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Pregnant woman buried scores of Gettysburg dead

The battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, saw both heroes and cowards, brave men and shirkers, and the frightened and the arrogant. Soldiers, as well as civilians, were a mixture of those who kept their cool in the face of pressure and unrelenting stress, and those who shrank from the moment and hoped the storm would soon pass them by.

Count Gettysburg civilian Elizabeth Thorn among those whose actions deserve merit and praise.

Born in Germany, she lived with her husband, Peter Thorn, and her elderly parents, John and Catherine Musser, in the gatehouse of the hilltop Evergreen Cemetery just south of Gettysburg. In 1862, Thorn and several other Gettysburg men had joined the 138th Pennsylvania as a corporal, with an enlistment term of three years.

With Peter gone off with the Union army, Elizabeth assumed the duties as the cemetery caretaker.

Little could she have known the horrors that awaited her in the early summer of 1863.

Artist Edward Forbes’ watercolor of East Cemetery Hill showing the landmark Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse. Elizabeth and Peter Thorn’s bedroom was on the northern side of the brick structure; the Massers occupied a room on the southern side.

On Friday, June 26, 1863, six troopers of the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry visited the gatehouse in search of food and drink. They rode onto the hill, firing their pistols in the air to scare the nearby residents. Elizabeth, who was not home at the time, rushed to there, afraid the Rebels were shooting at her mother. Catherine Musser and her daughter calmly fed the soldiers bread and butter, washed down with buttermilk. They soon learned that the Rebels had killed a local volunteer home guard cavalryman, George Washington Sandoe, taking his horse and saddle.

Just a few days later, with her husband down at Harper’s Ferry as part of the Federal troops assembled there, Elizabeth and her parents witnessed the battle of Gettysburg. They fed dinner to Generals Oliver Howard, Daniel Sickles, and Henry Slocum, all important corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac. Later, they evacuated to a farm outside of town. Upon their return, they found significant damage to the property and their possessions. All their livestock and pigs were gone, and the fencing and pigpen used as firewood.

Dead soldiers littered the hilltop.

Hundreds of them. Many of them lay within or near the confines of Evergreen Cemetery.

Under instructions from David McConaughy, the head of the cemetery association, Elizabeth and her aged father began digging graves.

Lots of them.

A couple friends briefly helped them, but the father and daughter did most of the work themselves over a three-week period. They dug 91 graves for those who had paid “the last full measure of devotion,” as President Lincoln would say in November during the dedication of the nearby Soldiers National Cemetery.

Elizabeth was six months pregnant as she dug the graves in the sweltering July heat.

She delivered a baby girl, Rosa, just eighteen days before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Rosa, never healthy, died at the age of fourteen.

Kathryn Porch and Sue Boardman have penned a short, but compelling book on Elizabeth’s life. Titled Elizabeth Thorn of Gettysburg: The Wartime Caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery, the 81-page book is easy to read, interesting, and full of photographs and anecdotes. The authors use Elizabeth’s own words to good effect, coupled with eyewitnesses accounts from the soldiers who met them.

The book includes details of her actions at Gettysburg, the Thorns’ later life, their obituaries (as well as Rosa’s), family details, and other tidbits of interest. The talented late sculptor Ron Tunison, who crafted the statue of Gen. Samuel W. Crawford and three other monuments at Gettysburg, created a life-size likeness of a pregnant Elizabeth Thorn wiping sweat from her brow while resting from shoveling. Photos in the book show the various stages of the project to produce the statue, which was dedicated in November 2002 near the gatehouse.

Kathryn Porch and Sue Boardman, Elizabeth Thorn of Gettysburg: The Wartime Caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg Publishing, 2013. 81 pages. Illustrated. Not annotated or indexed. Bibliography. ISBN 978-0-9838631-6-8