Witness Tree #7
Behind and to the right of the tablet for the Pee Dee Artillery on West Confederate Avenue stands a massive white oak witness tree. This tree appears in the 1903 (or earlier) photograph used by the Rotograph Company for one of its Gettysburg-themed postcards (see Figure P-2 below).
<– Return to Tree #5 and #6 Go to Tree #8 –>
Col. Birkett D. Fry (CSA) Witness Tree
Tree Species: white oak
Circumference 2023: 123.5”
Calculated Average Growth Rate: 5.6 years / inch diameter
Estimated age: 220 years
Estimated diameter in 1863: 11”
GPS: 39.820426 N, 77.246181 W
This is a classic white oak witness tree, with a monstrous circumference of 123.5 inches and a diameter of well over a yard. The ratio of its diameter 1903:2023 is approximately 0.45, which leads us to calculate its growth rate for the last century and a quarter to be a steady 5.6 years to add each inch of diameter. This suggests the tree is about 220 years old, and had a diameter of just under a foot at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg.
When analyzing Pickett’s Charge, much energy is spent discussing the performances of Armistead, Kemper, and Garnett, the Virginia brigade commanders. These brave leaders certainly deserve all the praise they generally garner for their performances on July 3, 1863. However, the left wing of the Confederate line could brag of its many capable commanders from states other than Virginia. It is for one of these commanders, Col. Birkett D. Fry, who led a brigade of men from Alabama and Tennessee in the attack on Cemetery Ridge, that Witness Tree #7 is named. Few soldiers on the field at Gettysburg had had a more colorful pre-war career than did Colonel (later raised to brigadier) Fry.
A native of Kanawha County in what was then Virginia (but is now West Virginia), Fry, born in 1822, was a graduate of VMI. He subsequently attended West Point, but chose not to graduate, preferring to study law. Fry volunteered for and served in the Mexican War, after which he removed to California Territory, where he remained until 1859, after which he returned to the south, specifically to Alabama. (1)
While in California, Fry had practiced law in San Francisco, but left his position – and his wife of two years – to join mercenary William Walker in the latter’s filibuster of Nicaragua. Having appointed Fry as his top lieutenant, Walker led a small army which overthrew the government of the small Central American country in 1855, and ruled it for a year before being deposed himself. (2)
When Civil War broke out, Fry was appointed colonel of the 13th Alabama Infantry. Fry, by now a “tough as nails” soldier (3), was wounded multiple times in the first two years of the war: his right arm was shattered at Antietam, but refused to permit its amputation, despite the surgeon’s warning that he had a less than 1% chance of surviving without the limb’s removal. Fry kept his arm and his life. (4)
At Gettysburg, he took over his regiment’s brigade after Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew was elevated to division command on the wounding of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth. On July 3, the “hard-hitting” Fry led his brigade over the Emmitsburg Road, but reached the end of his own line when a bullet hit him in the thigh. (5) Fry was captured, and spent time at the hospital at Fort McHenry and the prison on Johnson’s Island, before being exchanged in March 1864. (6) Fry was promoted to brigadier in May of the same year.
After the war, emigrated to Cuba before returning to the south, where he flourished in various business ventures until his death in 1891 in Richmond. The magnificent soldier was buried in Montgomery, AL.