Eastern woodlots during the Civil War

A managed woodlot along East Berlin Road (S.R. 234) in Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the June 30, 1863, campsite of Jubal Early’s division of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Click on the photo to enlarge it for a better look.

In a recent Johnny Reb 3 game, the conversation turned to the rules for light woods versus heavy woods. I mentioned that, at least here in south-central Pennsylvania and central Maryland, during the 1860s many farmers practiced controlled management of their woodlots. The above photo is a view I snapped today during a drive out to Gettysburg along the exact route Early’s men took to reach the battlefield. Farmers would allow cattle to graze in their woodlots, which would tramp down and munch on the underbrush. Deadfall, lower limbs, etc. would be used for kindling for fireplaces, and landowners would thin out the trees to allow spaces in the canopy for more sunlight.

Postbellum view of McPherson’s Woods at Gettysburg at approximately the place where Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds of Lancaster, PA, was shot and killed. Note how similar it looked to the modern photo of the East Berlin Road site.

Most of the woods on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863 would have been similar to the photograph, or perhaps even cleaner and less dense. Have a look at period photos of the McPherson Woods (then the Hersbt woods). The recent movement by the Park Service to cut back nonhistoric woods does not include any provision or funding to return one of the woodlots back to this managed style. It would be nice if they would do so for the McPherson Woods so trampers and tourists could have an idea of what the terrain may have looked like.

Categories: Gettysburg, Johnny Reb 3, Preservation efforts, Terrain | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Eastern woodlots during the Civil War

  1. Scot,
    Yes this is a very much misunderstood part of ACW history. There are/were some very wild (heavy) woods even in the Gettysburg area BUT most settled areas of the Mid Atlantic and North East had been farmed and settled for over a 100 years. Collection of deadfall for firewood was much easier then logging trees (which was done for construction). The amount of undergrowth was not that great by this time in America except in trully wild areas such as western Pa. Gettysburg the area around Big Round Top was also not the significant but did have sound undergrowth. There are accounts of ideas to put artillery up on BRT in primary sources from the battle.

    James Mattes

  2. Dan Cyr

    Very true. Few gamers understand that the “Wilderness” had been logged off several times in the 200 years prior to the ACW. That is why it was such a relative jungle of small trees and underbrush. Mature forests in general consist of widely spread full grown trees which do not allow enough sunshine through their canopies to allow under brush and small trees to grow. Managed wood lots are even more cleared as all dead wood, damaged trees and such are removed. Find pictures of most of the forests in Europe for example. More information can be found by comparing how far most of the folks in towns in the eastern US had to travel to find firewood from their homes (I believe I’ve seen a 7 mile radius shown for Gettysburg to find wooded areas other than managed wood lots).


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