While the battle raged on around them, many of the women living in Gettysburg in 1863 left their cellars and found ways to courageously serve humanity. One woman I want to focus on in this post is Mrs. Elizabeth Thorn, whose statue triumphantly watches over Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg. Her strength and hardworking nature helped bring some much needed order to the town after the guns fell silent.
Elizabeth Masser immigrated to the United States from Germany with her family in 1854 (Porch 2). Peter Thorn, later Elizabeth’s husband, also immigrated from Germany and arrived in Gettysburg around 1854 and worked in a copper mine (Porch 2). The pair became well acquainted and were wed on September 1, 1855, which was the very same day that the cornerstone was laid for the cemetery Gatehouse, which would become the young couple’s home for nineteen years (Porch 3). By 1856, Peter Thorn became the first keeper of the cemetery. His family was able to live at the Gatehouse rent free and he received an annual wage of $150.00 (Porch 4). His general duties included digging graves, clearing all visitation pathways, preventing animals from free-roaming the property, dealing with trespassers, trimming the trees and shrubs, locking and unlocking the gates each day, keeping the grounds tidy in appearance, and being present at the cemetery in case he was called upon (Porch 4). The building had two entirely separate sections which were not connected, therefore, the family had to go outside to get from one part of the house to another. Elizabeth lived there with her husband and children along with her mother and father.
Off to War:
On August 1, 1862, Peter and other men of Gettysburg enlisted in the Union Army (Porch 10). With her husband gone, Elizabeth juggled her usual household duties alongside the role of the cemetery caretaker. By late June, 1863, Mrs. Thorn found herself six months pregnant and rumors spread about the Confederate troops marching through the north close-by. As the battle took hold on July 1, Elizabeth and her family took cover in the cellar. She eventually emerged from the cellar and overheard a solider saying that they needed a guide since they were unfamiliar with the surrounding area (Porch 15) With much persuasion, Mrs. Thorn left the house in order to assist the men in familiarizing them with the important roads around the town. That evening she worked to feed her family along with General Oliver O. Howard’s men who were using the Gatehouse as headquarters (Porch 16).
The next morning the Thorn family, along with a few other residents, returned to the the cellar where they stayed until they received word from General Howard to leave immediately (Porch 18). Everyone fled the house and ran until they came to the farm where the Musser family lived down the pike. Elizabeth was pregnant, tired, and hungry at the time of this one and a half mile journey. She recalled shells exploding behind them while they traveled (Porch 18). That night Elizabeth and her father decided to return to their home in order to collect what was left of their belongings. The house was full of dead and dying men and their beds and clothes soiled. They returned to the the farm with only a shawl.
The next day, Mrs. Musser went to check on the hogs and they, along with all the wood, had been scavenged by the soldiers. After failing to locate some supplies, she decided that the army should provide goods since they benefited from the belongings of the local residents (Porch 21). She returned with an apron full of coffee, sugar and hardtack (Porch 21). Once the battle was over and the soldiers marched out of town, the Thorn family began journeying back to the Gatehouse. They ran into Mr. McConaughy, the President of the cemetery, who told her, “Hurry on home…there is more work for you than you are able to do.” Later she received a note from McConaughty stating, “Mrs. Thorn, it is made out that we will bury the soldiers in our cemetery for a while, so you go for that piece of ground and commence sticking off lots and graves as fast as you can make them.”
Burying the Dead:
Elizabeth and her father got to work digging graves in the rocky soil amidst the July heat. The stench in the air would have been putrid. Within three weeks, ninety-one graves had been dug with the help of some family friends (Porch 26). She received no extra pay for this additional labor and was paid $41.50 by the War Department for the damages done to their property twenty years later (Porch 26). On November 1, 1863, Elizabeth gave birth to her fourth child, Rosa Meade. Rosa passed into eternal slumber on November 19th of that year. Peter and Elizabeth continued to live in Gettysburg for most of their lives and raised their family there. Almost every member of their family is buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
Women’s Memorial at Evergreen:
In 2002, it was decided by the Evergreen Cemetery Association to erect a memorial in dedication to the women who served during the battle (Porch 52). It was decided that a bronze statue of Elizabeth Thorn, six-months pregnant, would be created. Ron Tunison of Cairo, New York was chosen to be the sculpture. Ron has created a few other memorials for Gettysburg including, General Samuel Crawford Monument, Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial, and the Delaware Stet Monument. He is known for his historical accuracy and magnificent level of detail that he manages to incorporate into each piece. On November 16, 2002, the statue was dedicated during a special ceremony (Porch 54). Elizabeth Thorn’s statue is now on full display on the left-hand side upon entering the cemetery grounds through the Gatehouse entrance.
“On fame’s eternal camping ground
Their Silent tents were spread,
And glory guards, the solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.
Rest on, embalmed and sainted dead!
Dear as the blood ye gave;
No impious footstep here shall tread
The herbage of your grave.”-Theodore O’ Hara
Until Next Time
-Groeling, Meg. The Aftermath of Battle. Savas Beatie Publishing, 2015: CA. Print.
-Porch, Kathryn & Sue Boardman. Elizabeth Thorn of Gettysburg: The Wartime Caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery. Gettysburg Publishing, 2013: PA. Print.