134 Days At The Gatehouse, Elizabeth Thorn's Long Autumn

JPK Huson 1863

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gatehouse ewell corp jp.jpg

Evergreen Cemetery's gatehouse smack in the middle of the battle, as remembered by artist Edwin Forbes. It was someone's home. Between July 7th, 1863 and the middle of November, a small immigrant woman dug 105 graves. July, August, September, October and part of November. She dug.


So think about this. Early July, 1863. Elizabeth Thorn, wife of a soldier away somewhere in the war had already had a long, long battle. She'd rubbed elbows with both armies, met the Confederate soldier riding dead Private Sandhoe's horse, plunged into the battle with General Howard, fed officers, was evicted out into the battle again, saw her belongings carted away, argued with guards to get back to her home after her boss told her ' Start digging '. Pregnant, 3 small boys and a shovel. That was July. It took her 4 1/2 months.

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Evergreen Cemetery's president was David McCaughey, a local attorney who interestingly organized that officer's - only reunion in 1869. In the new hotel he built. It was not well attended. He also interestingly kept a tiny, pregnant Elizabeth Thorn digging graves from July 7th to November 19th, 1863.

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Forbes was back in Gettysburg documenting the National Cemetery, literally next door to Evergreen. Men- more than one, swinging pick axes at unforgiving dirt within sight of the little Mom doing the same thing.

Elizabeth, 3 small children and her parents picked their way around bodies and climbed over a few July 7th, back to what was left of home. She began digging not because, as is some popular myth, she was a patriotic woman although she was- her boss ' had it fixed ', soldiers were to be buried in Evergreen.

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Two of the Thorn boys sometime in August, outside their home's door. Mom was somewhere behind them in this shot, over that hill. Digging.Interesting, this shot captures pretty much the direction of her efforts- if you walked past that small ( evergreen ) tree and kept going, you'd have met her.

Her account is some of the most riveting of the battle. It just hit me- post-battle, she dug until Lincoln got there.
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She paid for help burying those men- the cemetery was paid for their internment.

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105 graves- it's a famous story. The thing is, what were any of us doing between July and November? Elizabeth Masser Thorn was burying 105 fallen soldiers- July, August, September, October and a few weeks in November, 1863. Then the president came to town.


By November the last wounded were being sent to hospitals in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Harrisburg. Nurses, army and civilian, at Letterman helped the Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission begin the process of closing. Tents down, supplies directed, orders to move to another battlefield received. Adams County Sentinel published articles on the harvest, church news, births, deaths and marriages and battles elsewhere. And Elizabeth was still hacking graves from hard, PA soil. That's crazy.

Today is November 8th- so she had another 10 days or so.
 

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Peter Thorn, her husband -138th PA Infantry - survived the war and was at Appomattox for the surrender. He returned home to Elizabeth and resumed his duties as caretaker.

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Peter and Elizabeth Masser Thorn both died in 1907 and are buried at Evergreen Cemetery. Their adjoining graves are approximately 200 yards from the gatehouse.

Next time you visit Gettysburg, take a moment to visit the lovely monument -located, of course, in Evergreen Cemetery - erected in her honor:

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It's a wonder she did not lose the baby and her life. Apparently, she was used to hard work. A heroine indeed!
Everybody did what they had to do.

In Elizabeth's case, her husband was the caretaker of the cemetery and they all lived there in the gatehouse. I am speculating, but it would seem that if she hadn't taken over Peter's duties they would have been forced to find someone to take his place, putting them all out of their home and taking away their sole source of income.

She took over to save his job and their family. In the normal course of events, it would never have been a big deal. It only became a problem when a couple of armies fought a war on her doorstep.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Everybody did what they had to do.

In Elizabeth's case, her husband was the caretaker of the cemetery and they all lived there in the gatehouse. I am speculating, but it would seem that if she hadn't taken over Peter's duties they would have been forced to find someone to take his place, putting them all out of their home and taking away their sole source of income.

She took over to save his job and their family. In the normal course of events, it would never have been a big deal. It only became a problem when a couple of armies fought a war on her doorstep.

Yes. The boss wasn't a warm and fuzzy guy. Bury ' em Quick ( before another cemetery gets them ) McCaugheny seems to have taken full advantage of the situation. Peter went off to fight his war, boss stayed put and raked in the cash. You know, we know there was a lot of help, compassion was everywhere plus burying fallen soldiers in that heat awfully important. Then contracts were agreed on, reinterring men in the National Cemetery meant Biggs and company went to work- digging graves right next door to Evergreen. It always seems so bizarre that through it all, Elizabeth was left alone to do allllll of it. From July to November, there she was.

Families of men she'd already buried agreed to have their loved ones moved to the National Cemetery- some refused and the men are still there. Can you imagine her feelings when a group of workers showed up to move those men?
 

JPK Huson 1863

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