Dedicated park rangers help preserve trees that weathered the war’s most brutal battles—and all the decades since.
Forget Bloody Lane and the Dunker Church. On a sunny morning in March, I am skipping the typical driving tour at Antietam National Battlefield in favor of a walk in the woods.
Specifically, I’m following two park rangers into the West Woods, site of Union General John Sedgwick’s ill-fated attack against concealed Confederates in the early stages of the battle. As the trail leads away from the parking lot near the Philadelphia Brigade monument, the vegetation grows dense and the leaf litter thickens at our feet.
Suddenly, I see them: three magnificent trees, lined up like soldiers—for lack of a better analogy—with sizable trunks and branches stretching to the sky.
“These are white oaks,” explains Joe Calzarette, the park’s natural resources manager, who is serving as my tour guide along with ranger Mannie Gentile. “And they’re over 150 years old.”
What this means, of course, is that these trees were standing here in September 1862, bearing witness to the brutality that was unfolding around them.
Although one of the three has died (but for now is still standing), the two others are alive and well, Calzarette says, along with several other so-called “witness trees” at the park—including a black gum along the road just north of the visitor center and others hidden in the woods.
The most famous of these, of course, is the sycamore that stands at one end of the Burnside Bridge, which can be clearly seen in a famous Alexander Gardner photograph taken shortly after the battle. Still other witness trees may yet be found, Calzarette says.
Identifying and protecting witness trees is a little-known but important part of resource management at Civil War battlefields. Although most are not identified in park brochures or roadside markers, witness trees are beloved fixtures to park officials and the public alike. Yet there is no universal database of Civil War witness trees, and no central guidance on how they should be treated and preserved.
Some battlefields and historic sites, like Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Antietam, manage several known witness trees and often forge partnerships with such organizations as the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, the International Society of Arboriculture or the Famous & Historic Trees program run by American Forests, which propagates famous trees. Some individual trees, like the Antietam sycamore or the Emancipation Oak in Hampton, Va., (under whose branches former slaves listened to a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation), have become famous in their own right.
Many other witness trees are believed to exist, but parks generally lack sufficient resources to do the core sampling and testing necessary to positively identify them. And because each tree is different, and each battlefield environment is different, caring for these silent sentinels can pose interesting challenges.
At Gettysburg National Military Park, for example, a gusty storm in August 2008 damaged about three-quarters of a honey locust that stands adjacent to the national cemetery, just 150 feet from the site of Lincoln’s famous address. The locust is one of about a dozen witness trees the park actively monitors, but many others are believed to be growing in remote parts of the 6,000-acre battlefield. Known witness trees at Gettysburg include a massive oak in Devil’s Den; a black walnut near the field of Pickett’s Charge; three trees at Culp’s Hill and a swamp white oak at the Trostle Farm.
Last August, however, the honey locust came close to becoming a battlefield casualty, with a widely distributed Associated Press article erroneously reporting that the tree had fallen. But despite the fact that its crown was nearly shorn off, much of the trunk and several large branches survived.
Today, park arborists have carefully pruned the tree and are hopeful about its long-term prospects.
“Honey locusts are pretty resilient,” says Randy Krichten, a biological science technician who has worked at Gettysburg for 25 years. “I think we’ll get some re-sprouting. With the size the tree is now, and the size of the crown, probably my greatest concern is whether what’s left of the crown can support the root system and the rest of the tree for photosynthesis. Overall, though, I think it may do well.”
Krichten is working to have the tree propagated, so that when it does die, a “descendent” sapling can be replanted in its place.
Propagation is also part of the long-term plan for the Antietam sycamore, thought to be about 160 years old. In addition to trimming and stabilization work, Calzarette says he has sent out gallons of sycamore seeds to various nurseries in the hope that viable saplings can be replanted in the park and be available in case the sycamore ever succumbs. Another consideration is the fact that the sycamore abuts the Burnside Bridge, one of the battlefield’s most recognizable and historic resources. Once, in a previous storm, a branch fell and ripped a massive hole in the bridge. So protecting the structure and visitors while preserving the tree is a tricky balancing act for Calzarette and his colleagues.
“The above-ground portion of the tree is in pretty good shape,” Calzarette says. “The only thing with the tree is that it’s abutted up against the bridge. The roots are a little bit girdled and that stunts the growth of the tree over time. But this tree could live another 100 years.”
Park officials are now considering extending a stone wall along the creek so visitors can view the tree without stepping too close to it and further eroding the soil along the stream bank.
Despite the best care, it is inevitable that witness trees will eventually decline. Shiloh National Military Park, for example, has lost all its known witness trees, with the last removed eight years ago when it had become so deteriorated it was no longer viable. Although at least one Internet report states that witness trees can still be found at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, park rangers there say they know of no such trees still standing. Recent years have also seen the death of a sycamore that stood near Grant’s headquarters at Petersburg, Va., as well as a catalpa on the grounds of the Ellwood Manor at Fredericksburg and a locust at Appomattox.
We’ll never know for sure, but President Lincoln may have gazed on the Gettysburg honey locust as he gave his address, describing the war as a great test of the nation’s endurance. Looking today at the locust and others like it, we can marvel at a different kind of endurance—the ability of a magnificent tree to survive not only the fury of war but the poignant and inevitable passage of time, to provide a living link to the past.
Kim A. O’Connell is a contributing writer for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.