John Thornley

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Dr. John Thornley (1816-1887) was a surgeon for the United States Navy during the Civil War. He attended the University of Virginia from 1835 to 1836, and was profiled as part of the UVA Unionists digital project by UVA's John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History.[1]

Early Life

John Thornley was born on August 27, 1816, in King George County, Virginia, to William Thornley and Jane Riding. His father was a planter who enslaved at least 55 people in Caroline County.[1]

In 1835, Thornley enrolled at the University of Virginia. In the year that he was there, he studied medicine, chemistry, anatomy, and surgery. He returned to Caroline County after his education.[1]

He married Mary Down Pearce in April 1856, and they had one child together: Clarence, born around 1857. Mary died on April 22, 1861, in Morristown, New Jersey, and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.[1]

Military Service

Thornley enlisted in the Navy in 1839. He passed his exam in July of that year and was appointed as an assistant surgeon on October 19, 1840.[1]

Thornley served in the Mexican-American War, serving aboard the USS Spitfire and the USS Mississippi. He participated in the Siege of Veracruz in March 1847.[1]

In 1848, Thornley was assigned to an expedition to the Holy Land to map the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.[1]

He was promoted to full surgeon on September 1, 1855.[1]

In May 1861, the naval hospital examined Thornley and declared him “permanently incapable of further service at sea” due to a “highly excitable nervous system.” On June 1, the secretary of the navy ordered him to be placed on the retired list. Thornley, however, secured an agreement to continue serving in the navy while under retired status, and he later sued the federal government to secure longevity pay for his extended term of service. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but they dismissed the case. Thornley remained in the U.S. Navy throughout the Civil War.[1]

On March 3, 1871, the Navy promoted Thornley to medical director. He retired from the navy for a final time a year later on March 5, 1872.[1]

Late Life

After the end of the Civil War, Thornley returned to Charlottesville. In 1870, his estate, now 410 East Jefferson Street, was valued at $60,000. His eldest son Clarence lived with Thornley and his family after the war.[1] Dr. Thornley married Julia Henrietta Payne sometime in the 1860s. The two had at least four children together: Josiah, born around 1867; Julian, born around 1869; Jane, born September 2, 1870; and John, born around 1877.[1] On July 22, 1871, his son Clarence accidentally shot and killed himself at the family home in Charlottesville.[1]

On August 7, 1875, Thornley was admitted to the Naval Hospital in Brooklyn, New York and diagnosed with nervous irritation. In 1887, Thornley briefly secured an $8-per-month pension. He died in Charlottesville later that year, on November 9, 1887. He was buried in Brooklyn with his first wife.[1]

After his death, his family received a pension to help support his son John, who was still a minor. His daughter Jane applied for a pension in 1914, but she was unsuccessful.[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Web. John Thornley, Website, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History, March 24, 2021, retrieved August 10, 2021.

External Links

UVA Unionists