Elizabeth Thorn – The Angel of Gettysburg

It is absolutely perfect as the focal point of Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,  the statue of Elizabeth Thorn, believed by many to be the angel of Gettysburg. Photo: Ron Tunison

The cemetery itself is  pretty and well tended, with a large dark red brick arch at the entryway, and a caretaker’s house just inside to the right. The arched entrance itself is unique, since originally the large arch was home to two families, one living in each side of the edifice.

What is  truly unusual is the first monument one sees – that of a tall woman, her left hand over her brow in care, weariness and anguish, as she stands frozen in bronze, with a wide apron covering a pregnant abdomen. Cradled in her right arm is a long spade.  That which might be strange or bizarre in any other setting is absolutely perfect as the focal point of Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for it is the statue of Elizabeth Thorn, believed by many to be the angel of Gettysburg.

The cornerstone for Evergreen had been laid on September 1, 1855, the same day that the young Elizabeth Masser had married Peter Thorn in the local Lutheran Cburch. Five months later Peter was given employment as the caretaker of the cemetery, and his annual salary was  $150.00.   Elizabeth’s parents lived in one half of the arch, and the newlyweds lived in the other side.  By the time the war broke out some six years later,  Elizabeth had three sons, and her parents were able to help with them.  Her father also helped with the caretaking of the cemetery, including burial duties, but for all intents and purposes this was an early “mom and pop” operation.

As the war continued, Peter made the decision to join the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry on August 16, 1862, and the basic caretaker job of the cemetery devolved solely  upon the shoulders of Elizabeth Thorn.

As the war began and as late as June of 1863, Elizabeth Thorn was able to keep up with the volume of burials coming her way, which averaged about five interments per month.

Things would change drastically following the Battle of Gettysburg a month later. A further problem presented itself to her duties – she was then six months pregnant. 

She worked untold hours every day, her father helping when he could, as well as her sons, who were only 7, 5, and 2 – very little  “help” from them was possible. Aside from the hard work, the enemy had come through Gettysburg and Adams County by then, and their gatehouse home was the subject of looting. Even “good German china” which she said she had buried, was found, every window in the house was broken out and anything that could be used or eaten was taken.  Union  Generals held a war council in her kitchen, she said, while she fixed dinner for them from her meager supplies.

Her return to the house from which she had escaped from for only a few days, was enough of a shock to have killed a less stalwart and stubborn woman.  Her reaction was to make the best of a terrible situation. Some yeast they had tucked away was found, some flour purchased from a baker in town, and she and a neighbor baked loaves of bread that night so that they might have something for food.

She may have gotten away for a few days, but the interval meant that countless bodies  had piled up in  her absence.  All told Elizabeth Thorn and her helpers would bury over  one hundredsoldiers after the battle.

 It was on  the fateful day of July 5 (Mrs. Thorn says July 7) that her  place in history was forever established. Returning to the gatehouse that day, she was met by the cemetery president, David McConaughy.  He summarily directed her to start burying the dead who, by that time, were stacked around the gatehouse. To give McConaughy his due, he made several trips to town to enlist help for  Elizabeth Thorn.  However, those of the stronger sex who came to the scene left soon thereafter – unwilling to work because of the ugly sights they saw and the stench of the dead bodies.  The task was left to Elizabeth.  

In a relatively short time, and taking into consideration that she was six months pregnant, Elizabeth Thorn buried 91 soldiers and 14 citizens.  All this was done with the help of her little boys and her father.  It is said that on July 15, she buried eleven soldiers, and on the 16th she buried thirteen more.  Her work day began at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 8:00 p.m. On some occasions she was instructed to have a grave ready to receive its occupant within two hours.

In her own words, Elizabeth Thorn stated: “[We] kept on burying the soldiers until they had the National Cemetery ready, and in that time we buried one hundred five soldiers. In front of this house there were fifteen dead horses and beside the Cemetery there were nineteen in that field. So you may know it was only excitement that helped me to do all the work, with all that stench. And in three months after I had a dear little baby. But it was not very strong, and from that time on my health failed and for years I was a very sickly woman. In my older days my health has been better, but those hard days have always told on my life.”

There is some disagreement on her baby daughter, Rose Meade Thorn.  One historian says that the child only lived a little over eighteen months, however other authorities believe she reached the age of 14.  [When I get to Heaven, I will be sure and ask her.]

After the war,  Generals Howard, Slocum and Sickles came back to Gettysburg and thanked Elizabeth Thorn, for the dinner she had prepared for them on July 1, 1863.

Peter Thorn  survived his war service and died Jan 8, 1907, at the age of  eighty.  Elizabeth Thorn died October 17, 1907 at the age of seventy-four.

The next time you go to Gettysburg, be sure and stop by Evergreen Cemetery and pay your respects to this remarkable angel of the battlefield.

She paid the final tribute to many.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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