Big Round Top Trailhead Tree

What This Tree Witnessed

In the late afternoon of July 2, Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Confederate Division stepped off of Warfield Ridge to begin its attacks on the Union left flank. One of the regiments, the 4th Alabama Infantry, initially marched directly east from its position on the ridge, and entered the woods in the direction of Big Round Top. It is at or very near this tree that the 4th Alabama turned north into order to approach Little Round Top, where it would run directly into the waiting troops of the 20th Maine and 83rd Pennsylvania infantry regiments.

The tree is located at the South Confederate Avenue entrance of the trail to Big Round Top. Visitors driving down South Confederate Avenue will recognize the site by the stairs that lead to the trail on the right side of the road. There is a bicycle rack at this location, and portable restrooms will be present when South Confederate Avenue opens up again to traffic in the summer of 2024. The tree can be accessed most easily today by taking the short walking trail (which does not appear on any NPS maps) that leads to Big Round Top from Devil’s Den.

The original trail to Big Round Top began where the monuments to the 9th Massachusetts and 10th Pennsylvania Reserves now stand, a little further up South Confederate Avenue towards Little Round Top. The present, more direct, trail was built in 1939.

Capt. W.W. Leftwich (4th AL, CSA) Witness Tree

Tree Species: black oak
Circumference 2023: 102”
Diameter: 32.5”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 6.3 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 205+ years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 7”
GPS: 39.788540N, 77.220405W

Figure P-1: The Captain Leftwich Witness Tree stands easily visible in both then-and-now photographs, just a few feet behind the steps which lead to the modern trail to the summit of Big Round Top. The fork of the tree’s main stem near the top of the two images can be matched up with ease. As is common with many of our witness trees, the angle at which the tree leans has increased a bit as it has gotten heavier over the last century. The 1939 photo appears courtesy of the National Park Service, Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum Collection, GETT #41113.

The witness tree that stands near the stairs which constitute the beginning of the trail to the summit of Big Round Top is a black oak, one of two confirmed black oak witness trees on the battlefield. This large tree, with its present-day diameter of 32.5 inches, can be seen in a photograph of the newly built steps which appeared in one of the 1939 monthly reports prepared by the National Park Service (See Figure P-1). The ratio of the diameter of the tree 1939:2023 is 0.59, which suggests that its average growth rate for the past century has been about 6.3 years to grow each inch of diameter (interestingly, this growth rate matches exactly that of the black oak witness tree on the summit of Culp’s Hill). 

If we assume the tree has experienced a relatively constant rate of growth throughout its life, then we can predict that the tree is over 200 years old, which provides us with a sufficient margin of safety in concluding the tree to be a witness tree, in case the tree grew somewhat faster in its youth. Its diameter in 1863 may have been as great as 7 inches at the time of the battle.

This witness tree is named for Capt. William W. Leftwich, commander of Company F of the 4th Alabama Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg. The 4th Alabama had been raised in Huntsville, AL, and mustered into service on April 26, 1861, just two weeks after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Leftwich, an unmarried Huntsville druggist, was 21 when he enlisted in Company F of the 4th at the latter’s formation. The young man, who took part in all of the battles of the 4th Alabama throughout the first two years of the war, was elected 1st lieutenant on April 20, 1862, and promoted to captain of Company F a month later, after the previous company commander, G.B. Mastin, had been killed. (1) (2)

Captain Leftwich became the highest-ranking member of the 4th Alabama Infantry to be killed at Gettysburg. The captain’s body was presumably buried with the other Confederate dead of July 2 in an unmarked grave or trench, as nothing more is known of the fate of his remains.

(1) Except for the statement regarding Captain Mastin, all information in this paragraph was adapted from the Alabama Civil War Records Database. Retrieved May 24, 2023: Soldier ID = 117804.
(2) The information on Mastin’s death at Seven Pines and Leftwich’s subsequent promotion was found in the 1905 work, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy, by William C. Oates, colonel of the 15th Alabama Infantry.