PHILADELPHIA – It was there when Pickett’s soldiers made their famous charge. It was there when Lincoln gave his address.

On Thursday afternoon, a honey locust tree that had stood as one of the last living testaments to the Battle of Gettysburg cracked in a storm and crashed to earth.

Standing on Cemetery Hill, 150 feet from the platform on which the Gettysburg Address was given, it was one of the last of what are termed “witness trees” to the one of the most devastating of all Civil War battles, fought from July 1 to 3, 1863.

“It was there as a silent witness – to the battle, to the aftermath, to the burials, to the dedication of the cemetery,” said John Heiser, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park.

“It’s a shame when you lose the last living entities on this battlefield,” Heiser said Friday. “Nothing lives forever, unfortunately.”

The tree stood on the right side of the Union lines, Heiser said.

“I have no doubt that Union soldiers sat under it for all three days of the battle,” he said.

On the second day of battle, “if it was high enough at the time, it would have been able to see the battle of Culp’s Hill,” Heiser said.

On July 3, as Gen. George E. Pickett sent his Virginia division across an open field toward the Union line, the tree “would have been able to see the Union guns there on the crest of Cemetery Hill firing at Pickett’s men,” Heiser said.

“And, looking to the south, it could have seen the entire Union line, stretching from Cemetery Hill to the Round Tops.”

The battle at Gettysburg was the biggest, deadliest and perhaps most decisive of the Civil War. More than 50,000 soldiers from the North and South became casualties. Afterward, Confederate armies never again invaded the North.

Heiser said only three other witness trees that he knows of still stand in the heart of the battlefield.

One is an oak in Devil’s Den. Another is on the McPherson Farm. And a third, a black walnut, is on Hancock Avenue.

The National Park Service for the last five years has been deliberately clearing more than 500 acres of trees that had grown since 1863 and begun to obscure the sprawling battlefield as the Civil War soldiers would have seen it.

Thursday’s storm, which rolled in from the west about 5:30 p.m., produced rain, hail and wind gusts.

Jo Sanders, a park spokeswoman, said the locust was split.

“The top of it is totally broken off, and (the storm) severely damaged 70 to 80 percent of the tree,” she said. “That means there’s not a whole lot left of it. But it didn’t kill the tree.”

Heiser said that park maintenance officials will have to assess what to do with the remains.

“When it’s something this bad,” he said, “it’s highly doubtful that a tree like that can survive.”

(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-08-08 2041EDT

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