Thursday, July 18, 2019

Tall tale: Uncovering secrets of massive Nashville 'witness tree'

As tree trimmers Hunt Adams and Levi Norwine (right) watch, Jim Kay runs the coil of his metal detector 
over fallen Battle of Nashville "witness tree" limbs. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
Jim Kay believes the crown of the "witness tree" was shot out by artillery fire on Dec. 16, 1864, 
the second day of the Battle of Nashville.
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If Nashville attorney Jim Kay could depose the witness to violence in his neighborhood, perhaps he’d ask these questions:

Who fired the shot that caused your grievous wound?

Did you suffer when you were hit by gunfire?

An antebellum wall snakes through the 
Oak Hill neighborhood.

Where were the men with the heavy weapons positioned who were assigned to hold the ground near you?

Did the stone wall nearby provide you any protection?

How the heck have you survived for more than 250 years?

Of course, this witness won't ever be talking. But the Battle of Nashville "witness tree" -- one of perhaps five or six of its kind -- could soon reveal some of its secrets. More on that in a bit. But first a little background:

Occasionally I drive through a residential neighborhood called Oak Hill, near downtown Nashville, to admire the massive, ancient oak. The crown is missing from this wonder of nature, probably a victim of Civil War artillery fire, according to Kay, a Battle of Nashville expert. The 60-year-old lawyer has lived for decades in the upscale neighborhood, which was largely farmland behind Confederate lines on Dec. 16, 1864, Day 2 of the battle.

In Oak Hill, an antebellum stone wall -- once part of the John Lea estate -- snakes behind modern homes and older, less ostentatious houses. Evidence of the Battle of Nashville still remains buried in the neighborhood. In his own back yard, Kay has discovered with a metal detector hundreds of battle relics, from bullets to artillery fragments. In 1981, he found his first artillery shell nearby. He has even eye-balled a relic or two in Oak Hill. According to Kay, country music star Hank Williams Jr., a Civil War collector,  hauled off scores of artillery shells in the neighborhood in the 1960s.

A close-up of the missing crown of the tree, believed shot off by artillery fire.
Levi Norwine of Adams Arbor Care saws limbs that could contain Civil War lead.
A close-up of the massive tree trunk.
The girth of the Battle of Nashville "witness tree" is an impressive 209 inches.

Jim Kay recently found this fired bullet in his
Nashville neighborhood.
Victims of a storm, fallen limbs near the "witness tree" recently piqued my curiosity. I wanted to examine the marvel myself and perhaps grab a piece of history, too. And so I called Kay -- he knows the property owner, who graciously allowed us on a muggy Thursday morning to examine his witness to history.

While an arborist trimmed limbs from the oak, which remains quite healthy despite its age, Kay swept his White's MXT metal detector over the fallen limbs. A distinctive whine of the detector indicated the presence of metal in five of the large tree chunks. Could the wood hold bullets or artillery fragments? Or perhaps this long-ago war witness merely contains rusty nails. A relic hunter since 1968, Kay has never found a piece of lead in a Battle of Nashville witness tree. War lead from the tree would be a "priceless" find for the lawyer with the tremendous, near-shoulder-length hair.

With permission of the property owner, Kay will have the five large pieces hauled off to be X-rayed, the most prudent way to examine the wood. He also knows a wood worker who can create fabulous dishes from the oak.

Somehow two large pieces of the tree ended up in the trunk of my car. My knee-jerk reaction: I'll turn them into a beautiful kitchen cabinet! Then I remembered one must have the skills to make that happen. Instead, let's figure a way for this long-ago war witness to benefit Civil War battlefield preservation.

Details to come.

My haul contains no Civil War metal-- at least none that we know of.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Awesome story for us history lovers!

  2. Awesome story for us history lovers, gives us nuts "goose bumps"

  3. Thanks for sharing this terrific post with us. I enjoyed the excellent information you provided with us. Have a great rest of your day and keep up the posts.
    Greg Prosmushkin

  4. Metal detection is really great, even if you might have a
    few days where you can find nothing. But it is really satisfying when you do find things. I should have said this is worth it. It is a hobby to the vast
    majority of people doing it. A standard good-quality of metal detector can
    detect coin-sized items six to ten inches below ground.

  5. Thanks for sharing this terrific post with us. I love the way you describe all the thing. Looking forward to your blog. metal detector