Even though a Gettysburg Witness Tree towers behind the busy strip mall near the Sheetz store east of Gettysburg, few people take notice of the stoic sentinel.
This ancient White Oak tree is a living thing that stands as silent witness to the devastating scenes that occurred after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863.
One can only imagine what this old tree witnessed beneath its limbs in the weeks and months following the Battle, when thousands of men were brought to the then-empty field.
Camp Letterman, as it came to be known, treated more than 14,000 Union soldiers and 6,800 Confederate wounded.
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One of Many Gettysburg Witness Trees
What Is A Gettysburg Witness Tree?
A Gettysburg Witness Tree is one that was alive during the Battle of Gettysburg, and therefore “witnessed” the history that unfolded in the fields and farmland surrounding the small town.
Across 6,000 acres that comprise the Gettysburg National Military Park, rangers have documented at least a dozen trees. Unless you are looking for them, these trees are some of the historical sites in Gettysburg that no one ever sees.
Gettysburg Witness Tree Is A Living Link to the past
Although the giant oak pictured above is a Gettysburg Witness Tree, it wasn’t near the scene of direct fighting.
However, the location of this tree means it probably offered shade to wounded soldiers at Camp Letterman, a large Civil War hospital that treated the worst of the wounded from both sides.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union military leaders realized that the farms, private homes and churches were too overwhelmed to treat the large numbers of dying and wounded.
Many of the wounded were unable to even find shelter from the hot July sun, and were being treated in gardens and fields.
Tents were then erected for a new general hospital, and Camp Letterman was born.
A Lonely Gettysburg Witness Tree
Since it is not located directly on the battlefield, this oak is not usually found on the Gettysburg Witness Tree list. Rather, this silent sentinel is located behind a strip mall along Rt 30.
Unfortunately, much of the immense and historically significant Civil War camp is now paved with parking lots and a strip mall.
In fact a Giant grocery store now stands where the surgeon’s performed their operations.
Additionally, a Civil War house and barn that stood across Route 30, were torn down to build the Wal-Mart. Both were used as hospitals following the Battle of Gettysburg.
Related Story: Not far away is a Civil War barn that was used as a hospital and is now a brewery and distillery open to the public.
Camp Letterman Hospital: A Medical marvel
The Camp Letterman hospital is said to have encompassed about 80 acres and included a cook house, dining tents, operating tents, tent quarters for support staff and surgeons, the dead house, embalming tent and hospital graveyard.
Camp Letterman was the first general hospital placed on the battlefield, and thanks to Major Jonathan Letterman for whom it was named, it became a model of a clean, efficient and well-managed medical care facility.
Major Letterman is known today as the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.”
A surgeon by trade, Letterman is credited as being the originator of the modern methods for medical organization in armies or battlefield medical management.
While he may not have been a high-ranking official during the Civil War, Letterman changed the course of the War and of American medicine.
His innovation and retooling of the Union Army’s Medical Corps are highlighted at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and his headquarters are represented on the battlefield at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.
One of the biggest contributions Letterman made was organizing the ambulance service to remove men from the battlefield. In the first battle of the Civil War (Bull Run), wounded men laid in the hot sun for days before being treated.
Medical Innovations At Camp Letterman
Letterman not only created the first dedicated ambulance service, but used a triage system to separate the most seriously wounded.
The proof of the success of his system came after the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest single day of the Civil War, when 17,000 wounded soldiers lay scattered across miles. Using Letterman’s method, all wounded were removed the battlefield within 24 hours.
“I often wondered whether, had I been confronted with the primitive system which Letterman fell heir to at the beginning of the Civil War, I could have developed as good an organization as he did. I doubt it. There was not a day during World War II that I did not thank God for Jonathan Letterman.” — Major General Paul Hawley, Chief Surgeon of the European Theater in WWII
The soldiers treated at Camp Letterman were said to be some of the worst cases because they were too dire to be moved to a hospital farther away.
One nurse called them the “dregs of the battle.” Many of them were so seriously injured they had to be carried by stretcher rather than moved by horse-drawn ambulance.
Nurse Cornelia Hancock wrote on August 7 (2 weeks after Letterman opened):
“It is now about 9 o’clock and every tent has a light and a lot of groaning sick men…there are many sights to see here but the most melancholy one is to see the ambulances come in after dark with the wounded.”
Under The Limbs Of The Gettysburg Witness Tree
There are many accounts of the suffering that took place on these grounds. For instance, one soldier was wounded on July 1 and spent three weeks at a field hospital and two weeks at Camp Letterman before he died.
They list him as having a penetrating wound of the left lung and a gunshot wound to the abdomen that perforated his liver and gallbladder.
One member of a militia from Pennsylvania said the screams were so horrible that he could hear them from half a mile.
When the last man was finally removed and the hospital closed (November 20, 1863), one of the nurses noted:
“…[as] the hospital tents were removed—each bare and dust-trampled space marked where corpses had lain after death-agony was passed, and where the wounded had groaned in pain. Tears filled my eyes when I looked on that great field, so checkered with the ditches that had drained it dry. So many of them I had seen depart to the silent land… — Sophronia Buckland
This ancient living thing provides a vibrant touchstone to the past and makes me pause and think about the history that it witnessed.
The souls of the past linger in this place, despite the concrete and pavement.
Take a two-hour bus tour to get a good overview of the Gettysburg battlefield.
Find The Gettysburg Witness Tree
Gettysburg witness trees provide a living link to the past and stand as silent sentinels to the history that occurred around them.
You can see this tree without getting out of your car by pulling into Camp Letterman Drive (look right when pulling into the Sheetz store, east of Gettysburg). A Subway and Sherwin Williams Paint Store are currently located in front of the tree.
If you visit the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitors Center, you can see a tree limb from the Battle of Gettysburg riddled with bullets and artillery shells.
It is estimated that 7 million bullets and artillery shells were fired during the three-day battle.
Related Post: The most romantic things to do in Gettysburg.
Fast Facts About Gettysburg Witness Trees
How Many Witness Trees Are There In Gettysburg?
There is no official count or record of Gettysburg’s witness trees, however you can look for trees that have been marked by the National Park Service when you’re within the Gettysburg National Military Park. The tags turn green due to oxidation and are hard to see, but you can usually locate them a few feet above human reach.
Finding Witness Trees in Gettysburg
A number of Witness Trees in Gettysburg have been lost in the last couple of years, but there are two Sycamore trees on Baltimore Street. One is in front of Mr. G’s Ice Cream (across from the Farnsworth House), and the other is just a short distance away.
There is also a Honey Locust tree in the Gettysburg National Cemetery near the iron fence.
Finding Witness Trees On The Gettysburg Battlefield
To see a large number of Witness Trees on the Gettysburg battlefield, your best bet is to go to Confederate Avenue, west of Gettysburg.
About a half a mile from the Fairfield Road, there is a sign for McMillan Woods on the right. There are five Gettysburg witness trees grouped in a line on the left side of the road, across from McMillan Woods.
These trees would have “witnessed” the cannonade that pounded the Union line before Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863!
Continuing on West Confederate Avenue, the next Gettysburg witness tree is near the Arkansas State Monument, on the right.
Continuing to South Confederate Avenue by crossing the Emmitsburg Road, there is a witness tree on the left before the signs that describe the Farnsworth cavalry charge.