We were talking about Gettysburg the other day in my Pennsylvania History course and I found myself referencing the infamous “copse of trees.” Any Civil War buff knows what I mean by this phrase. The copse was the focal point of Pettegrew and Pickett’s famous charge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the battle. The trees are located within a short stone wall known as “The Angle” in an area of the battlefield often referred to as the “High Water Mark.”
In the middle of my lecture I stopped and referenced Keith Harris’s recent blog post “Is There Any Other ‘Copse’ of Trees?” Good question. None of my students had ever heard of the word “copse” being used in another context. Here is a taste of Harris’s post at his really interesting blog “Keith Harris History“:
But why copse? Why not “patch” or “grove” or “thicket” or something like that? It seems that the word was selected for this particular growth of trees by historian/artist John B. Bachelder back in 1870 – in a book detailing a painting on the repulse of Longstreet’s Assault (at least that is the earliest reference that I am aware of). And the name stuck. As the Battle of Gettysburg ascended higher and higher again into American lore and legend, the copse became The Copse of mythic proportions.
So by my estimation, this little stand of trees has ruined the word for any other copses out there. That is all well and good, I suppose. I mean, no one really uses the word any more to refer to other trees…so what’s the trouble with having only one copse? Maybe other small groves of trees should go by the term “coppice.” It’s almost the same and such a reference won’t confuse any Civil War enthusiasts who happen to be nearby.