Tree Campus

Our Roots, Our Story

Cherry blossoms and spring midterms hit campus about the same time, giving students something peaceful to look at between study sessions at the Hurley Convergence Center. (Photo by Norm Shafer)

By Laura Moyer The story of trees on the University of Mary Washington campus starts with the Brompton Oak – the Civil War “witness tree” famously photographed in 1864 as Union soldiers recovered beneath its branches. The venerable white oak has been thoroughly fussed over. It’s protected from lightning, its limbs are cabled for stability, and the lawn above its roots is roped off during public events. Decades ago, some well-intentioned souls even filled its hollow spaces with concrete. Every Mary Washington president who’s lived at Brompton, from Morgan Combs to Troy Paino, has gazed on the tree with admiration and maybe a bit of anxiety. For the past 30 years, Director of Landscape and Grounds Joni Wilson ’00 has shared those feelings as the person chiefly responsible for the Brompton Oak. She’s joking – or maybe not – when she says that if the oak died “I’d be gluing leaves onto it.”  But she’s been equally protective of other Mary Washington trees, from the magnificent willow … [Read more...]

The Brompton Oak

A Witness to History

Wounded soldiers convalesce under shelter of the Brompton Oak in May 1864. This famous photo is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

What do we mean when we call the Brompton Oak a “witness tree”? Though nobody knows the tree’s exact age, it was already mature by the time of the Civil War. Brompton was under Confederate control during the bloody fighting in Fredericksburg in December 1862 and May 1863. Though bullets riddled the brick home, the tree remained relatively unscathed through those battles. It stood as a witness over a stretch of ground where thousands of soldiers fought, suffered, and died. Under Union control after the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, Brompton became a hospital. Northern doctor William Howell Reed described it as hellish: fetid, swarming with vermin, and crammed with men in the agonies of death.  But for some of the wounded, the oak’s broad branches provided a respite. “Monday, the 23d of May, 1864, was a most lovely day,” Reed wrote in his 1866 book Hospital Life in the Army of the Potomac. “The breeze came fresh and cool from the north; the air was pure and clear; the sky … [Read more...]