Pregnant and Burying the Dead

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, July 13, 2014 0 comments

by Michael Homula

Elizabeth Masser and Peter Thorn emigrated to the United States from Germany and were married in Gettysburg in September of 1855. The Thorns were German-speaking Christ followers who worshipped in a Gettysburg church where other German-speaking Christians of both the Lutheran and Methodist denominations shared worship space. The same year they were married, the cornerstone for the local cemetery was laid. A few months later, Peter was hired to be caretaker of what was to be called Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg.

An archway with interior living space for the caretaker was built as a gateway into the cemetery grounds. Elizabeth’s parents lived on one side of the archway building; Peter and Elizabeth lived on the other. Today there is a caretaker house built behind the arch on the right side. Six years later when the Civil War began, the Thorns had three sons. By 1862, Peter felt it was his duty to join the Union Army, and he enlisted with the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry, leaving the cemetery caretaking duties to Elizabeth and her father. At the time, the cemetery was averaging about five burials per month.

On June 26, 1863, Confederate soldiers began moving into Gettysburg. As the Confederates arrived, the Gettysburg community had little choice but to answer their demands and feed them. The Union Army of the Potomac was not far behind the Confederate movement. General Oliver Otis Howard (The Christian General) and his men came in on the road that took them past the cemetery, so they stopped at the Evergreen gatehouse looking for a man who could familiarize them with Gettysburg. Six months pregnant, Elizabeth Thorn stepped outside as the most capable volunteer in the household. She accompanied one of General Howard’s men into the field, pointing out the main roadways and the lesser known local paths that the soldiers could use.

That night Elizabeth to prepared dinner for Union Generals Howard, Sickles, and Slocum. In return, General Howard ordered some of his men to move the family’s belongings to the cellar for safekeeping. Elizabeth asked whether the family should leave the area, and Howard allowed that they could stay but should go to the cellar when fighting began. He added: “When I give you orders to leave the house, don’t study about it, but go right away.” It was understood that if the family needed to move on, they were to take nothing with them.

The next day the fighting began near Cemetery Hill, and the Thorns, along with some neighbors, took refuge in the cellar. At the conclusion of that day’s fighting, a soldier arrived and told them to leave; that they should follow the main road so the soldiers would know it was them and not open fire. The family made it to a farmhouse before nightfall. Hoping for food they found none, but they had a place to spend the night.

Elizabeth was among the Gettysburg citizens who set down eyewitness accounts after the siege, so we have in her words what happened to her during the next few days. She wrote that the next day she and her father traveled back to the gatehouse to see if they could retrieve any possessions. On their arrival they found that their hogs had been killed, the windows of the house were shot out, and the trunks that had been taken to the cellar for safety had been emptied. The house was filled with wounded men calling for water. Outside, townspeople were beginning to deposit the dead who had been killed around town.

Starting late on July 4, General Lee began to move some of his men back to Virginia, and the family made their way back to the gatehouse. As they arrived, they saw vast numbers of bodies had been delivered to the cemetery for burial. There were also were fifteen dead horses near the house, and nineteen others horses had died on the property nearby. The stench of animal and human decay was overpowering.

The house itself was in shambles. Three local women came over to help Elizabeth wash what was salvageable, and cemetery president David McConaughy came by to see Elizabeth and directed that burials needed to move forward quickly. He went into town to enlist volunteers, but those who came soon became overwhelmed and left—some of them too ill to continue, some of them simply repulsed by the grisly work. Though Elizabeth received no extra pay for her work, nor were the Thorns ever compensated for the damages incurred, Elizabeth stretched to pay some workers, but even they did not last long.

For the most part, the work was done by Elizabeth and her father, working in the heat of mid-July, the heat and humidity rapidly and appallingly driving the decay and stench, for as long as daylight lasted. Ultimately, they buried 105 war casualties (91 soldiers and 14 civilians).

Despite the hard work of digging graves, Elizabeth managed to carry the baby to term, giving birth to the Thorns’ first daughter, Rose Meade (named for General Meade who commanded the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg), on November 1, 1863. Peter Thorn returned home after Appomattox in 1865, and the family remained at Evergreen as caretakers until 1874.

In 2002 a Civil War Women’s Memorial was dedicated. The memorial is within Evergreen, near the gatehouse. The sculpture depicts Elizabeth attending to burial duties. Her face is full of anguish, an apron covers her pregnant abdomen, and she holds a spade representing all she did.

Next week we will revisit Elizabeth Thorn and her actions through the lens of God’s Word and what lessons we learn from this sister in Christ who endured so much and did the seemingly impossible.