Along Louisiana state Highway 1 traveling toward New Roads, not far from the west bank of False River, the alert driver can spot one of the largest and most beautiful live oaks in the state—the Randall Oak. Located in the front yard of the home of David and Madeline Breidenbach, this massive species of Quercus virginiana has a circumference of approximately 35 feet, eight inches, a height of 68 feet, and a crown spread of 156 feet.
I’ve seen and photographed many large and beautiful oaks in the past 30 years, but this oak was, to me, stunning in its size and scale on the landscape. The best word to describe my reaction was simply—awe. It’s not just the size but also the graceful flourishing shape of the Randall Oak that enhances its beauty. (For an idea of the scale of this tree, the split of the two main limbs seen in the photo below is about 5 to 6 ft. off the ground.)
There are no accurate estimates of this oak’s age, but from my experience, oaks that are more than 30 feet in circumference (and there are less than 10 that I know of sprinkled across the state) were growing long before Europeans explored this area and therefore deserve some protection and recognition as cultural and historic landmarks. How old is that you ask? Some 30-foot-plus oaks (like the Seven Sisters oak in Mandeville, La., the Seven Brothers Oak in Washington, La., the Lagarde Oak in Luling, La., the Etienne de Bore Oak in New Orleans, and the Josephine Oak at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie) are estimated to be anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years old (though probably closer to 400–500; I’ll address this in another blog).
The iconic mushroom shape of the Randall Oak is seen in live oaks that mature without competition from neighboring trees for sunlight and water. Its limbs were able to spread and curve elegantly toward the ground as it grew over several hundred years. Considering the density of the live oak’s wood and the weight of its limbs, this is a remarkable feat of both design and endurance.
The oak was already a notable presence on the landscape in 1861 when its current namesake, James Ryder Randall, wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous anti-Union songs titled “Maryland, My Maryland.” He supposedly wrote the verses while sitting under the tree’s sheltering limbs. The oak’s role in local history is noted on a stone monument placed next to the tree by the Pointe Coupee Book Club.
Previously, the old oak was known as the Poydras Oak, after Julien Poydras, a wealthy area planter who also served as a delegate from the Territory of Orleans to the U.S. House of Representatives and was instrumental in Louisiana becoming a state. After his death in 1824, Poydras provided in his will an endowment for a public academy for higher education that was named Poydras College.
The college was opened in 1836 and was built behind the ancient live oak. In 1860, James Randall—a 22-year-old Baltimore, Maryland, native, was hired as a professor of literature and the classics at the College.
On Apr. 12, 1861, the Civil War began with the battle at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. A week later, Union troops passing through Randall’s hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, clashed violently with local citizens, resulting in the war’s first civilian casualties. According to one source, Randall was so greatly disturbed by the rumored death of a dear friend, that he was moved to write a poem that focused on the themes of oppression, secession of the Confederacy and slavery.
The poem was published in a New Orleans newspaper and quickly was turned into a song (to the tune of “Oh Tannebaum” or “Oh Christmas Tree”). It immediately became popular in Maryland and throughout the South.
It’s ironic to me that every reference I’ve found to this remarkable and peaceful oak tree connects it to James Randall and his poem. Even though this beautiful tree predates the founding of America and any written history of this region, it will likely always be associated with Randall’s nine stanzas—a poem filled with the passions and hostility that fueled the South’s secession from the United States and our country’s bloodiest war.