out, Sickles immediately joined the army, and was appointed commander of the 70th New York Volunteer Infantry (part of the Excelsior Brigade, which he himself had helped recruit). Promotion came quickly enough, as he was appointed major general in November 1862. As detailed above, he lost his right leg at Gettysburg. Feuding with Meade over the disposition of the 3rd Corps at Gettysburg, Sickles never returned to field command.
Daniel Sickles went on to live a long and storied life, filling innumerable government posts, including a stint as ambassador to Spain. Sickles regularly attended reunions and annually visited his leg at the Army Medical Museum. His bust was originally planned to decorate the monument to the Excelsior Brigade near the Peach Orchard, but the decision was rescinded when it was determined that he had embezzled funds intended for the placement 0f the monument.
Sickles died an “octogenarian relic of a bygone age” in 1914 (actually aged 95), and, despite his frequent clashes with – everyone of importance – he was granted a final resting place at Arlington Cemetery. (3)
Good articles can be found on the internet detailing the wounding of Sickles on July 2 (here) and the tale of his leg at the Army Medical Museum (here).
(2) Yessis, Mike. These Five “Witness Trees” Were Present at Key Moments in America’s History. August 25, 2017. Smithsonian Magazine online. Retrieved May 27, 2023: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/these-five-witness-trees-were-present-at-key-moments-in-americas-history-180963925/.
(3) Details of Sickles’ life adapted from: Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Pp. 446-7. The quote is from Warner.