The Angel of Gettysburg: Elizabeth Thorn

by Laura Klotz

The sun was hot in Gettysburg in July of 1863. After three days of bloody carnage, the remaining Confederate forces fled the battlefield, the Union retreated to tend their wounded, and hundreds of dead bodies lay scattered throughout the small community. With the Battle of Gettysburg over, it fell to the residents – the terrified people slowly creeping back to their homes after running for their lives – to deal with the aftermath. Among these was a young immigrant woman named Elizabeth Thorn.

Elizabeth was the daughter of John and Catherine Masser (or Maser, spellings vary), and was born in Germany in December 1832. When she was 21, her parents decided to immigrate to the United States, and brought her with them. Life was difficult for them on their voyage; they were robbed of nearly everything they owned, and arrived at Ellis Island in New York with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Fortunately, they came to the attention of a fellow German immigrant named John Peter Thorn, a young man who was preparing to make his way to Pennsylvania just as they were. Peter, as he was called, befriended the Massers and helped them on the final leg of their journey. He and Elizabeth grew close, and married on the first of September in 1855.

Peter and Elizabeth Thorn, date unknown.
(image: Adams County Historical Society.)

A few months after their marriage, Peter accepted a job as the caretaker for a new cemetery being established in the community of Gettysburg. Known as Evergreen Cemetery, it was being given a handsome brick archway at its entrance, which doubled as the caretaker’s home. Peter and Elizabeth lived in one side; her parents, who never learned English and remained with their daughter for the rest of their lives, lived in the other. The family settled in comfortably, and Elizabeth gave birth to three sons in relatively quick succession – Frederick, George, and John.

The American Civil War began in 1861, and Peter, like many of his neighbors, expected it to be over relatively quickly. He therefore saw no need to enlist right away; surely his young family and cemetery employment took precedence. The following year, however, he realized that the conflict was going to last much longer than expected, and decided that it was incumbent upon him to defend his adopted country. In August, he enlisted in the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry, and entrusted the care of the cemetery and their children to Elizabeth and her parents. He was able to come home for Christmas, and before he left again, Elizabeth became pregnant with their fourth child.

In June 1863, rumors began to spread of Confederates invading the quiet countryside of Adams County. The rumors soon proved true, and Elizabeth found Confederate soldiers on her doorstep demanding food; they quickly depleted her larder. They were soon followed by the Union generals Howard, Sickles, and Slocum, who stopped at the cemetery gatehouse to ask for someone to provide information about the layout of the town. Since Elizabeth’s father could not speak English, she volunteered. There she was, six months pregnant, escorting one of General Howard’s men through the town and indicating which of the ten roads led to York and Harrisburg. She was then escorted home, where she managed to put together a meager supper for the three generals.

The gatehouse at Evergreen Cemetery
(image: WikiCommons)

Grateful for her assistance and the food, Howard directed his men to move the family’s belongings to the cellar. He parted with a warning to Elizabeth that there would be a deadly battle the next day. If the fighting proved dangerous, he would send someone to advise the family to leave – and if that happened, they should take “nothing but the children,” as she recalled later, and follow the main road so that soldiers would not mistake them for the enemy.

On the first of July, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg began on what history now calls Cemetery Ridge. Elizabeth, her family, and a few neighbors hid themselves in the cellar of the gatehouse home; near sundown, when the fighting ceased, one of Howard’s men came with his message to flee. Obeying the directives, the family followed Baltimore Pike, taking shelter for the night at a farmhouse which was already almost at capacity. There was no food to spare for them, but they were given a safe place to sleep, and one of the Union soldiers resting there asked Elizabeth to allow her sons to sit with him, as they reminded him of his own children and gave him some comfort.

Near daybreak, Elizabeth and her father left the boys with her mother at the farmhouse, and returned to the gatehouse to see if they could salvage any of their possessions. They found the windows shot out and their livestock gone, wounded Union soldiers already taking up space in both sides of the arch, and no food left anywhere. Elizabeth realized that it was much too early to return, as the fighting was expected to resume. She took exactly one item – her mother’s shawl – and then returned with her father to the farmhouse. After retrieving her mother and sons, she led the family farther south along Baltimore Pike to a farm belonging to Henry Beitler. It was there that they were given food for the first time in more than 24 hours, and the pregnant Elizabeth was finally able to rest.

A portion of Cemetery Ridge on the Gettysburg battlefield. Photograph by the author.

Finally, after three days, the battle ended. Elizabeth and her family returned home on the seventh of July, finding their residence completely ransacked. Every stick of furniture had been taken or broken, the water pump was in desperate need of repair, and all of their mattresses had been ruined with blood and dirt. For no clear reason, a clock had been left and was still intact. Elizabeth arranged for the repair of the water pump and spent a few days, with the help of some neighbor women, washing the floors and what could be saved of the family’s bedding.

But her greatest task yet lay before her. She was commissioned by the head of the Evergreen Cemetery Association, in her husband’s stead, to dig graves in the cemetery for those who had died during the battle. Many of the dead were being given hasty, shallow graves on the battlefield itself, but those who were close enough to Evergreen Cemetery were to be interred in its grounds. With the summer heat bearing down on Gettysburg, bodies were decomposing at an alarming rate. The whole town seemed to be washed in blood and scented with death.

Elizabeth set to work. Day after day she toiled with a shovel, spending six weeks without complaint in the July temperatures, trying to give a bit of final dignity to those who had given everything, Union and Confederate alike. She didn’t even change her dress, she was so focused on her mission. She had only her father for reliable help; a pair of Union soldiers directed to assist gave up after only two days, overwhelmed by the stench, and the cemetery association had trouble even paying people to help the pregnant woman. She remarked later that the thing which kept her going throughout the ordeal was the thought that every single man she was burying was someone’s son. She was, after all, a mother.

By the middle of August, Elizabeth and those few who helped her had buried a total of 105 people in Evergreen Cemetery – 91 soldiers, and thirteen civilians who had died in the weeks following the battle. Most of them are still there; a couple dozen soldiers were disinterred and relocated to the larger national cemetery established on part of the battlefield, where they lie with their fellows. This burial ground, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, was dedicated in November of 1863 with the historic visit and speech by President Abraham Lincoln. 

It’s unlikely that Elizabeth was on hand for that dedication, however. Two weeks before the ceremony, she gave birth to the child she had carried throughout her macabre duty – her first daughter, Rose. Unfortunately, Rose was never a very robust child, and after a sickly childhood, she passed away at the age of just fourteen. Elizabeth was always of the opinion that the rigors of burying so many dead for weeks on end had left their mark on the girl’s health, as well as on her own. Despite this, she and Peter, who returned alive and well following the Battle of Appommatox in 1865, went on to have four more children – Louisa, Harry, Lillian, and Ehre.

Elizabeth was not paid any extra for the work she did that gruesome summer, nor was the family ever recompensed for the losses they incurred. She and Peter continued to be the cemetery’s caretakers until 1874, when Peter resigned and purchased a nearby farm. By that time Elizabeth’s father, the other unsung hero of this story, had passed away, but Catherine lived with them on the farm until her death in 1890. Both Peter and Elizabeth died in 1907, and are buried with her parents and their daughter Rose in the Evergreen Cemetery they had tended for so many years.

Gettysburg is teeming with monuments, most of them connected to the Civil War and the battle which gave the community its everlasting fame. In 2002, it was decided to erect a new monument to the women of Gettysburg and their contributions during and after the battle. Elizabeth Thorn was chosen as the subject of this memorial. Sculptor Ron Tunison created the bronze statue of Elizabeth, heavily pregnant, one hand cradling her distended belly while the other wipes sweat from her brow, a shovel at the ready. Her expression is full of anguish, her posture full of exhaustion. She stands south of the gatehouse of Evergreen Cemetery, where she had lived, and honors the memory of all of the women who served their country during those long years of brother against brother. Remembered today as “the angel of Gettysburg,” she went above and beyond the call of duty so that the sons of other mothers could rest peacefully.

The graves of Elizabeth and Peter Thorn at Evergreen Cemetery, photographed by Northern Aggression, CC BY-SA 3.0
(image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sources and Recommended Reading

  • Porch, Kathryn, and Sue Boardman. Elizabeth Thorn of Gettysburg: The Wartime Caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery. Gettysburg Publishing, 2015.

About the Author

Laura Klotz is an amateur historian whose primary focus is local apocrypha in Pennsylvania, where her family has lived for more than 200 years. Through her blog, MarkerQuest, she explores and shares the state’s history as presented on markers erected by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, with their permission. In her spare time she makes great soup, plays a lot of video games, and travels as much as her health will allow. A published author and dilettante photographer, she delights in answering questions nobody actually asked her. She lives in Pennsylvania’s beautiful Lehigh Valley with her husband, sister, and three spoiled cats.

Visit MarkerQuest at https://pamarkers.blogspot.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s