On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln headed on horseback through the streets of Gettysburg to deliver his most famous speech. He rode past the impressive gatehouse at the Evergreen Cemetery to the newly dug graves of Union soldiers that lay beyond it. The gatehouse was the home of a German immigrant family that had endured the battle and spearheaded the first burials after it ended.
Abraham Lincoln rode a small horse through the streets of Gettysburg to deliver his dedicatory speech at the new cemetery.
Elizabeth Thorn and her husband Peter were immigrants who had been building a life in Gettysburg in the decade before the Civil War began. When the deadliest battle in American history erupted in their community, Peter was off in the Union Army. Elizabeth was left to care for her children and her elderly parents, and, of course, for the cemetery itself.1
Peter and Elizabeth Thorn were German immigrants who met and married in the United States.
Peter Thorn enlisted in the Union army in 1862. He was the superintendent of the cemetery and part of his compensation was being allowed to live in the gatehouse. He had cleared the Evergreen grounds and dug the graves for the dead of Gettysburg. Now that he was gone, these tasks fell to the wife he left behind. When the battle was fought from July 1-3, 1863, Elizabeth was five months pregnant.2
Elizabeth had grown up near the Rhine River. Her family, the Mosers moved to Gettysburg in 1854, when the borough was in the throes of anti-immigrant activity. The local newspaper, the Star and Banner, denounced immigrants as too reliant on public welfare and unable or unwilling to support themselves. It also questioned the cultural values of immigrants who were often either Catholics or atheistic socialists. Even though only 10% of Gettysburg’s population was foreign-born, hostility towards immigrants was building.3
Elizabeth moved to America at a time when immigrant women were the focus of many stereotypes. Irish women, for example, were seen as sexually licentious. Since many of them worked outside of the home, they were also seen as breaking the American rules of gender segregation in which a woman’s proper place was in the home. German women, on the other hand, were seen as masculine and crude. They were thought to be below average in intelligence. “Stupid” was a common description applied to German immigrant women.4
In 1855, the anti-immigrant Know Nothings staged a large rally in Gettysburg followed by a torchlight parade. Men carried banners emblazoned with slogans demanding that “Americans Must Rule America.” We do not know if Elizabeth or Peter Thorn were ever targeted by the Know Nothings, but they were living in a place where at least some of their neighbors regarded them as unwelcome invaders.5
On June 26, 1863, a real invasion began. Confederate cavalry, moving through Gettysburg arrived at Elizabeth Thorn’s gatehouse home and demanded that she feed them. They bragged of having killed a Union militiaman nearby, but they promised her that they would not rape her “like the yankeys did to their ladies,” she later wrote. This mention of rape may have only heightened her fear as a woman alone with enemy soldiers.6
The Confederates moved off soon, but on July 1 fighting broke out on the ridges west of Thorn’s home. A staff officer for Union General O.O. Howard stopped at her house and asked if there was a man there who could guide him along the unfamiliar roads so that he could speed the Union reinforcements marching to confront the Confederates. Elizabeth volunteered, but the officer told her he could not accept her help because the roads ahead were under fire. She insisted that the men were all off in the army and that she was the only one who could help. As she accompanied the officer onto the approaches to the battle, the soldiers seeing her let up a cheer at her courage.7
The Union XI Corps, made up mostly of German soldiers, moved past the gatehouse on their way to disaster at Barlow’s Knoll. When they had to retreat, they pulled back to her home which stood on the hill rise known to everyone who studies the Civil War as Cemetery Hill. While the defeated Germans fortified their position that night, Elizabeth cooked dinner for the XI Corps’ commander, O.O. Howard, and his German general Carl Schurz.8
German Union soldiers fought to defend Cemetery Hill against Louisiana Confederates, many of whom were Irish immigrants. The Thorns’ Gatehouse home is prominent in this painting.
On July 2, the Thorns were evacuated from the gatehouse. Cemetery Hill was a major focus of fighting that day and the Thorn’s home was just a few hundred yards from the place where Pickett’s Charge crested on July 3. The Thorn’s were not allowed to return until the Confederates retreated after the battle.9
When Elizabeth and her three small sons returned on July 7, their home and the once serene cemetery were transformed. The air stank from the decay of dead men and animals rotting on a piece of land that was one of the most fought over in American history. Seventeen men were dead in her garden and 34 horses were lying on her lawn. Her food was all eaten by the soldiers and the floors and furniture in her home were covered in the blood of wounded men brought into the house for treatment.10
The Thorn home after the battle.
Even though she was five months pregnant, Elizabeth began digging graves almost immediately. She and her elderly father personally buried at least one hundred of the Union dead. She later wrote that the exertion damaged her health and she believed that it contributed to the death as a teen of the baby still in her womb in July 1863.11
This statue of Elizabeth Thorn was erected in 2002. It shows the pregnant immigrant with a shovel at her side wiping seat from her brow while digging graves.
Peter Thorn returned home to Elizabeth after his military service ended. When he died in 1907, a local historian wrote to praise the Thorns as model immigrants who, he said, were “good American citizens”, unlike the undesirable Italian, Jewish and Polish immigrants then being “vomited upon our shores,” in his words. The Thorns had once been part of a scorned German immigrant minority. Half-a-century later, they were being used to disparage the next wave of immigrants.12
VIDEO: Ken Burns’ Civil War-The Gettysburg Address
This article relies heavily on The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) for information on Elizabeth Thorn.
The Library of Congress has a page describing the manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address.
Here is the Lincoln Institute’s web page on Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg.
The Civil War Trust has a Lesson Plan for teachers on the Gettysburg Address.
There are five manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address. They differ slightly in wording. This version, which Lincoln gave to his aide John Nicolay, a German immigrant. Here is the full Nicolay text:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow, this ground—The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.
It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us —that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
1. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 700-730; The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows by Gabor Boritt published by Simon & Schuster.(2006); Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills published by Simon and Schuster (1992); Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words by Douglas Wilson published by Knopf (2006).
2. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 700-730
3. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 706-730
4. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 713-730
5. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 713-730
6. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 1365
7. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 1590-1600, 1960-2000.
8. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 1590-1600
9. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 2460-2500
10. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 2545-2550
11. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 2460-2500
12. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History by Margaret Creighton published by Basic Books (2005) Kindle Loc. 3085
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites