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Gettysburg Works To Heal Civil War-Era Tree

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Gettysburg is trying to return the battlefield to what it looked like in 1863. Last month, high winds sheared off the top of a honey locust that stood in the center of the Union line in the battle. The park is helping the Witness Tree heal.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In July of 1863, when the fighting ended at Gettysburg, tens of thousands lay dead or wounded. At the heart of the battle field, a honey locust tree remained standing. Four months later, Abraham Lincoln stood not far from that tree when he delivered a two-minute speech to dedicate a cemetery for Union soldiers. The speech endured, and so did the tree. It's still there. But as NPR's Libby Lewis reports, it's a little worse for wear after a high wind sheered off its crown last month.

LIBBY LEWIS: They call it a witness tree. To see why, look at a map of the battle. The battle line of the Union Army looked like a fish hook. The honey locust was in the middle of that hook, on the high ground on Cemetery Ridge. I'm standing by the tree with Katie Lawhon of the Gettysburg National Park. Its stolid trunk has some branches left, but many of them were torn off in the storm.

Ms. KATIE LAWHON (Gettysburg National Park): See the cannon placed right over there? There were 200 cannon on this hill, and it is a hill. They had a full view of about a mile across to where the Confederate artillery was. And they exchanged fire for days. There was a lot of damage here. So it's really amazing to think that any kind of tree would have still been standing here at the end of three days of fighting.

LEWIS: The very presence and the silence of this tree are like a kind of time machine. It cannot help but take you back to what might have been those three hot days in July. Peter Karens(ph) and his mother Carol Karens(ph) walk up to look on the tree in the light rain. They're visiting from New Jersey and Brooklyn.

Mr. PETER KARENS: It's almost fun to imagine maybe there was a soldier who was thirsty or who was wounded who may gathered some shade or some respite from the battle.

LEWIS: Peter Karens' wife is nearby with their three sons. Two of them have studied the Civil War in school.

Mr. KARENS: We've been spending the last four of five days, touring Gettysburg. And everything is story or history, and it wasn't alive. But this was alive here during the battle, and that sort of has a direct connection between us being alive today and all of the souls that died 145 years ago. And that's what I think is very, very special.

LEWIS: Later, Katie Lawhon tells me how the park has been trying to restore the battlefield to what it looked like in 1863. They've been rebuilding fences and farm lines, taking down trees that cropped up after the war and replanting acres of orchards and wooded areas by the family farms. They're called wood lots.

Ms. LAWHON: And in a wood lot, you're in the shade, but you can see through it and you can move through it quickly. So there are all these very subtle features on the battlefield, and when you can bring them back, it suddenly kind of lifts the veil on what some of these areas were like at the time of the fighting.

LEWIS: Kind of like a time machine. The honey locust has a lot of damage, so it might not make it. But it has signs of health, too. And honey locusts are pretty resilient - this one, especially. Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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