Tree #11

Westside White Oak

View of the J. Johnston Pettigrew tree from West Confederate Avenue, facing west.

This witness tree stands a few yards to the west of West Confederate Avenue, directly opposite from Witness Trees #09 and #10. It appears on the far right of the 1903 (or earlier) photograph which was published as a postcard by the German company, Rotograph (see Figure P-2).

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Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew (CSA) Witness Tree

Figure P-2.

Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 104.5”
Diameter: 33.3”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 7.3 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 220-240 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 10-11”
GPS: 39.820335 N, 77.246681 W

The white oak witness tree is of a good size, with a diameter of over 33 inches. The ratio of its diameter 1903:2023 is conservatively estimated to be about 0.5, which corresponds with a growth rate of over 7 years to grow each inch of diameter since the turn of the 20th century. The tree is well over two centuries old, and its diameter during the Battle of Gettysburg was likely almost a foot.

Figure A: the Pettigrew Witness Tree is easily identifiable by the large but benign tumor-life feature called a burl growing on its west side.

The tree is named for the Army of Northern Virginia’s Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, who led the left wing – 12,000 Confederates – in the assault on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. The attack is referred to casually as Pickett’s Charge, but General Pickett only commanded one half of the troops who participated in the assault. Pickett’s men were all Virginians, but Pettigrew’s wing included men from North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, as well as one regiment of Virginians. For this reason, Pickett’s Charge – which was sometimes referred to as Longstreet’s Charge in the years immediately after the battle – should properly be referred to as Pettigrew-Pickett’s Charge.

The intelligent, indeed brilliant, Pettigrew was born in Tyrell County, NC, on the 4th of July in 1828. Upon his graduation from the University of North Carolina in 1847, and not yet 18 years old, Pettigrew’s reputation was so great that President James Polk immediately appointed him an assistant professorship at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. After two years, Pettigrew removed to Charleston, SC, where he practiced law, served in the South Carolina state legislature, and, in the spring of 1861, as a colonel of militia, participated in the blockade and bombardment of Fort Sumter. He quickly signed up with the Confederate army, and, after serving briefly in the cavalry, was elected colonel of the 12th South Carolina Infantry. (1)

Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew (1828-1863).

Promoted to brigadier general in February 1862, Pettigrew was severely wounded on May 31 of the same year at the Battle of Seven Pines, when first a “ball entered the lower part of his throat, struck the windpipe, passed under the collarbone, and tore the bones of the shoulder.” His artery cut, Pettigrew was further shot in the left arm and bayonetted in the right leg. The gravely injured general miraculously survived, but was captured and imprisoned in Baltimore and Delaware, before being exchanged in early August 1862. (2)

On July 1, 1863, on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth was wounded in Herbst Woods, and Pettigrew was raised to command of the former’s division. It was Heth’s Division that Pettigrew led on July 3.

Another interesting feature of the Pettigrew Witness Tree is the small knot which, when viewed from the east, appears to take the form of a dog’s head.

During Pickett’s Charge, Pettigrew, leading his men while mounted, and stubbornly approaching the enemy directly, was everything the cowardly George Pickett was not. When his horse was killed under him, Pettigrew continued to lead his men on foot; and as some of his boys were attempting to pierce the stone wall north of the Angle, his right hand was grievously injured by grapeshot, but he remained on the field, his hand arm held by a splint. Somehow, Pettigrew, who Jack Welsh wrote “was one of the last to leave the field”, once again managed to evade death on this day. (3)

But General Pettigrew’s luck finally ran out during the retreat of Lee’s army to Virginia. Shot in the abdomen during the Battle of Falling Waters (July 14), Pettigrew refused to be left behind to be tended by Union doctors, but, after being transported further south to Bunker Hill, VA, he died 3 days later. He was buried at the family cemetery in Tyrell County, NC. (4)

The death of General J. Johnston Pettigrew was a great loss not just to the Army of Northern Virginia, but to southern, even national, culture as well. Pettigrew spoke Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek fluently, and had even written a book, Notes on Spain and the Spaniards in the Summer of 1859, which had been published in 1861. (5)

A detailed biography of General Pettigrew can be found here on the website

(1) Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Grey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. Pp. 237-8.
(2) Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1995. Pp. 170-1.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Pickett’s Charge. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. P. 98.