The Radical Idea of Public Fruit


tree quakerRichard Townsend arrived in North America with the first group of Quaker colonizers to Pennsylvania.  According to one Bucks County legend, when the local Lenni Lenape Indians found him setting out fruit trees in his private orchard, they told him about a giant apple tree that grew not far from his new homestead. Curious, Townsend asked his Indian neighbors to lead him to the site, and was surprised to find ““an apple tree in an Indian clearing, vastly larger than any seen in England, heavily loaded with larger and better apples than he had ever seen before.” Perhaps the tree, which appeared to be an Old World variety, had been planted intentionally or otherwise by Native Americans who had acquired apples from Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam. Townsend asked the Indians to sell him the land on which the mysterious tree stood. The Indians agreed to sell him the land on the condition that the tree remain available “for the free use of all who wanted apples,” a condition Townsend accepted. According to this legend, the tree survived until 1792, 107 years after Townshend first encountered it.

The story highlights a fundamental difference in the way Native Americans and Europeans viewed perennial fruit trees.  For the Lenni Lenape, fruit hanging from a branch could not be “owned” by an individual, nor could an individual claim private ownership of the tree from which it grew.  Ownership came with the act of harvesting.  As Europeans remade the North American landscape, they also rewrote the rules of property which applied to that landscape, and the radical idea of “public fruit” essentially disappeared.

In recent years, the radical idea of public fruit has gained new currency, and in cities

Losa Angeles-based fruit and art collective Fallen Fruit

Losa Angeles-based fruit and art collective Fallen Fruit

across America, volunteer organizations like The Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, the Portland Fruit Tree Project and Seattle’s City Fruit have been planting urban orchards or taking on the responsibility of caring for and harvesting fruit from already existing urban trees.  The public fruit movement achieved another milestone recently when the Los Angeles based collective, Fallen Fruit, which has been producing maps of publicly accessible fruit for years, opened the city’s first public fruit garden.

Janet Owen Driggs makes the case that Los Angeles’ new public fruit park is radical, in part because it reverses laws in place in cities across the nation through much of 20th century which actively banned fruit-bearing trees on pubic land.  Driggs explains that “the legal basis for the prohibition lies instead with the doctrine of attractive nuisance: a tort in common law by which a landowner may be liable for injuries inflicted on an ‘infant trespasser’ by an object or condition appealing to a child, when the landowner could reasonably foresee the potential danger. Examples include: an unfenced swimming pool, a cute-looking dog with a propensity to bite, and, apparently, a fruit-laden tree.”

The fruit tree prohibition that descended upon American cities in the 20th century may have found justification in the legal idea of “attractive nuisance,” but it also reflected other concerns.  Many urban planners privileged sterile or male trees for urban spaces because they did not produce “fruit litter,” and public fruit trees also sparked the general American anxiety about shared resources. Who would care for the trees? Who had “rights” to harvest them? How much fruit could one harvester legitimately take?  Fallen Fruit’s new Del Aire Fruit Park may be a sign that things re changing. After a century in which Americans became more divorced from the production of food they consumed, the desire to bring food production back into the spaces where people live work and play is growing.  The Drigg’s essay is worth reading in full:  Fallen Fruit and the ‘Thin Edge of the Wedge.’

The Carolina Parakeet and the American Orchard


William Byrd II

William Byrd II

Virginia planter William Byrd was not impressed with his North Carolina neighbors.  Traveling through North Carolina in the early 1720s on a mission to survey the boundary between the two colonies, Byrd griped about the irregular supply of alcoholic beverages in the colony. Byrd believed the shortage of alcohol in North Carolina was not the result of any moral qualms about drinking but rather a consequence of the improvidence of its early settlers. When it was available, North Carolinians drank imported rum in great quantities, and generously shared it, but these periods of plenty were frequently interrupted by periods of scarcity, when it was hard to find a drop. Apple and peach orchards might have obviated these irregularities in the alcohol supply, providing the ingredients needed to make cider and cider brandy, but it appeared to Byrd that few North Carolinians had bothered to plant them.  He attributed this oversight to lack of industry and foresight, particularly among the common planters, whom he called “Improvident People, who take no thought for the Morrow.” But Byrd did acknowledge that their might have been one other hindrance to the development of orchards in North Carolina.  It appears that massive flocks of the once abundant but now extinct Carolina Parakeet descended upon the colony’s orchards in the summer.  The birds “bite all the Fruit to Pieces in a moment, for the sake of the Kernels.  The Havock they make is so great, that whole Orchards are laid waste in spite of all the Noises that can be made, or Mawkins that can be dresst up to fright ‘em away.”

Carolina parakeet, eastern subspecies, AudubonThe Carolina Parakeet was not a parakeet at all, but North America’s only indigenous parrot.  Despite Byrd’s belief that they were only a threat to North Carolina’s orchards, the Carolina Parakeet was climate hardy, had a quite diverse diet, and a wide geographical  range. It could be found in forest lands as far north as New York, and as far west as the Mississippi valley.  A gregarious creature, Carolina Parakeets traveled in flocks often containing five hundred or more birds, fed itself on the seeds and nuts of the forest, and nested in the cavities of hollow trees.

In the first two centuries of English colonization in North America, Carolina Parakeets and were abundant, but populations began to plummet in the second third of the nineteenth century.  Sometime in the early twentieth century, the Carolina Parakeet became extinct. Byrd was not the only observer to comment on the Carolina Parakeet’s habit of destroying an orchard full of fruit in short order. In 1831, John James Audubon noted that it:

carolina parakeet iieats or destroys almost every kind of fruit indiscriminately, and on this account is always an unwelcome visitor to the planter, the farmer, or the gardener. . . They assail the Pear and the Apple-trees when the fruit is yet very small and far from being ripe, and this merely for the sake of the seeds . . . they alight on the Apple-trees of our orchards, or the Pear-trees in the gardens, in great numbers; and as if through their mischief, pluck off the fruits, open them up to the core, and, disappointed at the sight of the seeds, which are yet soft and of a milky consistence, drop the apple or pear, and pluck another, passing from branch to branch, until the trees, which were before so promising, are left completely stripped, like the ship water-logged and abandoned by its crew, floating on the yet agitated waves, after the tempest has ceased.

Do not imagine, dear readers, that all these outrages are borne without severe retaliation on the part of the planters.  So far from this, the Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from stacks, the husbandmen approaches them with perfect ease and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly around for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The guns kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty  are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition. I have seen hundreds destroyed in this manner in the course of a few hours . . .

Other observers also noted that the close bonds Carolina Parakeets formed with others in their flock made them easy prey for an angry farmer. The ease with which farmers slaughtered the grieving birds was no doubt one factor in their extinction, but does not completely explain their disappearance.  While stories of their dramatic and rapid destruction of orchard fruit were frequently repeated, they were not so common that they constituted the orchard’s greatest natural threat. And many farmers recognized the Parakeets value in helping rid his land of another pest. The poisonous cockle-bur, which invaded farm fields and sometimes killed livestock was among the Parakeet’s favorite foods, and no farmer minded when the Parakeets rid his field of them.

Habitat destruction may have played as great a role as the farmer’s gun, as fields and CP-hat-300x300orchard replaced the forests in which the birds nested. The Carolina Parakeet may have also suffered from new competition for nesting sites with the arrival of an insect colonizer, the European honeybee, which filled the hollows of many potential trees with honey and honeycomb. Other factors which also contributed to its demise include the demand for hats decorated with dead birds which became all the rage near the end of the 19th century, and the last of the birds may have been felled by disease they picked up from domesticated poultry. In the end, Euro-American husbandry practices appeared to be a greater threat to the Carolina Parakeet than it was to the farmer’s orchards.

Johnny Appleseed and Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on orchards and the Civil War.

stonewall apple 5The first time I encountered the Stonewall Jackson Apple it made sense to me.  It was about six or eight years ago, on the last day of my biennial Civil War study tour, and we had already visited almost every Jackson shrine and monument Virginia had to offer. It was during the tour of Stonewall Jackson’s home in Lexington, Virginia, that a strange thought popped into my head: “This guy is a little bit like Johnny Appleseed.”  The comparison, on the face of it, seems absurd. Stonewall Jackson was a fierce and unrelenting warrior, celebrated for his battlefield victories; Johnny Appleseed was remembered for his gentleness and his pacifism, and a respect for life that ran so deep he was loathe to kill even a mosquito. The two men were not even of the same generation.  John Chapman was fifty years old and planting apple trees on the northern edge of the Ohio Valley when Thomas Jackson was born on its southern boundary in Clarksburg, (now West) Virginia. Both have been elevated to sainthood by people in their respective regions. But the similarity stops there.  Maybe.

This apple barrel stencil at the Belle Grove plantation is evidence of the commercial importance of apple growing on that Shenandoah Valley farm.

This apple barrel stencil at the Belle Grove plantation is evidence of the commercial importance of apple growing on that Shenandoah Valley farm.

The Stonewall Jackson Apple can be found in Winchester, Virginia, at the lower (northern) end of the Shenandoah Valley. And the artist who painted Stonewall Jackson’s visage on a giant apple probably didn’t intend to make a Johnny Appleseed association. He was simply combining two things for which Winchester is known: Stonewall Jackson and apples. Jackson’s time in Winchester was brief, but it was at the height of his fame. He used a home in Winchester as his headquarters in 1862, while he engineered a brilliant military campaign driving Union forces out of the Valley and threatening to bring the war into the North. That headquarters and brief residence is now one of Winchester’s more popular tourist destinations, and has been a regular stop on our Civil War study tour.

Statue in front of the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant, New Market, VA.

Statue in front of the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant, New Market, VA.

Winchester’s association with the apple predates the Civil War.  The Shenandoah Valley was Virginia’s richest apple-growing region in the mid-19th century, and while the Valley’s fertile fields earned it the nickname “The Breadbasket of the Confederacy” during the war, it might have also been called “The Orchard of the Confederacy,” because tree fruit was another very successful crop.  The Belle Grove Plantation, which sat in the middle of the Cedar Creek battlefield in 1864, has re-established a small heritage apple orchard and also has on display the apple barrel stencil used by Bell Grove’s planters in the 19th century. The Valley’s orchards were no doubt plundered by Sheridan’s marauding armies during the Fall of 1864, but they survived the war more or less in tact, and apples continued to be an important valley crop all through the next century. New Market, Virginia, further up the Valley still has a Johnny Appleseed Restaurant, and Winchester has been hosting an annual Apple Blossom Festival for about ninety years. While there is no real evidence that John Chapman ever visited the Valley, like most of the nation’s apple-growing regions it nevertheless still has a few of its own Johnny Appleseed legends.

Inventing Stonewall JacksonThe similarities I found between Stonewall and Appleseed had less to do with the actual men than with their myths.  In my essay, “The Invention of Johnny Appleseed,” and also in my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I argue that the Johnny Appleseed legend largely took form during the Victorian era, and as a result reflects that era’s values and obsessions. So I was pleasantly surprised this year when we stopped at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia and I stumbled across a fascinating and relatively new book by Wallace Hettle titled Inventing Stonewall Jackson. Hettle explores the myth of Stonewall from many angles, and I cannot do justice to his sophisticated and nuanced argument in this blog post. But Inventing Stonewall Jackson affirmed for me that some of the most prominent features of the Stonewall myth emerged in the Victorian era.

Stonewall Jackson foam stress-relieving lemons are available in the gift shop at his Lexington, VA home.

Stonewall Jackson foam stress-relieving lemons are available in the gift shop at his Lexington, VA home.

Despite the profound differences in the way these two men lived, there are at least three prominent elements of their myths–each celebrated by Victorians–that Stonewall and Appleseed share: eccentricity, piety, and domesticity. Jackson’s penchant for sucking on lemons and holding one arm straight up in the air as he rode on his horse are two stories which are still told today, and Appleseed of course is remembered for his peculiar eating habits, dress, and penchant for going barefoot in even the worst weather.

Popular Civil War Artist Mort Kunstler depicts a farewell scene with his beloved wife, in front of the Winchester home that served as his headquarters.

Popular Civil War Artist Mort Kunstler depicts a farewell scene with his beloved wife, in front of the Winchester home that served as his headquarters.

Jackson’s deep and very public faith is a central feature of his legend, and his death in battle has made him a Christian martyr to many. Rosella Rice, one of Appleseed’s most important hagiographers in the late 19th century, also sought to present him as a martyr of sorts, declaring that “His bruised and bleeding feet now walk the gold-paved streets of the New Jerusalem, while we so brokenly and crudely narrate the sketch of his life— a life full of labor and pain and unselfishness; humble unto self-abnegation . . .”

freshnewsFinally, despite the fact that Stonewall left his family to take up the sword, and Chapman was a life-long bachelor, the Victorian hagiographers of each man threaded domestic virtues into each man’s story. Stonewall, we are constantly reminded, was a devoted husband and had special affection for children. Appleseed shared that fondness for children and helped to sustain families by visiting their cabins and reading the Bible to attentive frontier families.

The steroid-infused version of Jackson and his horse "Little Sorrel" on the Manassas Battlefield.

The steroid-infused version of Jackson and his horse “Little Sorrel” on the Manassas Battlefield.

The Promise and Perils of Restoring Battlefield Orchards


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

It was about six days into my eleven day Civil War study tour that I realized that replanting orchards at historical parks had become something of a movement. It wasn’t that I was completely unaware of this. I had read Susan Dolan’s  excellent Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States, which catalogues historic orchards at National Parks sites and also offers a nice historical overview of orchard agriculture in America. I was aware that the Gettysburg National Military Park had replanted the historic Sherfy Orchard. But as we visited one Civil War site after another, and my students rolled their eyes each time I asked a ranger or interpreter about orchards at that particular place, I was happily surprised at how many of them were planning or already in the process of restoring historic orchards.

Heritage Apple Orchard at Belle Grove Plantation

Heritage Apple Orchard at Belle Grove Plantation

Gettysburg has replanted dozens of orchards on their historic sites, and now that they have removed the old Cyclorama building, they intend to replant a historic orchard on that site as well. The oldest trees in Antietam’s restored Piper Orchard are now more than ten years old. The privately-run Belle Grove Plantation on the Cedar Creek battlefield now has a small orchard, of heritage apples and is also keeping honeybees.

Young peach tree in front of Grant's Cabin, City Point

Young peach tree in front of Grant’s Cabin, City Point

At Grant’s Headquarters at City Point on the James River, which had been the Richard Eppes plantation before the war, a few fruit trees have been replanted on the grounds. More significantly, the National Parks Service commissioned a study by the Olmsted Foundation which scoured sketches and paintings of the Eppes Plantation, Richard Eppes’ diaries and account books at the Virginia Historical Society, as well as the letters and diaries of other visitors to the plantation just before or during the time it served as Grant’s headquarters to determine what Eppes planted and where.  They are using that study as a blueprint for a gradual restoration of Eppes’ original landscaping, which included a wide range of fruit trees scattered about the property.

Irvin McDowel went 0-2 at Manassas.  But he loved the local apples.

Irvin McDowel went 0-2 at Manassas. But he loved the local apples.

Nonetheless, it is easier to decide to restore orchards on historic sites, than it is to actually succeed in these efforts. Our National Parks have been starved for funding for years, and the current sequester will only make an already tight situation tighter.  Privately funded sites like Belle Grove also struggle to meet their payrolls. While visiting the Manassas National Battlefield Park, I was delighted to learn that at least one orchard was mentioned in the story of the Battle of Second Manassas, and that Park Service staff had made some effort to replant trees on the Brawner Farm. It was under the branches of the Brawner apple orchard that the hapless but always hungry Ohio General Irvin McDowell spread out his maps and ate “apples by the basket” as he tried to figure out what his Confederate foes were up to.

Deer have made quick work of the netting at Manassas

Deer have made quick work of the netting at Manassas

When I arrived at the Brawner Farm, however, I was disappointed with what I found. In the middle of a pasture of waist-high grass resided a motley collection of young apple trees, each surrounded by not-so-sturdy deer fence, many of them collapsed in on the trees.  I strode into the wet grass to get a closer look, and found several trees completely entangled in the collapsed deer netting, some of them having been in that condition long enough that they were now growing sideways.  While I didn’t hold out much hope for these trees, I couldn’t leave without making some effort to rescue them, carefully untangling the netted trees while my bemused but patient students waited along a dry path some yards away.

At the Shirley plantation, staff recently planted one peach, one apple, one plum, and one cherry tree where an orchard once stood. Hope they are self-fertile varieties!

At the Shirley plantation, staff recently planted one peach, one apple, one plum, and one cherry tree where an orchard once stood. Hope they are self-fertile varieties!

In the interpretive center at the Brawner Farm, one ranger expressed skepticism about the whole project. The farmhouse that the interpretive center occupies was itself a post-war construction, albeit on the site of an earlier farmhouse that resided on roughly the same footprint.  If the very farmhouse itself was not the same as the one that was there in the midst of the battle, he asked me, what value was there in trying to replant a historic orchard on the site? Was this taking the desire to restore battlefields to their precise pre-battle condition a bit too far?

Given what I know about the effort and resources it takes to care for an orchard—and to protect them from the ravages of deer, insects, and harmful diseases and fungi—I had to conceded that this might not be the wisest use of scarce park resources. At Gettysburg and elsewhere, success in these efforts came only when the historic site found committed and knowledgeable volunteers willing to take responsibility for the trees. I can’t fault the over-stretched staff of Manassas National Battlefield Park for neglect, and instead I applaud their intention. It is my hope that they can find a group of committed volunteers to take over this project. And they will need to invest in some more substantial deer fence.

Volunteers for the Philly Orchard Project.

Volunteers for the Philly Orchard Project.

These local volunteer organizations might learn a great deal by looking at the efforts of Urban Orchard organizations around the country, which would no doubt be great resources for them. These include groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, the Boston Tree Party, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective. These organizations have learned a great deal about the pitfalls and promise of planting and maintaining public orchards. I hope that efforts to replant orchards on federal, state, and private historic sites continues to grow, and am eager to learn about other efforts out there.  Please let me know about other efforts by contributing a comment below.

Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the second in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor sits on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, on a high bluff overlooking the City of Fredericksburg. It was built for entertaining Virginia’s elite.  Its first owner, William Fitzhugh, was among that elite, and at different times both Washington and Jefferson were guests at the house. The 1280 acre plantation, surrounded by carefully-designed and managed gardens, two orchards, and fields of commercial crops, was designed to impress its guests with the wealth and refined tastes of its owner. We can imagine William Fitzhugh providing guests like Washington and Jefferson with a spectacular meal, perhaps one that ended with a dessert of fine and rare fruits from his orchards. And we can imagine the fruits of Chatham’s orchards being a subject of their conversation. Both Washington and Jefferson were immensely proud of their own carefully kept orchards of the fine fruit, acquired from nurseries on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps Fitzhugh and his guests promised to exchange grafts of especially rare varieties with each other, as members of this elite club were wont to do.

William Fitzhugh, member of the 2nd Continental Congress, builder of Chatham Manor.

William Fitzhugh, member of the 2nd Continental Congress, builder of Chatham Manor.

The Fitzhughs, Jeffersons, and Washingtons of Virginia could afford to devote time and resources to the hobby of fruit growing because they commanded the labor of hundreds of unfree persons. Slavery made Chatham’s fine gardens and orchards possible. Despite the efforts of Fitzhugh and other southern planters to present themselves to the world as benevolent patriarchs overseeing an Edenic and peaceable kingdom, the truth was that all of this wealth and refinement was derived from their exploitation of other people. In 1805, Fitzhugh’s slaves rose up in rebellion against their cruel treatment. An armed posse of white men put the rebellion down. Two of the rebels were killed as they tried to escape; another was captured and executed as a warning to others; two more were sold away to another plantation, probably in the West Indies. Fitzhugh, who had come to find both managing enslaved laborers and entertaining other elite Virginians a wearying task, sold Chatham the next year.

James Horace Lacey, owner of Chatham Manor, confederate staff officer.

James Horace Lacey, owner of Chatham Manor, confederate staff officer.

Its subsequent owners continued to operate Chatham manor as a plantation estate.  When southern states seceded in 1861, believing Lincoln’s election a threat to the institution of slavery, Chatham’s then thirty-seven year old owner, James Horace Lacy, followed his interests and joined the Confederate army as a staff officer. In April of 1862 when the Union Army occupied the north bank of the Rappahannock,  Lacey’s wife and children fled to Fredericksburg on the south side of the river.

In December of 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside used Chatham as a command center. He hoped to launch a quick strike across the Rappahannock before Lee and his Army were prepared, then push on towards the Confederate capitol at Richmond.  But when he arrived with his army on the north side of the Rappahannock, the pontoon boats he needed to build a bridge across the river had not. As Burnside waited, Lee and his army dug in, occupying a long imposing ridge just south of the city of Fredericksburg.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to take this position.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to take this position.

In the 19th century, it was customary for armies to suspend campaigns in winter. Most of the major battles of the Civil War occurred in the spring, summer or fall.  But Lincoln, eager for a decisive victory before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, pushed Burnside to act. Burnside, too, was eager to demonstrate that he was different from the overly-cautious McClellan whom he had recently replaced. The result of this impatience was one of the costliest, most lop-sided Union defeats of the war. Union forces were able to make the crossing and take the town, but the assault on the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights, across open fields, was a terrible folly. Confederate riflemen fired upon advancing Union soldiers from a sunken road at the base of the heights; Confederate artillery rained down upon the exposed soldiers from the heights. Burnside stubbornly persisted, sending fourteen separate charges against the entrenched Confederates, all of them costly failures. At the end of the day, Union casualties just in the Marye’s Heights section of the line, were six to eight thousand, while Confederates lost less than a quarter of that many. After the battle, Chatham Manor was converted from Union Command Center to field hospital. Hundreds of wounded and dying men faced triage and amputation in tents set up on its grounds, many of those who did not survive were temporarily buried in Chatham’s gardens.

One week after the battle the poet Walt Whitman came to Chatham House to nurse and comfort the wounded and the dying. Today Chatham is owned and maintained by the National Parks Service, as part of the Fredericksburg National Battlefield Park. On a wall next to a window that overlooks the front garden, a copy of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser is mounted, open to the pages that describe what he witnessed at Chatham:

“Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woollen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.”

Whitman's catalpa tree from a parlor in Chatham Manor.

Whitman’s catalpa tree from a parlor in Chatham Manor.

The catalpa tree which sheltered the pile of unsalvageable appendages survives, and is visible from that window.  Its bark more gnarled and knotted with age, and its aging trunk and some of its heavier branches now held up with steel supports, in a heroic effort to preserve the last witness to this terrible scene. It is as if this old catalpa has become Whitman himself, pointing at the precise spot of the carnage, telling us not to look away.

While Whitman’s catalpa tree survives, the orchards of Chatham Manor, a symbol of the luxury that slavery provided to an elite group of white men, do not.  After the battle the Union army hunkered down for the winter on the north side of the river. On January 1, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and the Rappahannock became one of the most important boundaries between slavery and freedom. Throughout that winter Virginia slaves stole themselves and gained their freedom by crossing to the Union side.  Many stayed with the Union camp, and took jobs with the army. Soldiers and freedmen scoured the countryside that winter, seeking fuel to keep them warm. By spring the north shore of the Rappahannock was mostly denuded of trees, save Whitman’s Catalpa and a few other mature trees that graced the lawn of Chatham Manor. Chatham’s two orchards were no doubt among the first targets of the fuel foragers. When I asked the park rangers on duty at Chatham if they could point me to the original location of these orchards, they could not.  The opulent orchards of Chatham, created by slavery, were ultimately extirpated by the soldiers and freedmen who brought about slavery’s demise.

The gnarled, knotted bark of one of the last witnesses of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The gnarled, knotted bark of one of the last witnesses of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Apples of Antietam


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the third in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

An Army marches on its stomach.” This old adage, commonly attributed to Napoleon, was certainly one every Union and Confederate soldier understood. Soldiers spent a great deal of time thinking about their stomachs: what last went into them, and what might next go into them. Even when rations were plentiful, they were nonetheless dependably monotonous—salt pork, hard tack, and desiccated vegetables were standard fare. When opportunities arose to satisfy their stomachs with something different, soldiers could go to extraordinary lengths to seize them. This truth was perhaps no more dramatically demonstrated than at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Fall of 1862, on the bloodiest single day of the war. The battle of Antietam has long been remembered for the fierce fighting which occurred in the cornfield, the West Woods, along Bloody Lane, and at Burnside’s Bridge, but actions that day in the Piper Orchard were also worthy of commemoration.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I'd like to think it's actually an apple.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I’d like to think it’s actually an apple.

The Piper apple orchard sat on a hill just south of the Sunken Road, where on the morning of the battle Confederate forces were entrenched in what appeared to be an impregnable defensive position. But once flanked by Union forces, the Sunken Road quickly became a death pit now memorialized as Bloody Lane. To the South of the Sunken Road on a hillside resided the Piper cornfield and orchard, and it was to this ground that Robert E. Lee sent a division of 4,000 men in an effort to rescue their trapped comrades. While this high ground allowed the Confederates to fire upon Union forces north and west of the Sunken Road, it also left the soldiers in that orchard terribly exposed to both Union artillery and rifle fire. Caught at the highest, most exposed part of the orchard, Georgia’s 22nd Infantry hunkered down, as minie balls flew over their heads and canister shot rattled the apple trees around them. Private W.B. Judkins, a member of that Georgia regiment recalled “the company was in the thick of the fight there in the apple orchard and cornfield. The ground was covered with apples where we fought, shot off the trees.” Judkins himself was wounded by schrapnel, but he and his fellow Georgians wasted no opportunity and instinctively grabbed as many fallen apples as they could.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Later that afternoon, the focus of the battle shifted south to Burnside’s Bridge, but the scene near Bloody Lane and the Piper Orchard was far from peaceful. Confederates continued to use the high ground of the Piper farm and orchard to fire upon Union forces now firmly in control of the area around Bloody Lane. At this point, seizing the high ground of the Piper Orchard had no strategic importance, so Major Thomas Hyde was a bit shocked to receive orders from Colonel William Irwin to send his 7th Maine regiment—diminished by earlier fights to only about 200 men—to take the Piper Orchard from a Confederate force at least four times as large. The Maine men did so, but soon found themselves pinned down in the hilltop orchard, with no support coming from other regiments behind them. Thomas Hyde remembered “how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls and were dropping in a shower.” Another member of the regiment recalled how  “bullets, men and apples were dropping on all sides.” Nonetheless, in a fight so fierce that Captain John B. Cook declared it was in the Piper orchard that he “learned how thickly bullets could fly,” the fearless and hungry men of the 7th Maine were reaching up into the branches of the trees to gather apples.

When the fighting finally ended that evening, more than one in three of Georgia’s apple-gathering soldiers were casualties, while Maine’s second-harvesters lost more than half their regiment.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union's Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union’s Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

The Piper Orchard at Antietam, like the Sherfy Orchard at Gettysburg, survived the war but not the century. When the Congress acquired the battlefield at Antietam and established a national park, there were no more apple trees on Piper hill. In 2002, as part of a wider effort to restore National Battlefields to their pre-battle landscapes, Antietam National Battlefield replanted 6.5 acres in apple trees, selecting 19th century varieties; five years later, they planted an additional 13.5 acres, this time including some modern disease-resistant varieties. Protecting the young orchard from the ravages of deer has been a challenge, and today about half of the trees in the orchard are surrounded by sturdy deer-proof fencing. Slowly but surely, the Piper Orchard is returning to something looking a bit like its 1862 appearance.

long.road.antietamA detailed description of the 7th Maine’s fateful charge into the orchard can be found here.  For a thrilling description of the entire battle, including the experience of the Georgia 22nd in the Piper Orchard, pick up Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam.  More about the efforts of Antietam staff and volunteers to restore the Piper Orchard can be found here and and also at the Save Historic Antietam Foundation website.

Excellent, detailed maps of the entire battlefield, including the locations of the Piper and other orchards can be found in Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

The Urban Orchard Movement


Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

Urban Orchards as “positive graffiti”


Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

I wanted to share this very interesting piece about the community growing movement in Scotland, which has been working to hand neglected urban lands over to local residents and empower them to turn it into orchards and gardens.  One of the leaders of this movement is John Hancox, whose group the Commonwealth Orchard Project is providing resources and training to help local volunteers plant and maintain community orchards. The author of this piece, Max J. Muir, is arguing that this new interest in community orchards and gardens is one hopeful sign in an era when citizens are increasingly disengaged from electoral politics.  Here’s an excerpt:

Community orchards arise when disused public and private land is turned over to fruit growing and planned and maintained by the local community. Hancox is keen to stress that the significance of Scottish community growing lies mainly in its political dimensions, rather than its environmental ones. What matters is that local people are actively involved in shaping their surroundings, not that they’re shortening the food supply chain and eschewing pesticides. It is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of involving people in productive enterprise, putting Scotland’s vast reserves of vacant land into use.

“Positive graffiti” is Hancox’s term for it: when people are able to materially alter their environment through their own efforts, rather than relying on governmental institutions to impose a specific conception of what the public space ought to look like. It’s this inclusivity and empowerment that makes community controlled spaces different from those designed and laid out by the council, or allotment plots. Though individual allotments do typically provide creative fulfilment to those fortunate enough to have the use of one, that reward is essentially private. Community agriculture brooks a radically different notion of shared space – as an environment open to the exercise of direct and consensus-based control over its design and purpose.

Interest in this form of political engagement is growing- Hancox estimates that there are over 500 community orchards now operating in schools and on disused plots of public and private land in Scotland, plus tens of larger community farms in ForresFairlieAngusGlasgow and elsewhere, as well as intermittently active groups more overtly aimed at challenging traditional property rights – such as the Glasgow Guerilla Gardeners. Nor is this trend rooted only in agriculture: Scotland’s Hacklabs – “community-operated physical spaces where people with common interests can meet, socialise and collaborate”- in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Findhorn offer skill-sharing opportunities and community use of costly tools and machinery, thereby democratising access to high technology and education.

I love this term “positive graffiti,” to describe one way people materially improve their environments, even when at times it involves challenging or ignoring ideas about “private property,” which might otherwise restrict their opportunities to take an active role in making their own communities more liveable spaces. I am also intrigued by the parallels between Scotland’s urban orchards, some on privately-owned but neglected urban spaces and John “Appleseed” Chapman’s efforts to establish apple tree nurseries on the lands of absentee land speculators on the American trans-appalachian frontier. To some extent, both present modest challenges to the status quo at moment when property law was a barrier to building strong, healthy communities.

I urge you to read the entire article, and to check out the Commonwealth Orchard Project’s blog. Scotland’s COP is another example of the ways that the simple act of planting fruit trees is helping to create a healthier, more democratic world.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

Wildflowers or Apples? Can’t We Have Both?


city fruit logoA recent Op-Ed in the New York Times castigated advocates of urban gardening as “greedy,” and “short-sighted,” arguing that the recent trend of planting orchards and edible plants in cities is a threat to wildflowers and the pollinators who depend upon them.  Mariellé Anzelone is the Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week, and she seems to think that urban orchardists, rather than asphalt parking lots, concrete freeways, and contaminated brownfields, are the real threats to native pollinators.  In advancing this argument, Ms. Anzelone relies heavily on an old nativist trope, describing most fruit trees as “imported,” and thus, we are to conclude, bad and environmentally harmful.  Yes, it is true that peach, pear  and apple trees–and some plum varieties–have only been in North America for four to five hundred years, as has the European honey bee, one of the primary pollinators of these trees. “Most commercial fruit trees, and food crops for that matter, hail from other ports of call,” Ms. Anzelone reminds us, and declares that “A monoculture of exotic imports offers little nourishment for our wild neighbors” as a specific variety of fruit trees will only be in bloom for a short time each year.

philly orchard project 2 colorThe problem with Ms. Anzelone’s argument that urban orchards and food forests are “monocultures” is that it doesn’t much resemble reality, and she could learn a great deal by visiting these sites and speaking with their volunteers. Organizations like the Philadelphia Orchard Project aren’t exactly planting acres of “monoculture.”  These modest-sized orchards typically incorporate a variety of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, with each variety blossoming at different times, thereby offering pollinators an extended feeding period.  The Boston Tree Party’s “urban, decentralized orchard” is really just pairs of apple trees dispersed throughout the city. Seattle’s new Beacon Food Forest, currently just 1.5 acres with aspirations to grow to a total of 7 acres, explodes with edible plant diversity.  In fact, most urban orchards contain gardens of other flowering plants as well.

portland fruit logoAdvocates of urban orchards and gardens and the champions of wildflowers are in fact natural allies, not enemies.  Both are deeply interested in the health of pollinator communities. Urban orchard organizations are staffed primarily with committed volunteers, and are not profit-driven affairs, seeking to maximize short-term production without regard to long term environmental health and sustainability.  The kinds of people involved in them share the same values and perspectives that most champions of wildflowers do.

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Instead of declaring groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective to be the enemy, organizations like NYC Wildflower Week should be reaching out to them as potentially valuable allies. Certainly urban orchardists are open to learning about and adopting new methods for making their plantings more pollinator friendly, and given the modest size and dispersion of these orchards, it is much easier to make them pollinator friendly than it is to do the same to large scale rural commercial orchards which cover vast tracts of ground. Planting wildflower verges around urban gardens and orchards, and sowing clover or wildflowers in the midst of an orchard are some simple and practical ways of providing food for pollinators over a longer season. And I simply can’t imagine advocates of urban orchards actively working to replace urban wildflower lands with “exotic monocultures.” I would urge NYC Wildflower Week to reconsider their campaign against urban orchard, and instead to reach out to groups like Fruit TreesNY, who I am sure would be eager to work cooperatively to make the city a greener, more pollinator-friendly place.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.