Silent Witnesses


By Karen Hendricks | Photography by Melissa Ring

Like sentries, the trees that comprised Gettysburg’s woods in 1863 stood watch as the Battle of Gettysburg raged around them. Men dressed in blue and gray touched, hid, sheltered, strategized, clashed and fell under their boughs. 

As the tales of generals were told and retold, hundreds of trees silently soldiered on. They were given a name—witness trees—because they indeed witnessed the consequential battle. Like the men who fought in their midst, some have perished over the years, while survivors’ branches grew toward the sky as their roots remained firmed planted in what had become hallowed ground. 

Today, many are giants, rising to the ranks of mighty oaks. So grew the legends of military leaders as the trees’ significance and stories went largely undocumented—until now. 

Today, 161 years after the battle, they have an ally, a documentarian and storyteller in Peter Lukacs. 

Meet the man on a mission to identify and help preserve these living witnesses to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Putting Down Roots

Peter and his wife Elizabeth moved to Gettysburg in 2020, motivated like most people who moved during the pandemic to seek their dream relocation. 

“We wanted a small town, and I love Civil War history,” says Peter, 59. “My wife and I visited here in the 2000s, and moving here had been in the back of our minds ever since.”

They escaped New York’s Hudson Valley, but Peter kept his job as an online tutor, helping high school students practice their ACT and SAT college entrance exams. It was his third career over the span of 20 years, following stints as an engineer, then a law school graduate-turned-headhunter for a New York City law firm.

Over the years, he developed a passion for what he calls “legacy projects.” For example, he spent 10 years researching and annotating 35 of Shakespeare’s plays. He shared his work online at, “making Elizabethan plays understandable and fun to read.”

Then, his appreciation for Civil War history began. 

“I’ve always liked history—I was one of those kids who read biographies of presidents,” Peter says with a laugh. “Interestingly, I read a lot about American history, but the Civil War always seemed like too big a topic. But in 1996, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to attack this topic,’ and for 10 years, I didn’t read anything else but Civil War history.”

In 2021, he joined the National Park Service (NPS) as a volunteer, working in the lobby or at the desk of the West End Guide Station on Chambersburg Road.

“I couldn’t believe it—I get to work with and be friends with rangers that I idolize,” Peter says. “Everybody knows way more history than I could ever hope to, but a little part of me hoped I could find my own specialty.”

And that he did.

Branching Out

As a liaison between the rangers and the visiting public, Peter kept fielding questions and seeking answers about one recurring topic: Gettysburg’s witness trees. 

“It was a topic I had known about—there are witness trees—but nobody in the park service really knew about them,” Peter says, “so my engineer’s brain took over.”

He went digging for answers and discovered a Facebook page created by Greg Gober of Delaware, documenting 50 witness trees throughout the Gettysburg battlefield.

“Greg discovered many years ago that you could recognize and identify many trees on old photos, but he never took it any further,” Peter explains.

He contacted Greg, who gladly shared his research. Next, Peter hunkered down in Gettysburg’s NPS archives, pouring over photographs, scrutinizing the shapes of trees—every branch, bend and burl. He consulted with an arborist friend back in New York to learn more about how trees grow, how to estimate their age. And he studied photos for locational clues.

“Doing careful then-and-now photos, I realized I could use reproductions of original photographs,” Peter says. “Understanding the way trees grow, calculating their growth rate and diameter, working backwards, I could establish the age of a tree. And if I could determine a tree to be 200 years old, then I could say with 99% certainty that it’s a witness tree.”

Walking the battlefield, he studied today’s trees and landscape, accompanied by his dog Holly, a bull boxer rescued from the Adams County SPCA. Some of the most successful walks were during the winter, after leaves had fallen to reveal trees’ silhouettes and structures. Peter calls the period of December through March witness tree season. 

The countless miles, hours and photos have translated into tangible results: To date, Peter has documented 70 trees, on top of the 50 Greg originally identified, bringing the total number of photo-documented witness trees to 120.

“For every tree in the photos, there are probably 10 others deep in the woods,” Peter says. “But my expectation is to eventually document between 150 and 200 trees.”

He also encountered a number of mysteries—witness trees with copper wires presumably inserted to prevent lightning strikes, others with tension wires supporting massive branches and yet others with tiny round metal ID tags. While there’s no record of who placed these wires and tags, Peter says early park administrators “recognized the importance of preserving historic trees of the battlefield,” even trying to save trees with rotting cores.

Forester William Storrick “had this idea of filling up rotted tree cavities with concrete to save them,” Peter explains. He believes one of those trees is still alive today. A 1917 photo and modern-day photo both reveal the same patch of concrete. 

Coming to Fruition

By the end of 2022, Peter had a decision to make. How was he going to share his work with the public?

He spent the first half of 2023 putting together the website, including details maps and photos. He also created a Facebook group, The Witness Trees and Artillery of Gettysburg. This summer, his first of four planned field guides is being published.

“My hope is that the book will be something rewarding for people to use to go out, identify these trees and appreciate them,” Peter says. “These trees have been ignored for a century.”

His first field guide focuses on 35 witness trees along West Confederate Avenue, the site of Pickett’s Charge.

“It’s almost trivial to say these trees witnessed Pickett’s Charge,” says Peter. “On their way to attack, men touched these trees, rested under these trees, and today they are spectacular trees.”

The vast majority of witness trees he’s documented—including the ones along West Confederate Avenue—are white oaks, a notoriously slow-growing tree, leading some people to question their size. But Peter says one that recently fell revealed 240 growth rings inside—one for each year of its life. 

A handful of witness trees are hickories—both shagbark and pignut—plus black walnuts and chestnuts. 

“Some people on the Facebook page have said, ‘I’ve taken your photos onto the battlefield to find these trees and hug them,” says Peter. “There are also cranky sceptics, but I don’t worry about them.”

The National Park Service accepts his research—“that there are hundreds of witness trees on the battlefield,” Peter says. He sees it as a first step. “More importantly, maybe the park will do something to protect them,” Peter explains.

And there’s one tree in particular that Peter wants to put in the spotlight.

“Historians have said there are no witness trees in the copse of trees,” the focal point of Pickett’s ill-fated charge, says Peter. 

Within the copse, he’s identified many second-generation chestnut trees.

“But there is one large chestnut oak that stands up near the fence, and leans out over the fence,” he describes. He believes he’s identified that tree in an 1895 Library of Congress photo, estimating its age as “easily 225 years old.” 

“This should be the most famous tree on the East Coast,” Peter says. “In terms of the Civil War, there’s a famous sycamore tree at Antietam and this one [at Gettysburg]. These two trees are like holy trees.”

As his research continues, Peter finds himself reflecting more and more on the significance of his work.

“These trees are living links to the men who fought here. Yes, we have Civil War-era houses, but these trees are alive. I’ve had people say, ‘My grandfather might have been under this tree,’ and that’s really emotional for a lot of people,” he says. “There’s always a yearning, a deep-seated need for a connection to our past.” 

For more information, see Peter Lukacs’ website,, and Facebook group, And keep your eyes on our social media channels for videos of Peter detailing some of the white oak witness trees along West Confederate Avenue. 


About Author

Karen Hendricks

Karen Hendricks is a a lifelong journalist of 30+ years and plays an important role with the editorial team at CG. In addition to overseeing the social channels at the magazine, Karen is also an accomplished freelance writer. Her skills with pen and paper are only the tip of the iceberg, as she is also an avid runner, recently completing 50 races to benefit 50 causes for her 50th birthday. Learn more about this beautiful endeavor as well as her other passions by visiting

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