By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
When the carnage ceased and the forever-changed Union and Confederate armies marched away from the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the monumental task of dealing with the dead, dying and severely wounded was just beginning for the overwhelmed townsfolk.
The cascade of casualties on both sides was staggering after the three-day series of battles, the bloodiest of the Civil War, waged in this south-central Pennsylvania town. Union General George G. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, 93,000 soldiers strong.
A total of 3,155 were killed, 14,529 were wounded and 5,365 were captured or missing. The tally of injured may have been higher, because in those days, the wounded were counted as such only if their care required a doctor.
On the Confederate side, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia’s troops numbered about 70,000. Unfortunately, an accurate accounting of Lee’s losses do not exist, so historians have put forth these estimates: 3,500 killed, 18,000 wounded and 6,500 captured or missing.
The population of Gettysburg was a mere 2,400. Many of its residents were farmers, their fertile land overrun by the military clashes of July 1-3, resulting in a turning-point victory for the Union Army. The trim and neat homes and businesses in the center of town were largely undamaged by the fighting, and in the aftermath, some of the wounded crawled to these dwellings, begging for aid.
By the third day of battle, more than 100 buildings — public and private — were housing the wounded. Field hospitals, with surgeons on both sides doing the best they could with limited resources and supplies, were set up in tents and barns and under shade trees.
In addition to the soldiers in dire need of attention — many in great pain crying out for help — thousands of dead horses littered the landscape, as did broken wagon wheels, cannon shells, jagged fences and abandoned rifles and other equipment.
July Fourth — the 87th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America — was a rainy day, muddying the ground, and hampering burial progress.
The fear of the spread of disease and the awful stench of decomposing bodies scattered across 25 square miles of open land were among the most pressing problems, soon to be exacerbated by the stifling summer sun.
This is when the capable people of Gettysburg mobilized their efforts to great effect — burying the dead. Union and Confederate soldiers had started the process, excavating shallow, temporary graves for their comrades where they fell. It was a hurried effort; limbs and hands protruded from some sites (even months later), lending a ghoulish air to an already morbid undertaking.
When the armies withdrew, thousands of dead men were still above ground.
Identification was also a challenge. Neither army wore what we know today as dog tags. It was, at that time, the soldiers’ responsibility to leave proof as to his name and other personal details. In some cases, burial teams found letters or photographs in a man’s pocket to provide clues. Better yet was a diary or Bible, where the soldier had written on its flyleaf his name in full, and the regiment and company in which he served.
Soldiers who had the heartrending chore of burying their friends could in many cases identify them, then leave a list of names written on hastily made headboards to cover a group en masse.
Among the heroines of this part of the story was a German immigrant named Elizabeth Masser Thorn (1832-1907). She lived with her three sons, all under the age of 10, and her parents in the gate house at Evergreen Cemetery.
Elizabeth’s husband, also a German immigrant, was off serving in the Union Army with a company in Virginia. Before the war, the couple were caretakers at the cemetery, the only public burial space in Gettysburg.
“The Thorn family was accustomed to death,” said Caitlin Brown, a National Park Service ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park during a free morning tour I took in mid-September. “They dealt with it on a daily basis.”
For the fateful days of combat, the Thorns were displaced. The Union “high command” took over the house, and soldiers camped around it. “They tore down fencing in order to mount a better defense against the Confederates,” Brown said.
The Thorns fled a few miles south of Gettysburg to stay with friends. When they returned home on July 7, the horror was nearly indescribable.
“Utter destruction was everywhere,” Brown said. “Ten soldiers were in a mass grave at the water pump. All the windows were gone. Gravestones were blown to pieces.”
Worse yet, there was no organization in place to bring order to the surrounding chaos.
Elizabeth looked to her community. “ ‘The Thorn family is suffering, but so is everyone in Gettysburg,’ ” Brown said, paraphrasing Thorn. “ ‘ We need to work together to restore Gettysburg.’ ”
Which is what came to pass. Volunteer nurses stepped up to administer to the needy. And Elizabeth, technically Evergreen’s sole caretaker in her husband’s absence, was six months pregnant. Swollen ankles and an aching back didn’t deter her from digging mass graves for soldiers. She is credited with helping to lay 91 men to rest.
The government also offered contracts for bid to engage burial crews. Some of those were led by free men of color, who, like all workers, had to learn to properly handle the fragile, disintegrating bodies so as not to cause further harm.
Elizabeth’s husband, Peter, survived the war. The middle name of their baby daughter, Rose Meade Thorn, was a tribute to the Union general.
A second individual important to Gettysburg’s recovery was attorney David Wills. His three-story brick house on what is now Lincoln Square, in the center of town, took in wounded and served as a depot for supplies. He also received letters from families desperate to locate their dead sons and take them home for reburial.
Wills is credited with putting forth the idea of a national cemetery. Appointed to proceed by Governor Andrew Curtin, Wills was instrumental in guiding the purchase of the 17 acres of battlefield land adjoining Evergreen Cemetery that would become Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
More than 3,000 Union soldiers were eventually reinterred there, under flat markers with their names, if known. Over the years, about an equal number of Confederate soldiers were disinterred and reburied in cemeteries in the South.
Many markers say simply “unknown,” or in some cases the number of deceased in a mass grave are noted and whether they were Union or Confederate troops — if that could be determined.
The Thorn family themselves were buried in Evergreen Cemetery, but it has another huge claim to fame in American history: It is where Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, delivered the 272-word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. The night before the dedication of this “hallowed ground,” he stayed at the Wills home, which opened to the public in 2009.
The formal invitation for Lincoln to participate at the dedication was not issued until November 2. Was Lincoln’s attendance an afterthought? Some experts think so, considering that Edward Everett agreed to deliver “the Oration” in September. Others believe that Wills was just tardy in sending a letter, and cite the fact that he also extended his personal hospitality to the president.
A mausoleum for the Brown family was erected on the exact spot, and there is no plaque that reveals that this was where Lincoln stood for the two minutes he spoke to the crowd of about 15,000. A metal fence separates Evergreen Cemetery from the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, but visitors need only exit one site to get to the other on foot.
Lincoln was the second speaker on dedication day. He followed politician, pastor and orator Everett of Massachusetts, who droned on for two hours presenting his 13,000-word opus.
Five manuscript copies (with subtle phrasing variations) of the Gettysburg Address exist. Two are held by the Library of Congress; one by the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield; one by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and one resides in the Lincoln Room at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Soldiers’ Memorial Cemetery was closed to burials after the Vietnam War, accepting only spouses and children of those already interred.
It is a beautiful, peaceful setting now; a fitting, final resting place for every soldier who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to the United States of America.
Quick reference: Most of the sites at Gettysburg National Military Park are free and open to the public. Rangers give talks on battle-related topics, and guide visitors through the expansive fields and woods where the fighting took place. The one I attended was called “Four Score and Seven Years Ago: Lincoln and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.” Rangers distribute maps, and pamphlets called “Today at the Park,” which contain the talks’ titles and schedule. The cemetery is open dawn to dusk.
If your interest in the Civil War is high, you’ll want to budget two to three full days (or more) in Gettysburg. I spent a full day on the battlefields and about four hours in the museum. I didn’t have time for the 24-mile, 16-stop self-driving tour and saw only a tiny fraction of the 1,400 monuments and memorials. The driving tour takes a minimum of three hours, more if you read everything.
Summer can be hot, humid and above all else — crowded. Plan accordingly.
Gettysburg National Military Park, museum and visitor center: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1-October 31; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 1 to March 31. Closed Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1. There is a fee for full access to the museum’s 12 galleries, film and cyclorama painting. Backpacks are not allowed in the museum and there are no lockers to store them in. In other words, leave everything locked in the car trunk. Visitors can carry in a water bottle. 1195 Baltimore Pike; www.nps.gov/gett.
For more information on the Gettysburg Address: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/gettysburg-address