WT #5 – George Pickett Witness Tree

The Battlefield’s Smallest Confirmed Witness Tree

Figure P-1. Witness Tree #5 may be a little difficult to pick out due to the large white oak tree – no longer extant – standing behind it in the 1909 image.

The reader will likely be incredulous to learn that we are granting this innocuously tiny tree Witness Tree status. After all, even a pignut hickory, with its infamously slow growth rate, could not be over 160 years old if its diameter is only 44.5 inches – or can it?

To determine whether this tree is a witness tree, we must first answer the threshold question: is the tree identified as Witness Tree #5 in the 1909 photograph shown in Figure P-1 the same tree as is standing at present in the same spot?

Luckily, we have a photograph of the tree taken in the middle of the 20th century which confirms this tree’s identity (see Figure P-1a).

The next step is to compare as carefully as possible the relative size, or ratio, of the diameter of the tree 1909:2023. My estimate is the ratio to be 0.4. If this reckoning is correct, then this means that the diameter of the tree in 1909 was about 5.6 inches; this would suggest that the tree has been growing at a rate of about 14.4 years to grow each inch of diameter since the turn of the 20th century – not an atypical number for a pignut hickory. If the tree has been growing at this rate since it first sprouted, the tree would be about 200 years old, and we can estimate the diameter of this tree to have been about 3 inches – making it a sapling – in 1863.

The math tells me this is very likely a witness tree. We present the evidence here so that you may decide for yourself if you agree!

Witness Tree #5

Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett Witness Tree

Tree Species: pignut hickory
Circumference 2023: 44.5”
Diameter: 14.2”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 14.4 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 190-200 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 3”
GPS: 39.818065N, 77.247974W

Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s Division (Longstreet’s Corp) was the last one to arrive at Gettysburg, and so it was chosen on the morning of July 3, 1863, to spearhead the attack on the center of Cemetery Ridge. Here was a chance for General Pickett to lead his men in what would certainly be one of the most dramatic moments of the entire Civil War.

Figure P-1a: The witness tree featured on this page is so small, that you would not be censured for asking whether it is the same tree that appears in the old Tipton photo. Happily, there exists a remarkable mid-20th century postcard that captures the same tree as it looked halfway in time between Tipton’s photograph and the modern one. Thus, we may with absolute certainty declare, “Yes, it is the same tree!”

Unfortunately, Pickett was not up to the task on this hot summer day.

Born in 1825, the now 38-year-old Pickett had been a hero in the Mexican War, and served with great valor in the first two years of the War Between the States. (1) But that was then. The fact is, writes Phillip Thomas Tucker in Pickett’s Charge, at Gettysburg, Pickett was no longer his old self: the general was suspect, thanks to “his negligence of duties, poor performances, drinking, bouts of temper, and most recently having placed his obsessive love interest before responsibilities.” (2) But here was a chance for Pickett to redeem himself.

Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett (1825-1875).

The artillery barrage which preceded the planned attack dragged on for 1-2 hours, Pickett eagerly waiting for the order to release his men from Seminary Ridge. He finally rode to find his friend and commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and asked directly, “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet, distraught at what he expected to be a futile loss of southern lives, simply nodded his assent. (3)

Pickett sent off his his men with an inspiring speech – “Remember today that you are from Old Virginia!” (4) But this was the apex of Pickett’s performance on this day. Let us not dwell on what General Pickett did for the next hour. He had hidden behind an oak tree during the artillery barrage. He would spend all of the battle that was to bear his name also in safety, hiding behind the Codori Barn on the Emmitsburg Road. He may have also been tending a “whiskey wagon” behind the lines. Regardless of where he was, Pickett was conspicuously absent from the front, having “elected not to accompany his troops” at their great moment of crisis. (5)

His division shattered, Pickett was relieved of command from the Army of Northern Virginia, and sent to North Carolina for ten months of desultory duty. He was recalled to Lee’s army in 1864 to division command, but, in the words of the Encyclopedia Virginia, “nothing was ever the same.” (6) The last tragic chapter of Pickett’s war career occurred on April 1, 1865, when, during the army’s retreat from Richmond and Petersburg, Pickett left his poorly positioned troops to attend a festive, and now notorious, “shad bake.” His division routed in the day’s battle, Pickett was relieved of command, just a week before the army’s surrender. (7)

Pickett lived out the rest of his life quietly, pursuing farming and selling insurance, suffering declining health, and finally dying, too young, at aged 50, in 1875. Ironically, his widow, LaSalle Corbell – who was 18 years younger than the general – lived to restore her husband’s reputation, through a lot of hard work (speaking and writing) and not a little fabrication. LaSalle lived almost half a century after Pickett’s death, which gave her sufficient time to convert her husband into a hero of the Lost Cause. She died in 1931. (8)

Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s remains rest in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Because women were not permitted to buried in Hollywood Cemetery, LaSalle was originally buried in the Abbey Mausoleum of Arlington National Cemetery, before her remains were brought to Virginia’s capital to be re-interred next to her husband in 1998. (9)

(1) Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Grey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. P. 239.
(2) Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Pickett’s Charge. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. P. 90.
(3) Ibid, p. 112.
(4) Ibid, p. 131.
(5) Ibid, p 252.
(6) Gordon, Lesley J. George E. Pickett (1825-1875). Encyclopedia Virginia website. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Findagrave website. LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett. Retrieved July 7, 2023.