Elana Benamy was examining a digital image of a dried pressed plant specimen at her desk in the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences when she noticed something that gave her a start. As a curatorial assistant working on a project to put more than 300,000 plant images online for scientists to use, she was used to the image of the occasional beautiful, odd or unusual plant that added spice to her day. But this image was astonishing.
It wasn’t so much the plant, which was a common species, the green comet milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora, which grows in Pennsylvania and almost every other state in the U.S. What brought Elana up short was the information on the label.
Handwritten, in a distinctive 19th century cursive, was the location where the plant was collected: “Battlefield of Gettysburg, August 20, 1863.” Not only was this more than a century and half ago, Elana noted, it was also from the site of one of the most famous battles in American history. And the summer of 1863—that rang a bell too.
Elana googled “the Battle of Gettysburg.” “It occurred on July 1-3, 1863,” she says, so the plant specimen had been gathered barely seven weeks following the Civil War battle where 50,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded. It would be three more months before President Abraham Lincoln would give his Gettysburg Address.
When the battle ended, the population of the small town of 2,000 was actually outnumbered by the 7,000 who had died in battle. Many Confederate soldiers had been buried in mass graves, and there were reports of body parts sticking out of shallow graves on the battlefield. Most houses in the town were used as makeshift hospitals for the tens of thousands of wounded.
“Can you imagine?” asked Elana. Why on earth would someone be out plant collecting in a place that had so recently been a disaster area? It seems ghoulish to contemplate.
As it turns out, the person and his reasons for collecting make perfect sense.
The tag on the plant specimen notes that Thomas Meehan was the collector. Meehan (1826-1901) was born in England to a family of gardeners and trained in horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He came to Philadelphia in 1848 and rapidly joined the horticultural and botanic community of the city. Meehan would later become president of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
From 1850-1852, Meehan worked as head gardener to Andrew M. Eastwick, then owner of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. Meehan formed his own nursery in Germantown in 1853 and rose to become one of the most successful nurseryman in the U.S. Meehan was also a prolific writer and long-time editor of The Gardener’s Monthly, later called Meehan’s Monthly.
In 1859 his younger brother Joseph Meehan (1840-1920) came to the U.S. to work in the greenhouses and plant nursery started by his brother in Germantown.
“Thomas Meehan might have had a family reason to visit Gettysburg in August 1863,” notes Joel Fry, curator at the historical Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. “His younger brother Joseph Meehan had enlisted in the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers in August 1862, which was rapidly involved in battles at Antietam and then Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in September 1862.”
Later, just as the battle at Gettysburg began, Joseph was taken prisoner by the Confederate army during the defense of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and he was taken to the Gettysburg battlefield under guard. With the defeat of the Robert E. Lee’s army, Meehan was given a battlefield parole on July 4th.
But why was Thomas Meehan at Gettysburg a month after the battle? Was he there with his brother? “Joseph Meehan might have still been at Gettysburg,” says Joel Fry, “or might he have taken his brother, Thomas, out there for a sight-seeing trip in August 1863?”
We don’t know, but Joseph later wrote an article for Gardening magazine on “Battlefield Flowers: Floral Treasures of Gettysburg.” Written in 1897, long after the battle, Joseph Meehan, gives an elegant description of the flowers and trees, noting several of the famous sites in the battlefield: the many oaks and one “large, shining chestnut” still standing at the Bloody Angle, the site where Pickett’s charge ended; and a brightly colored Phlox, “a species not at all common,” near a monument to a fallen Union solder.
Clearly, Joseph had a flair for plants and the desire to write about them. He wrote for a large number of horticultural magazines and newspapers, including a weekly column for 17 years in Florist’ Exchange. And so, the elder Meehan collecting plants on a historic battleground where one of the Meehan brothers had been is not surprising.
The milkweed specimen is a small but important reminder of the many scientifically important collections at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. The Herbarium, home to the plants collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition, collections from a cruise of Captain Cook, and many plants collected by Henry Muhlenberg and other early American botanists, continues to surprise.
There may very well be other Gettysburg plants or other historically important specimens that will turn up during the ongoing digitization project of the Academy’s plant collection, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Joseph and Thomas Meehan lived into the early 20th century, leaving a botanical legacy that survives in the gardens of Philadelphia, as well as in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel.
Post by Rick McCourt, PhD, the Academy’s associate curator of botany and professor in Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science.
To read an account of the plant’s discovery in The Philadelphia Inquirer, visit philly.com.