In honour of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a story of an ordinary woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances and how she rose to the occasion: Elizabeth Thorn, known today as The Angel of Gettysburg.
A Woman’s Courage at Gettysburg.
Mrs. Peter Thorn, of Gettysburg, lived in the house at the entrance of the borough cemetery. The house was used as headquarters by General 0. 0. Howard. Mrs. Thorn’s husband was away from home at that time (serving in the 148th regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, and stationed in Virginia), leaving her with two [actually three] quite young children. During the first day of the fight General Howard wanted someone to show him and tell about different roads leading from Gettysburg, and asked a number of men and boys who were in the cellar of the house to go with him and point them out. But these persons were all fearful and refused to go. Then Mrs. Thorn showed her courage and patriotism by voluntarily offering to show the roads. This offer was at first refused by General Howard, who said he did not wish a woman to do what a man had not the courage to do. Mrs. Thorn persisted in her offer, saying: “Somebody must show you, and I can do it; I was born and brought up here [a misunderstanding, perhaps–Elizabeth and her husband were German immigrants.] and know the roads as well as anybody.” Her offer was accepted, and with the general and his horse between her and the fire of the enemy, Mrs. Thorn went from one spot to another pointing out the different roads. When passing along the line of troops the general was greeted with: “Why do you take a woman for a guide? This is no place for her.” “I know it,” said the officer, “but I could not get a man to come; they were all afraid.” This answer to them started cheers for Mrs. Thorn, which lasted several minutes and showed that our soldiers admired the courage shown at such a time. The Popular History of the Civil War in America (1861-1865), George B. Herbert, 1885
General Howard wrote of Mrs Thorn in his autobiography: “After the battle Slocum, Sickles, and I took our headquarters on the ground near the gatekeeper’s cottage. Mrs. Peter Thorn, whose husband was a soldier, with her daughter [this is inaccurate—her daughter was not yet born] was caring for the cottage. I had been all day from breakfast at sunrise without food and was nearly famished. Mrs. Thorn, before we had time to ask, brought us some bread and cups of coffee. Those refreshments have never been forgotten.” Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army, Oliver Otis Howard, 1907, p. 419
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is interesting, yet disheartening to see that these are the anecdotes most often told about Mrs Thorn, 20 years after the close of the American Civil War. The story of her pointing out the local roads appears in multiple publications during the 1880s, yet the General, whom she guided, only mentions her “refreshments.” Let us look more closely at Mrs Thorn’s extraordinary story.
Elizabeth Thorn and her husband, Peter, as well as her parents, lived in the gatehouse to the Evergreen Cemetery at Gettysburg. Her husband enlisted as a soldier, leaving her with three small children—ages 7, 5, and 2. She was six months pregnant when she volunteered to show General Howard the Gettysburg roads.
Her obituaries say merely that she witnessed the Battle of Gettysburg. Occasionally they mention that she assisted the General, or that she was Superintendent of the Cemetery in her husband’s absence. The papers are silent on her condition. They did not report how she did her duty in the aftermath of the battle. Working almost entirely without help, in the heat and storms of that July, among the rotting corpses of men and horses, she dug graves in the rocky soil and buried over one hundred soldiers.
Mrs Thorn herself somewhat understated the trauma as she spoke in her memoir of scrounging supplies, baking bread to distribute to the troops, and returning to find her household and livestock destroyed. Here she recounts her memories of those days, beginning with the first day of the battle, July 1, when the family took refuge in their cellar:
I wanted to go upstairs once more to see if our men gained, but when I came on the stairway a shell had cut in the window frame, then jumped a little, then went through the ceiling, so I would not go up any more… Soon one of General Howard’s men came and ordered me to have supper for Gen. Howard. I complained I had no bread, for I had given it all away in the morning. But I said I could make cakes, and he said they were good enough for war times. They did not come for so long, it was near twelve o’clock. It was Gen. Howard, Gen. Sickles, and Gen. Slocum. The house was so full of soldiers that the boys had to lay on the floor in the kitchen, on feather beds. And as they saw the children lying there, they said it was very sad. After they had had some supper and I found they were going to leave I asked them if they thought I should leave the house in the night. Gen. Howard rubbed his forehead and said: “Leave the house? Leave the house?” Then he looked towards the others and said: “Comrades, I say stay.” Then he said we should take our best things and pack them up and in two hours he would send two men to carry them to the cellar. Then he smiled and said: “I guess you call all best.” But I said: “Some I call better than others.” He said they would begin hard fighting about day-break, near four o’clock, and then we should go to the cellar. About two hours after they left the men came and took the things to the cellar. Gen. Howard said: “When I give you orders to leave the house, don’t study about it, but go right away.” About four o’clock we went to the cellar. There were seventeen of us (other civilians)…We were in the cellar about two or three hours. The noise of the cannonading was terrible. At last the door flew open and someone said: “This family is commanded by Gen. Howard to leave this house and get as far in ten minutes as possible. Take nothing up but the children and go.” They said we should keep (to) the pike, where the soldiers could see us, and that would save us. When we were a little way down the pike a shell bursted back of us, and none of us were killed, but we commenced to walk faster…
Near midnight [this would be on the second day of the battle, July 2], when everything was quiet, my father and I undertook to walk home to the Cemetery house. As we left the [neighbor’s] house we had to pass through a room where the Union soldiers were sleeping, lying in two rows, with only one candle to light the whole room. About the middle of one row a man raised himself on his elbow and motioned me to come to him, my father signaled I should go to him, and he took a picture out of his pocket and on it was three little boys, and he said they were his, and they were just little boys like mine, and would I please let him have my little boys sleep near him, and could he have the little one close to him, and the others near him? And so, he took them and had them lying by him….
The next day Mrs Thorn and her family fled to the country, going to a farmhouse where the wounded were being treated. She wrote of seeing the amputated limbs tossed into a corn crib and removed by the wagonload.
We were down the country four days and the fifth we went home. On the way home we met Mr. McConaughy. He was the president of the Cemetery at that time and he said to me: “Hurry on home, there is more work for you than you are able to do.” So we hurried on home. When we looked at the house I could only say “O my!” There were [sic] no window glass in the whole house. Some of the frames were knocked out and the pump was broken. Fifteen soldiers were buried beside the pump shed. I went to the cellar to look for the good things I had put there on the first night. One chest was packed with good German linen, others packed with other good things. Everything was gone, but three featherbeds and they were full of blood and mud. After I had dragged them out of the cellar I asked an officer who was riding by, if I would ever get any pay for things spoiled like this. He asked me what it was, and I told him bed clothes that were in the cellar, and he said in a very short way: “No!” So as soon as the pump was fixed I sent for three women and we washed for four days before we got them clean.
Then I got a note from the president of the Cemetery, and he said: “Mrs. Thorn, it is made out that we will bury the soldiers in our Cemetery for a while, so you go for that piece of ground and commence sticking off lots and graves as fast as you can make them.” Well, you may know how I felt, my husband in the army, my father an aged man. Yet for all the foul air we two started in. I stuck off the graves and while my father finished one, I had another one started. This lasted for days, until the boys sent word, if I couldn’t get help at all I should telegraph to some of my friends to come and help me. Two came, but one only stayed two days, then got deathly sick and left. The other stayed five days, then he went away very sick, and I had to pay their fare here and very good wages for their work. By that time we had forty graves done. And then my father and I had to dig on harder again. They kept on burying the soldiers until they had the National Cemetery ready, and in that time we buried one hundred five soldiers. In front of this house there were fifteen dead horses and beside the Cemetery there were nineteen in that field. So you may know it was only excitement that helped me to do all the work, with all that stench. And in three months after I had a dear little baby. But it was not very strong, and from that time on my health failed and for years I was a very sickly woman. In my older days my health has been better, but those hard days have always told on my life. Gettysburg [PA] Times 2 July 1938, p. 3
In the battle, nearly everything the family owned had been destroyed or stolen. For her efforts, Elizabeth Thorn received no extra money beyond her husband’s salary of a little over $12.00 per month and she and her father were criticised as unpatriotic for daring to ask for compensation for their substantial losses. President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address from a platform in Evergreen Cemetery on 19 November, 1863. One wonders if Mrs Thorn, her new daughter in her arms, heard the President speak? Peter Thorn survived the war and returned to the cemetery. He and Elizabeth died within months of each other in 1907 and are buried at Evergreen.
You may see more photographs of the statue of this intrepid woman here. The sculptor hid a Civil War relic—a minie ball—in the base of the image.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.