A surprising find at Gettysburg

Gregg Clemmer
DC Civil War Heritage Examiner
August 9, 2011

We can still learn much from visiting battlefields. You see, there is indeed something that remains … something that endures in the land. Consider “witness trees,” those still-living, silent spectators–and in some cases, survivors–of the carnage of Blue and Gray a century and a half ago.

Last Thursday, 4 August, a Gettysburg National Military Park maintenance crew, on a routine clearing of a fallen oak tree on Culp’s Hill, chain-sawed into minie balls imbedded in the trunk.

Visitors hardly notice such aged sentinels of the past unless park rangers or battlefield guides point them out. Yet the next time you seek some ice cream relief in Gettysburg, pause to view the two huge sycamore trees on the east side of Baltimore Street just north of its intersection with Steinwehr Avenue. They were there … then. And perhaps like their once thriving compatriot tree on Culp’s Hill, they still survive the wounds of that long ago, but never forgotten war.

"Culp’s Hill is one of the areas on the Gettysburg Battlefield that saw intense fighting," noted park Superintendent Bob Kirby. Finding such bullets in this day and age, he said, "is a rarity." Sections of the tree have been removed for preservation in the park’s museum collection. The rest of the fallen tree will stay on the battlefield slope where it fell, against a boulder next to the Joshua Palmer marker, just east of Culp’s Hill highest point.

As it turns out, this marker is to the memory of Maj. Joshua G. Palmer, 66th Ohio, who fell mortally wounded on July 3, 1863. Confronting a determined, surging line of Confederates, the 66th’s intrepid Lt. Col. Eugene Powell led his men across the Union works and formed them perpendicularly to the rest of his brigade so as to enfilade the southern attackers. Reported Powell,

we poured a murderous fire on the enemy’s flank. After a short time, I found that the enemy had posted sharpshooters at the foot of the hill, behind a fence, who were annoying us very much, I ordered my regiment to take up a sheltered position behind trees and stones, and direct their fire on the sharpshooters, whom we soon dislodged.

And who were Powell’s opponents that day? And who “probably” fired those lead bullets that lodged in that oak tree 148 years ago? Virginia men … from the 27th, 33rd, 5th, and 4th regiments … members of arguably the most famous Confederate command, the Stonewall Brigade, now led by Brig. Gen. James Walker of Maj. Gen. Ed “Old Alleghany” Johnson’s division of Ewell’s Second Corps.

You see, the battlefield still speaks.

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