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THE STORIES OF GETTYSBURG'S CIVILIANS

Gettysburg's history is inextricably linked with the stories of its civilians, those who called its main streets home, especially during the time period following the epic Battle of Gettysburg. "The stories of how the people of Gettysburg coped with the aftermath of the bloody battle is varied — some fled to safety, others stayed and pitched in immediately, some tried to recoup their losses in less than scrupulous ways, and others would never fully recover from strife inflicted on their property or themselves," says Barbara Sanders, education specialist for the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park. "The importance of these stories and these people is in their universality. Their story is our story."

Main Street Gettysburg invites you to learn more about a town, a people and the stories of the inspirational citizens who left their legacy in Gettysburg. Click on the names below to read about these individuals and their legacy of strength, commitment and vision.

Elizabeth Thorn
Basil Biggs
David Wills
John "Jack" Hopkins
John Burns

A DEDICATION TO THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

Displaying tremendous tenacity in the face of tragedy, Elizabeth Thorn dedicated herself to the task of interring the dead following the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

Elizabeth ThornElizabeth Thorn was a German immigrant living in the gatehouse of the local cemetery. She concurrently cared for that cemetery, her aging parents and her young children while her husband was at war. This gatehouse would become a general's headquarters as well as a hospital while she fled south to safety. She later wrote: "When I left home, I had put on a heavier dress than usual... I lived in that dress for six weeks." Elizabeth and her father buried 105 bodies in the cemetery in the hot, humid conditions of July 1863; she was six months pregnant at the time. Today, you can stand in Elizabeth’s footsteps in front of the gatehouse that was her home, located next to the Baltimore Street entrance of the Soldiers' National Cemetery.

ESTABLISHING THE FOUNDATION OF A NATIONAL CEMETERY

Gettysburg resident Basil Biggs lived during a time of extraordinary conflict. His role in the creation of a national cemetery at Gettysburg is a story of perseverance in the midst of struggle.

Basil Biggs and FamilyIn 1863, Basil Biggs was a free black man and property owner; he lived just eight miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. When news came of the Rebel invasion, he packed up his family and sent them farther north and away from the threat of capture and life as enslaved persons. After the battle, Biggs was hired to supervise the work of reburying the Union dead in a new national cemetery. It took more than six months to find, identify and re-inter over 3,000 bodies. Today, you can stand in Basil Biggs' footsteps inside the semicircular Civil War plot in the Soldiers' National Cemetery.

THE CENTER OF TOWN, THE CENTER OF THE BATTLE’S CLEAN UP

At one of America's historic homes along the Pathway of Preservation, the David Wills House, President Abraham Lincoln put the finishing touches on the Gettysburg Address.

David WillsThe home of Gettysburg attorney David Wills was located near the center of downtown Gettysburg. It was also the center of the immense clean-up process after the Battle of Gettysburg and the place where President Abraham Lincoln put the finishing touches on the Gettysburg Address. Following the battle, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin designated David Wills as a state agent and charged him with seeing to the proper burial for the Union dead and the establishment of a permanent national cemetery at Gettysburg. Wills also invited President Abraham Lincoln to speak at the dedication in November 1863 and hosted the president during his visit to Gettysburg. Today, the historic David Wills House is a National Park Service museum dedicated to telling the story of David Wills, President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the establishment of Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

A MODEL OF INTEGRITY AND FIDELITY

More than a mere custodian, African-American John Hopkins' acts of service at Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) are linked with the history and heritage of this educational institution.

John 'Jack' HopkinsJohn Hopkins was chief among "the colored aristocracy of the town." In 1847, Pennsylvania College hired Hopkins as the custodian for its two principal buildings, the “Main Edifice” (now Pennsylvania Hall) and the newly-completed Linnean Hall, with the responsibility for cleaning, stoking the stove fires, and ringing the college bell. Hopkins’ “integrity and fidelity” – and probably also the impish smile he revealed in a photograph taken in 1867 – endeared him to the students. Like most of Gettysburg’s black population, "Jack the Janitor" did not tarry in Gettysburg for the battle. As the Confederate army swept into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, it became as notorious as the bounty-hunters for enslaving freed Pennsylvania blacks. But once the Confederate tide receded, Hopkins returned to Gettysburg and the College, and when he died in 1868, the faculty and students "in a body" attended his funeral and conducted the services. The house that "Jack the Janitor" bought in 1857 – and then remodeled into a two-story home – still stands at 219 South Washington Street.

"CITIZEN PATRIOT OF GETTYSBURG"

Displaying courage in the midst of conflict, 69-year-old Gettysburg civilian John Burns walked toward the sound of the guns on the first day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

John BurnsA former constable and veteran of the War of 1812, John Burns became known as the “Citizen Patriot of Gettysburg.” He was 69 years old at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg and had tried to enter the Union Army but had been turned away for being too old. On July 1, he marched out to McPherson Ridge to help the Union soldiers positioned there. He was passed from regiment to regiment before the 7th Wisconsin finally allowed him to join them in the fight. According to a newspaper account, John received three wounds in battle. When Matthew Brady’s photographers came to town soon after the battle, they took a photo of John sitting at his home. He soon became a national celebrity, and when President Lincoln came to town in November 1863, he and John met face to face for the first time. John died at the home of his brother-in-law from pneumonia on February 4, 1872 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. On February 14, 1902, a monument to honor Burns was set in place on McPherson Ridge.