It’s always sad to lose a very old and special tree, but there’s an extra measure of regret when the tree is a Civil War battle witness tree like the ancient oak that arborists had to cut down on Tuesday at Gettysburg National Military Park. The arboreal geezer was still clinging to life, but saving it was not an option.
When storm winds mangled a witness tree on Cemetery Ridge in August 2008, park managers and Civil War buffs knew there would be more bad news as the months and years rolled by. The few remaining trees that were alive at the time of the Civil War’s biggest battle have grown very old, even by the standards of Pennsylvania’s hardy deciduous trees. It won’t be all that many years before the last one is gone.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of a big white oak growing next to a house on West Confederate Avenue. This address will register more significantly with the Civil War-knowledgeable crowd as a tree growing on Seminary Ridge. This is where Robert E. Lee assembled his troops on July 3, 1863, for the climatic action of the Battle of Gettysburg, the futile assault on the Union center across the way on Cemetery Ridge. “Pickett’s Charge” is one of the most memorable military actions in the annals of American military history, and Seminary Ridge is arguably the best known line of departure for any assault that American soldiers have ever made.
The big white oak standing next to the house on West Confederate Avenue was there on that hot July afternoon in July 146 years ago when Lee ordered the assault on the strongly defended Union line. It was there when the Confederate charge crested and collapsed in an orgy of bloodletting. It was there, not far away at all, when Lee gathered what was left of his defeated Army of Northern Virginia and limped to safety on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock.
But it isn’t there anymore. Professional arborists hired by the Park Service cut it down on Tuesday because it was so old and decrepit that it posed a safety hazard to the adjacent house and its occupants. The old tree’s root system had served it for at least a century-and-a-half, but now it was failing and could no longer provide water and quality nutrients in the amounts needed. This witness tree was growing weaker by the day, and it would only be a matter of time before it succumbed to wind and gravity. Taking it down was the only viable option.
There is a bright side to this story: The wood has been salvaged and donated to the Gettysburg Foundation, which will make souvenirs to sell for the benefit of the park. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.