Devils Den Witness Tree

   Whew… where do I start here.

   You've heard the names: Little Round Top, Devil's Den, The Slaughter Pen.  If you're a history buff, especially one who's versed in the American Civil War, they need no introduction.  All are points on a map, just outside the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; a place I've wanted to visit for a long time.

   Gettysburg is a place you really have to see to get a good handle on.  At least that's how it was for me.  I thought I knew my history fairly well, but as soon as we started walking through the museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park, I frankly felt like an idiot for not knowing a majority of what had happened there.  I've found as I've gotten older, I apreciate the history much more now than I did when I had to force myself to memorize things for tests in middle and high school.  It's a shame really.  Anyway, I have to admit that I really struggled as a photographer at Gettysburg.  Despite being a very important site to American history, the landscape itself is unimpressive.  It is essentially a really big field; one who's size and scope could never be captured in a photograph.  What happened in this place was most definitely not unimpressive… so I found myself stuck, trying to tell the story of a place with my camera, but with no subject that really spoke to me.  Then I was introduced to this tree.

   The previous evening I had been trying my best to capture a good sunset image.  The sky wasn't cooperating with what I had in mind, so I struck up a conversation with another photographer who happened to be taking pictures of the same cannons I was.  I mentioned that I really wanted to try to catch a sunrise the following morning and asked if he knew of a place in the park that would be good for that.  The guy mentioned that perhaps the "witness tree" on top of Devil's Den would be a good spot (I had mentioned my love for solitary trees in the conversation).  He was right.

   They call it a witness tree because it was there during the Civil War and "saw" the battle at Gettysburg.  In fact if you Google Devil's Den, you'll likely notice several young trees in the old photos… this is surely one of those.  When I arrived that morning before first light, I had the entire area to myself.  As I was setting up my camera in the dark, I had time to reflect on all the things I had read the previous day in the museum.  When my eyes adjusted, I recognized the rock grouping next to me as the same ones from the famous photograph of the dead Conferderate "sniper" (turns out he might not have actually been a sharp shooter, but a dead solder posed as a sharp shooter for the photograph).  I looked around me and considered the struggle that had happened here.  How impossibly far away Little Round Top was from where I was standing, and how skilled the solders must have been to hit anything up there with the weapons of the time.  I thought about the wide open field that the troops had to cross as they charged up that hill; it's no wonder it became known as the Slaugher Pen.  From here, and especially looking down on it from Little Round Top, it seems incredibly lucky that any of them survived.  First light appeared behind the tree and I found myself incredibly moved and humbled by the location where I was standing.  Hopefully my camera caught a little bit of that feeling.

–Dan Thompson

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