Friday, April 12, 2013
PORTLAND — None of the people gathered knew the two whose names were etched on the gravestones.
They knew about them — through the chaplain’s words and journal entries and news articles — but they didn’t know them. Not really.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Thorp and his wife, Mandana Thorp, a volunteer nurse, both died nearly 100 years ago after having served in the Civil War and time, it seems, has also taken any direct descendants.
Even so, nearly 40 people came to the River View Cemetery on the morning of April 6.
They stood under a gray sky, heavy with rain, as two graves, unmarked for nearly a century, were given a story and a headstone.
“We owe a great deal to this generation,” said Steve Betschart from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “This generation saved the country from permanent division.”
Many soldiers who died in battle, he said, have come to rest in quiet, forgotten places, never making it to a cemetery. “So the ones that we do know, it’s very important to remember them.”
There were two stories told April 6. One was about the lives of Mandana and Thomas. The other was about their graves. Both have their share of twists.
Thomas Thorp, the grandson of Revolutionary War veterans, was born in Granger, New York in 1837. When the Civil War began in 1861 he was pulled away from his mechanical engineering studies.
“Those were exciting, if not naive days in our nation’s history,” Chaplain D.H. Shearer said during the service. Nobody really thought the war would last long. “Many were afraid it would be over before they even had a chance to get into the fight.”
Thorp enlisted as a captain and was asked to help form the 85th New York Volunteer Infantry. Key to recruitment were Union League rallies. Brass bands would fill the air with the sound of confidence and speakers would shout the virtues of the Union.
At one of those rallies, a young woman, just 18 years old, named Mandana Coleman Major had lent her voice to the effort. The captain noticed her, and a year later they were married.
The story runs long, of course, as a most war stories do. But in short, a promotion for Thorp followed, so did a name change for his regiment.
Mandana ultimately joined her husband at war as a volunteer nurse. She became known as an angel of the battlefield. There were battles waged and flags taken.
At one point Thorp was captured and he made an escape from a moving train. Perhaps most importantly, though, both survived.
After the war they began a slow migration westward, eventually settling in Corvallis. In 1915, the general died there and was put to rest in Crystal Lake Masonic Cemetery.
Heartbroken, his widow moved north to Portland where she lived with her daughter Bessie before she died a year later.
Bessie had her father’s remains moved to Portland and her parents were laid side by side in River View Cemetery, both in unmarked graves.
And this is where the second story begins. Back in 2008, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil put a headstone down in Corvallis where they believed Thorp’s body resided in an unmarked grave.
Not until a year ago, when historian Stanley Clarke went looking for Mandana’s grave and found it in River View, alongside her husband’s, did anybody know the general had been moved.
Clarke told Judy Rycraft Juntunen, a volunteer at Crystal Lake, who fired off an email to the local parks bureau. The subject line: Guess who’s not buried in our cemetery?
On April 6, everything was set right.
The two gravestones, both provided by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, were set side by side, an old photo of the couple rested between them. Their stories were given a proper ending.
After the ceremony, a man dressed in a Civil War-era uniform raised his bugle and the familiar, mournful sound of taps rang out.
None of the people gathered knew Thomas or Mandana, but that wasn’t really the point.
“People matter,” said David Noble, the executive director of River View, “and so remembering them matters.”