There are numerous witness trees that dot the Gettysburg battlefield and numerous stories have been told with the trees playing an important role. One of these, while only a stump of a white oak tree today, is going to be lost to history very soon as it is decaying. Fighting swirled around the tree but it was the general who was wounded near it that the tree is known for.
Henry Heth grew up in a military family. His grandfather was a colonel during the Revolution and his father was a captain in the US Navy. It should be no surprise that Heth pursued a military career attending West Point and graduating in 1847, a year after his cousin George Pickett. Both share the feat of graduating dead last in their respective classes. He served in the antebellum army in the infantry on the frontier becoming friends with other future Civil War leaders like William T. Sherman, Winfield S. Hancock and Ulysses S. Grant. While there he authored the first marksmanship manual for the army which put his name on the map. When the Civil War broke out he resigned and became the quartermaster for Robert E. Lee in the Provisional Army of Virginia. Because of this early experience Lee would always have an interest in Heth’s career and unlike other officers under his command he would call Heth by his first name or Harry.
Heth was promoted to brigadier general and served in western Virginia and his successes there led to a posting in Tennessee where he took part in a campaign designed to capture Cincinnati in the fall of 1862 which failed. Back east Lee, needing a competent officer, had Heth transferred east and given command of a brigade under Stonewall Jackson. Following Jackson’s death after the Battle of Chancellorsville and the reorganization of Lee’s army Heth was promoted to major general and given command of a division. His star was on the rise.
Heth is most famous for his actions during the Gettysburg Campaign. Lacking cavalry to properly scout Heth was charged with leading a reconnaissance toward Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863. Legend has it that he wanted to go into town to get shoes for his men but that is not true as Confederate soldiers had been through the town several days before and had cleaned it out. Heth knew it and would therefore have no reason to suspect that much of anything, much less sorely needed shoes, remained. What intelligence was available suggested that the only organized defense of the town would be some home guardsmen and at most an advanced patrol from the Union army that some of his men had encountered the day before. He was certainly not expecting a large organized force and he was under orders not to bring on a battle.
What he found on the morning of July 1 was not what was expected. About 2,500 dismounted cavalrymen under John Buford were blocking the Chambersburg Pike to the west of town and the Carlisle Road to the north. Heth’s advance came under fire at about 7:30 in the morning and his men deployed into line. He gradually pushed Buford’s troopers back to near the McPherson Farm and was just about to break through when Union infantry arrived and pushed Heth’s men back one mile to Herr Ridge. Heth had gotten into more than he gambled for and disengaged but rather than retreating he brought up his artillery. Reinforcements from both sides began arriving on the field and the battle soon continued.
After stiff resistance during the day the Union forces began to fall back. Some of Heth’s men took place in the final assault of the day and Heth advanced with them. Near a large oak tree he was sitting on his horse when a bullet hit him in the head. He toppled over and lay motionless and those around him thought he was dead, after all head wounds were almost always fatal. Instead he was only stunned but he had avoided death by providence. A bullet had penetrated his hat, which he had recently purchased in nearby Cashtown. Fortunately for Heth the hat was too big for him and a resourceful staff officer stuffed some newspaper in it so it would fit better and that newspaper stopped the bullet from killing him. Heth only suffered a concussion but nevertheless he was out of action for the remainder of the battle. Heth claimed that the shot had come from the McPherson Barn which was under assault at the time but there is no way to know for sure.
Despite being under orders not to bring on a fight Heth was never disciplined and remained in a senior command through the remainder of the war surrendering with Lee at Appomattox. Following the war he worked in the insurance business and as a government surveyor and died in 1899 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
The white oak tree that Heth was wounded near became known as the Heth Wounding Tree. Like other witness trees on the battlefield it was tagged and a lightning cable was attached to it. Over time the cable became ungrounded and in 1998 the tree was hit by lightning and severely damaged. The National Park Service made the difficult decision to cut the tree down. All that remains today is the stump of the tree, accessible by parking at the monument to the 7th Wisconsin and walking back the forest side of the fence about 30 yards. But even the stump may be no more as it is decaying and is barely recognizable. History is disappearing.