The Veteran

 

    We estimate its age at something over 225 years old. Meet the Sickles Oak – at least that is what some of us who work at the park refer to it as. It is a Swamp White Oak  – Quercus bicolor. To put its age in perspective, when this was a very young tree, delegates were arriving in Philadelphia to convene a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of writing a new constitution for the United States. That summer Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which limited the expansion of slavery. That fall the first of the Federalists Papers were published, and on December 12, Pennsylvania became the second state in the new United States.
    In the years before the Civil War the Swamp Oak probably provided shade on hot summer days to Catherine and Abraham Trostle, who lived in the nearby farm buildings, or one of their eleven children. The Trostles’ horses, cows, or sheep probably lazed beneath it as well. When the armies arrived in July 1863, it was at least 76 years old.
On July 2 Union 3rd Corps commander, Major General Daniel E. Sickles, established his headquarters at the Trostle farm, after he moved his corps forward to occupy the Peach Orchard and ridge along which the Emmitsburg Road ran. Sickles enjoyed the shade of this tree and it served as his command post for a time. We know that because during the afternoon the bugler of the 9th Massachusetts Battery, Charles Reed, sketched the general and his staff underneath it, while Reed’s battery waited to go into action. Reed wrote about this in a letter to his mother and sister on July 6.
    I must say I was surprised at myself at not experiencing more fear than I did as it was it seemed more like going to some game or a review but I assumed a more serious aspect after we had been at it a short time at the foot of the hill on which we took position were Major Gen Sickles headquarters under a tree. We halted here a few minutes give me time to take a sketch of him. One of his aides was already wounded by a piece of shell in the back and a surgeon was doing it up. [Reed to Mother and Sister, July 6, 1863, 9th Massachusetts Battery Vertical File, GNMP Library].

Reed’s sketch. Note the wounded aide at right. Library of Congress

Modern view looking west along United States Avenue with Sickles 3rd Corps headquarters marker in the foreground. NPS

 
 

    Later, Reed completed a sketch showing his battery going into action. Sickles can be seen to the right, beneath the Swamp Oak, the orderly carrying his corps headquarters flag nearby.

Library of Congress.

    Reed and his battery mates were in for an ordeal few of them could have imagined. They would be back near the Swamp Oak a couple hours later, fighting for their lives against the 21st Mississippi. Reed would later earn a Medal of Honor for his heroism that day. The captain of the 9th Massachusetts wrote later that his battery fired 92 rounds of canister at the 21st from its position just yards south of the Oak.  80 of the battery’s horses died in the hail of bullets that swept Trostle’s pasture that afternoon, and most of the 28 men of the 9th who became casualties that day were hit in this action. 

The remains of the 9th Massachusetts Battery, photographed on July 6, 1863. The Swamp Oak is off camera to the left of the barn. NPS.

    If only that Oak could speak, what a tragic story it could tell.  When you visit the battlefield be kind to this old veteran. Enjoy its shade, admire its rugged beauty, take its photograph, but leave it untouched for future generations to enjoy.  It has earned it.

Scott Hartwig

p.s. My thanks to Zach Bolitho, our chief of Resources Management, and Randy Krichten, our biological science technician, for their help in identifying the species of oak and

The “tree hugger” is Licensed Battlefield Guide and professional photographer Bill Dowling. Bill offers some idea of the Swamp Oak’s girth. NPS.

determining its approximate age. For those interested in reading more about Bugler Reed or the experience of the 9th Massachusetts Battery, I recommend Eric Campbell’s, “A Grand Terrible Dramma:” From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed,” published by Fordham University Press, and also by Eric Campbell, “Baptism of Fire: The Ninth Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863,” Gettysburg Magazine, July 1991, Issue no. 5.

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2 Responses to The Veteran

  1. Scott Stemler says:

    Scott,
    I really enjoyed this post. I was able to take some photos of this witness tree last week while visiting Gettysburg. Do you happen to know how old the witness tree is on top of Devil’s Den?

    I am learning a lot from this blog. Keep up the great work!!!
    Scott Stemler

    • Great post! I first saw the Swamp Oak back in 2005 and was amazed at (1) how large it was, and (2) that I had been coming to Gettysburg for 13 years and had never noticed it! Very impressive that period sketches identify it. I echo Scott Stemler’s post . . . I’d love to know about a witness tree above Devil’s Den! I didn’t know there was one.

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