Elizabeth Thorn

One of the human interest stories around the Battle of Gettysburg that has come to the forefront in the last few years is the story of Elizabeth Thorn.

Her husband, Peter Thorn, was the caretaker of the Evergreen Cemetery on Gettysburg’s famed Cemetery Hill from 1856-1874. The Thorns and their children lived in the gatehouse of the cemetery during this period. Of course, the battle took place right in the middle of their tenure, in July of 1863.

Peter wasn’t home during the summer of ’63, though. In August of 1862, he joined the war effort himself – enlisting with a local infantry company. Elizabeth was left to tend to the children and the cemetery by herself. When the armies started closing-in on the town, she fled the battle zone with the kids.

Despite his being away at war, Elizabeth must have had some contact with her husband during his service. She was 6-months pregnant when she was forced to leave her home.

My niece, Abby and nephew, Nathan in front of the statue of Elizabeth Thorn.
My niece, Abby and nephew, Nathan in front of the statue of Elizabeth Thorn. Photo by Karen Michener.

After the danger passed, she made her way back to the cemetery gatehouse only to find that it had been looted and damaged in the fray. The cemetery itself was right in the middle of the battlefield, and there were bodies strewn everywhere.

The cemetery was her responsibility as well as being her home, and she got right to work – personally burying somewhere between 91 and 106 bodies herself in the mid-July heat.

The daughter she was carrying at the time died young, only barely reaching her teenage years. Elizabeth blamed the stress of her post-battle experience for the poor health and eventual death of the child.

On a happier note, her efforts have recently been recognized more properly. There is now a statue of Elizabeth, placed in 2002, known as the Gettysburg Women’s Memorial just inside the gates of Evergreen Cemetery.

But that’s not all there is to the story. I wanted to tell Elizabeth’s story so that I could set up the telling of part of Peter’s. The wartime service that took him from his home, brought him closer to mine – much closer. But we’ll explore that further in a future post.