Meet Eliza Thorn. In modern day Gettysburg, Eliza Thorn is one of the few civilians to be immortalized in a sculpted memorial to civilian valor. One of the things I love about her memorial statue is the humanness captured in her action and stance. It doesn’t take much imagination to bring the bronze to life in the mind’s eye. Who was she really?
An American Citizen
Eliza Masser Thorn’s first homeland was Germany, but in 1854 she and her parents immigrated to America and eventually settled in Gettysburg. What their occupations were in their new homeland or specific details of why they left Germany aren’t clear. Coming to Gettysburg, they were likely welcomed by other German-American immigrants, but may have faced some mild prejudice from their “English” neighbors.
Miss Eliza Masser had left a sweetheart behind in Germany, but in her new Pennsylvania home she determined to look ahead and create a new life for herself. She met Peter Thorn – also a German immigrant – and in 1855, they married. While it may not have been love at first sight, Peter and Eliza Thorn respected each other and one day Eliza discovered how much she loved her husband. The original suitor from Germany arrived on the Thorn Family’s doorstep, asking Eliza to run away with him. She refused, realizing how much she loved her husband, her new life, and her children. (Peter Thorn was obviously pleased with his wife’s committed choice and shortly thereafter he brought her a new dress!)
About a year after Peter and Eliza Thorn’s marriage, Peter took the position of caretaker at Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. His duties included opening and closing the cemetery gate, keeping the grounds and fences in good condition, and preparing the graves for deceased citizens. The pay was good and it came with a house. Eliza did supplement the family’s income by doing housework for their nearby neighbor, the elderly Captain John Myers.
The Thorn Family moved into the Cemetery Gatehouse, a building shaped somewhat like the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, with the arched opening spanning the road into the cemetery. Mr. and Mrs. Masser (Eliza’s parents) lived in one side of the building and the Thorns lived in the other side; they shared the kitchen and parlor.
In the seven years between the Thorn’s marriage and the beginning of their war experiences, three boys were born – Frederick, George, and John.
This is the Cemetery Gatehouse, where the Thorn family lived.
A Soldier’s Wife
In 1862, Peter Thorn enlisted in Company B of the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. He left Gettysburg with other men and boys from the community and marched off to war. It would be interesting to know what motivated Peter Thorn to enlist and what Eliza thought. But this is not clearly recorded, and it seems wrong to speculate.
By December 1862, Peter Thorn had been promoted to corporal, and in early 1863, it seems he got a brief furlough to visit his family.
With her husband away, Eliza Thorn shouldered the responsibility of caring for Evergreen Cemetery. Overall, the work was probably not too difficult, and her father likely helped with the more difficult tasks. Keeping the grass trimmed, the weeds pulled, and digging a grave occasionally would seem like child’s play compared to Eliza’s experience in the summer of 1863.
A Civilian Caught in the Path of War
In June 1863, Eliza Thorn was about six months pregnant. Like the other Gettysburg civilians, Eliza Thorn, her little boys, and her parents were caught unawares by the Confederate raid on June 26, 1863. Cavalrymen rode into the cemetery shooting pistols, demanding some to drink, and stealing her neighbors’ horses. Eliza wrote that she nearly fainted from fear, but managed to regain her courage.
As the next four days passed with the arrival of Union cavalry and the burning of Confederate campfires on the distant western ridges, Eliza Thorn must have worried and yet tried to convince herself the war would not come to her community. If it did, what would she do?
On July 1st, hungry Union soldiers devoured the Eliza’s delicious bread while her young sons pumped water from the well until their hands were blistered. When the Union lines collapsed in the late afternoon, the generals rallied their men and built a defense position in Eliza’s backyard: Cemetery Hill. At some point during the day, she volunteered to show a Union officer the best view of the western battlefield area and came under enemy fire while on her “scouting mission.”
She returned home safely though and hid in the cellar with her family. Later, she was requested to prepare food for the generals. Eliza later wrote that she was embarrassed to only have simple bread, a little meat, apple butter, and coffee.
Surrounded by Union troops, impending battle looming, and with disorganized field hospitals in her yard, Eliza asked General Oliver Howard (one of the dinner guests) if she should leave. He advised her to prepare but not to leave until he sent word.
Peter and Eliza Thorn
Before daybreak on July 2nd, General Howard’s message arrived, and Eliza Thorn took her family and fled south along the Baltimore Pike for several miles. They endured a difficult refugeeing experience and they did not all return home until July 7th.
The Thorn boys noticed a wagon rattling down the road with all their furniture in it – obviously stolen. They begged their mother to get their things back, but there was nothing she could do.
Eliza Thorn returned to her home to find extensive carnage and ruin. The actual Gatehouse structure had survived the artillery barrages and fierce fighting, but all the windows were blown out, dead horse bloated in the yard, and all the linens were ruined. In despair, she asked a Union officer if she would ever obtain financial recompense for her possessions – he angrily told her “no.”
A Self-less Woman
For six weeks, Eliza Thorn did not change her outer dress. She had no clothing other than what she had left home wearing. She and her family lived in a tent in the cemetery.
Eliza’s job was to manage the cemetery, and that included burial of the dead. She took this very seriously in the post-battle world. At first she tried to hire acquaintances from outside the Gettysburg community to do the work, but they fell ill and fled the horrific scenes at Gettysburg. With all the men of the community pre-occupied with the same burial work or care of the wounded, Eliza took a shovel, dug graves, and buried Union soldiers. Her father assisted her. She was afraid that disease would strike the Gettysburg community and felt it was her responsibility to help prevent this.
In three weeks, Eliza Thorn buried 91 Union Soldiers in properly prepared graves in Evergreen Cemetery. (It should be noted that Evergreen Cemetery stood over some of the rockiest ground in Gettysburg). She was never paid for her work.
On November 1, 1863, Eliza’s baby was born. Named Rosa Meade Thorn, she was weak and sickly; she lived fourteen years. Eliza Thorn believed her own health and her daughter’s health were permanent affected by the hard work and worry in the summer of 1863.
Eighteen days after Rosa’s birth, Eliza attended the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery. Her son, George, – much to his mother’s chagrin – ran directly in front of President Lincoln as that famous gentleman was leaving the speaker’s platform!
A Kind-Hearted Christian Woman
Peter Thorn survived illness and injure and returned safely to his family in the summer of 1865. The Thorn Family continued to manage Evergreen Cemetery for many years. They had four more children after the war.
In later years, Peter and Eliza Thorn managed a hotel in Gettysburg. They lived contented and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1905. Eliza gave an interview describing her Gettysburg battle experiences and it is a valuable and informative primary source. After their deaths in 1907, Peter and Eliza Thorn were buried side by side in Evergreen Cemetery.
Perhaps the best tribute to Eliza Thorn comes from members of her community after her death. This was the quote that inspired me and guaranteed Eliza Thorn a prominent role in “Blue, Gray & Crimson”:
Mrs. Thorn was the most kind-hearted Christian woman; she was ever ready to help those in distress or affliction. She possessed an extraordinary sunshiney disposition and her life was typically and nobly happy. The realization that she possessed many warm friends gave her a merry heart.