On the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, historians call them “Witness Trees,” the dwindling number of trees that were present when the titanic 1863 battle took place there.
Last week, park officials found a new one — although fallen — with two bullets still embedded in its trunk 148 years later.
“The real witnesses to the battle . . . are still here,” John Heiser, Gettysburg National Military Park historian, said Tuesday, “even though they can’t talk to us. . . . They’re the last living witnesses to this singular event.”
Maintenance employees found the bullets in an old oak tree that had toppled on Culp’s Hill, southeast of town, the site of bitter fighting between Union and Confederate forces on July 2 and 3, 1863.
The discovery was made Aug. 4 as employees cut into the fallen oak tree, and their chain saw struck the bullets. The park said the tree fell about three or four years ago. The bullets were about 13 feet up from the roots, and the part of the tree where the projectiles were found was about 27 inches in diameter.
The park said in a statement that the tree was resting on a boulder beside a small stone marker noting the death of Union Maj. Joshua G. Palmer, of the 66th Ohio regiment. Palmer, who reportedly had been a dentist in private life, was mortally wounded July 3.
“One hundred years ago it was commonplace to find bullets in Gettysburg trees,” said Bob Kirby, park superintendent. “But this is a rarity today.”
Many such trees have died or been cut down over the years, officials said.
Heiser said that the fighting in Culp’s Hill was so savage, involving 12,000 men, that for years after the battle visitors would go there to see the shot-up and shattered trees in the forest.
Indeed, at least one historic photo of Culp’s Hill after the battle shows trees heavily pocked from gunfire.
“Each [soldier] had around 60 rounds of ammunition, and everybody expended all of it,” Heiser said. “That’s a lot of lead flying . . . and the trees were the unhappy recipients of most of it.”
Hundreds of men were killed in the fighting on Culp’s Hill and thousands more wounded, according to historical accounts.
Two sections of the tree trunk with the bullets have been moved to the park’s museum collections storage facility, the park said.
The rest of the tree, which in 1863 may have already been 100 years old, was left in place.
The United States is currently commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War years. The three-day battle of Gettysburg was a victory for the Union, the turning point of the war and the place where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address five months later.