Thursday, December 24, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Elizabeth Thorn

Above: Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse, Gettysburg, PA, after the battle

Above: Peter and Elizabeth Thorn
I have found that one of the most rewarding things about studying history is that you constantly discover people that you never knew existed. What makes it even more special is when you find those people of the past that hurdled obstacles in their way and accomplished incredible feats that help inspire you in the present.

The other day I ran across the account of a woman from Gettysburg named Elizabeth Thorn. Now, I have read extensively on military history of the Battle of Gettysburg, but I had not really taken the time to find out about the toll the battle took on the civilian population of this small Pennsylvania town.

Elizabeth Masser Thorn was born in 1832 in Germany and had emigrated to the United States with her parents in 1854. The Massers settled in Gettysburg where Elizabeth met Peter Thorn, who had also recently emigrated from Germany. The couple was married in September 1855, the same day that the cornerstone for Evergreen Cemetery (Peter's employer) was laid. The couple took up the duties of cemetery caretaker and wife. One of the perks to the seemingly morbid work was that Peter and Elizabeth were allowed to live in the Cemetery gatehouse for free, which was good because Peter was only paid $150.00 per year. By the time of the battle that would swirl around their gatehouse home, the house was also filled with couple's three boys and Elizabeth's aging parents.

Peter enlisted in the Union army in 1862 and his cemetery duties fell to his wife and father-in-law. Elizabeth left a vivid account of the Confederate army's inital visit to Gettysburg and the battle that followed. Elizabeth and her family stayed as long as they could in the basement of gatehouse, but were ordered to leave during the battle. She and her father returned one evening to gather some personal items, but almost everything they owned had been taken by the combatants that had fought there. They quickly left again and finally returned on July 7 to find death and destruction all around their home.

Upon their return Elizabeth and her father had been instructed by the Cemetery's president to mark off and dig as many graves as possible in which to bury the dead soldiers. Her aged father was not able to provide much help, but they eventually buried over one hundred soldiers; all while she was six months pregnant.

Elizabeth would name her new born daughter Rose Meade Thorn, in honor of Union general George G. Meade who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg. She continued to be caretaker of the cemetery until her husband was mustered out of the Union army in 1865. The Thorns continued their role at Evergreen until Peter resigned in 1874; they both passed away in 1907.

Today a monument of the six-months pregnant Elizabeth Thorn (shovel by her side) stands in the Evergreen Cemetery to commemorate the sacrifices that she and other Gettysburg women made during and after the brutal battle that changed their lives forever.

In October I was able to visit Gettysburg. However, I am sorry that I was unaware of this story or the monument pictured above. Had I known of its existence I would have certainly taken a few minutes to see it for myself. Hopefully I will get the chance to make it to Gettysburg once again in the future and do just that.
For Elizabeth's account go to:


  1. this is my person im going to bee.

  2. I just started doing ghost tours in gettysburg and from all the research I have done she is one of the most brave and strong people of the civil war pertaining to the gettysburg battle that I know of. She deserves the perpetual flag along with Jennie Wade.

  3. Nice summary. When I was a child I used to visit her grave with my grandmother (Elizabeth was my g,g,grandmother). Tunnison did a beautiful job on the monument...well worth the visit. I didn't realize how many people knew of her before attending the dedication.

    1. My grandmother was a thorn. I know nothing about that side of the family :(

  4. Very nice site.

    Take a look at for an appreciation of both the military and civilian people who inspire us to this day.