BRT Old Trailhead Tree

What This Tree Witnessed

Late afternoon, July 2, 1863: five Confederate regiments, comprised of men from Texas and Alabama, were about to attack Little Round Top. Having first approached the base of Big Round Top, the 4th Alabama turned north, and passed over this ground in its approach to the position of the 83rd Pennsylvania and 20th Maine on the junior hill. The 47th Alabama would pass shortly thereafter just a few score yards to the east of this position.

After being repulsed in the attempt to take Little Round Top, retreating Alabama troops would have passed over this sector again, but this time they were heading back to the safety of the Army of Northern Virginia’s lines.

Lt. Col. Michael J. Bulger (47th AL, CSA) Witness Tree

Figure P-1: the butternut oak witness tree stands 15 feet east of the giant half-boulder which marks the beginning of the old and original trail to the summit of Big Round Top. The small slanting rock in front of the tree can be seen in each of the two photographs here. A now deceased 2nd witness tree, which appears immediately in front of and on the right edge of the boulder also can be discerned. The early William Tipton photograph appears here courtesy of the Boardman Photographic Collection.

Tree Species: butternut hickory
Circumference 2023: 71”
Diameter: 22.6”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 9.6-11.6 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 220-260 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 6-8.7”
GPS: 39.788375N, 77.237591W

Growing just a few feet to the east of the immense and distinct half-boulder that sits at the original trailhead to the summit of Big Round Top, a butternut hickory tree – the only confirmed witness tree of this species on the battlefield – has been growing for well over two centuries. A very conservative estimate of the ratio of the tree’s diameter 1899:2023 is about 0.39, which, suggests the tree has been growing very slowly for the past 125 years, taking an average of at least 9.6 years to add each inch of diameter. The diameter of the tree in 1863 was very likely over half a foot.

By war’s end, the 47th Alabama’s Michael J. Bulger was a full Confederate colonel. Despite his terrible injury at Gettysburg, Bulger lived to see the turn of the 20th century, dying in 1900 at the age of 94.

The tree is named for Lt. Col. Michael J. Bulger, commander of the 47th Alabama Infantry. Bulger, born in South Carolina in 1807, was an old soldier by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861. As a young man, Bulger had moved to Alabama, and worked as a gin manufacturer and a farmer, before entering politics, being elected as a state legislator from Tallapoosa County in 1851. (1) Bulger, now aged 55, enlisted in the army in March 1862, and won another election, being selected captain of Company A of the newly-formed 47th Alabama Infantry. (2) (3)

Figure P-2: In 1899, brand new stairs, shown in the photograph here by William Tipton, were built at the entrance to the old path to the summit of Big Round Top. The ruins of the stairs by the rock can be easily seen today. The scanty remains of the steps closer to the camera can be found with careful examination of the ground next to the 3rd Brigade tablet. South Confederate Avenue originally rose from the intersection with Sykes Avenue right by here, passing between the monuments to the 10 PA Reserves and 9th MA.

Bulger was wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. During the assault on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, Bulger, whom Col. William Oates of the 15th Alabama later called “a most gallant old gentleman over sixty years of age”, was shot through a lung. (4) It is best to let Col. Oates’ words tell what happened next:

“When the Fifteenth was driven back, Colonel Bulger
was left sitting by a tree, sword in hand, shot through one lung
and bleeding profusely. A captain in the Forty-fourth New
York approached and demanded his sword. The old Colonel
said, “What is your rank?” The reply was, “I am a captain.” Bul-
ger said, “Well, I am a lieutenant-colonel, and I will not surren-
der my sword except to an officer of equal rank.” The captain
then said, “Surrender your sword, or I will kill you.” Colonel
Bulger promptly replied, “You may kill and be d — d! I shall
never surrender my sword to an officer of lower rank.” The cap-
tain was so amused at the old Colonel’s high notions of military
etiquette that he went for his colonel, Rice, to whom the sword
was gracefully surrendered. Rice’s statement of the circum-
stances caused Colonel Bulger to be better cared for than he
would otherwise have been, which probably saved his life.” (5)

Made prisoner, but later exchanged, Bulger was promoted to colonel in March 1864. However, he never returned to active duty. (6) Bulger died in 1900, and was buried in Dadeville, AL.

In his 1872 work on Alabama’s history, Willis Brewer described Col. Brewer as “of ordinary stature, but muscular frame. He is a plain man, of much practical knowledge, and lofty integrity. On the battle-field he was without fear. He married Miss Bozeman of Elmore, and his son, Hon. Wm. D. Bulger, was an efficient officer of the 47th Alabama.” (7)

(1) Brewer, Willis. Alabama: Her History, Resources, War Record, and Public Men, 1872. P. 548.
(2) Alabama Civil War Records Database; retrieved May 25, 2023: Solider ID # = 24305.
(3) Brewer, p. 660.
(4) Oates, William C. The War Between the Union and the Confederacy, 1905. P. 217.
(5) Ibid., p. 217. Oates adds in a footnote that the 20th Maine’s Col. Chamberlain, never one shy to take credit, later claimed that it was to him that Bulger surrendered his sword. Oates also asserted in his memoir that had Bulger not fallen, which led to the 47th’s retreat, the 15th would have captured Little Round Top “in ten minutes”; see p. 246.
(6) Civil War in the East website. Retrieved May 25, 2023: 47th Alabama Infantry page.
(7) Brewer, p. 548.