Cordelia A. P. Harvey was a one-time school teacher and the widow of Wisconsin Governor Louis P. Harvey. He died in 1862 – two months into his gubernatorial term when he slipped when crossing between two boats and drowned in Tennessee River. Mrs. Harvey picked up her husband’s concern for the welfare of Union soldiers wounded in battle and was appointed as a sanitary agent by her husband’s successor, Governor Edward Salomon. She became a leading champion of the creation of Union hospitals near the homes of Union soldiers where they could recuperate in more healthful environments than were possible near the war front.
Mrs. Harvey fell during this work in 1863 and needed to return to Wisconsin to recuperate. She became convinced that soldiers should share in her own experience. President Lincoln opposed her idea because he was afraid that once wounded soldiers got close to home, they would melt away back to civilian life. Years later, Mrs. Harvey gave a speech in which she detailed her visit to Washington to see President Lincoln in September 1863. She gave “the exact conversations between Mr. Lincoln and myself, as taken down at the time, for in no other way can I so well picture to you our much loved and martyred president as he then appeared at the White House. As I said before, the necessity for establishing military hospital in the North had long been an subject of much thought among our people, but it was steadily opposed by authorities.” Mrs. Harvey said:
By the advice of friends and with an intense feeling that something must be done, I went to Washington. I entered the White House, not with fear and trembling, but strong and self-possessed, fully conscious of the righteousness of my mission. I was received without delay. I had never see Mr. Lincoln before. He was alone, in a medium sized office-like room, no elegance about him, no elegance in him. He was plainly clad in a suit of black that illy fitted him. No fault of his tailor, however; such a figure could not be fitted. He was tall and lean, and as he sat in a folded up sort of way in a deep arm chair, one would almost have thought him deformed. At his side stood a high writing desk and table combined; plain straw matting covered the floor; a few stuffed chairs and sofa covered with green worsted completed the furniture of the presence chamber of the president of the great republic. When I first saw him his head was bent forward, chin resting on his breast, and in his hand a letter which I had just sent to him.
He raised his eyes, saying, ‘Mrs. Harvey?”
I hastened forward, and replied, ‘Yes, and I am glad to see you, Mr. Lincoln.” So much for republican presentations and ceremony. The President took my hand, hoped I was well, but there was no smile of welcome on his face. It was rather the stern look of the judge who had decided against me. His face was peculiar; bone, nerve, vein, and muscle were all so plainly seen; deep lines of thought and care were around his mouth and eyes. The word ‘justice’ came into my mind, as though I could read it upon his face – I mean that extended sense of the word that comprehends the practice of every virtue which reason prescribes and society should expect. The debt we owe to God, to man, to ourselves, when paid, is but a simple act of justice, a duty performed. This attribute seemed the source of Mr. Lincoln’s strength. He motioned me to a chair. I saw, and silently read his face while he was reading a paper written by one of our senators, introducing me and my mission. When he had finished reading this he looked up, ran his fingers through his hair, well silvered, though the brown then predominated; his beard was more whitened.
In a moment he looked at me with a good deal of sad severity and said, “Madam, this matter of northern hospitals has been talked of a great deal, and I thought it was settled, but it seems not. What have you got to say about it?”
“Only this, Mr. Lincoln, that many soldiers in our western army on the Mississippi River must have northern air or die. There are thousands of graves all along our southern rivers and in the swamps for which the government is responsible, ignorantly, undoubtedly, but this ignorance must not continue. If you will permit these men to come north you will have ten men where you have one now.”
The president could not see the force or logic in this last argument. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘If your reasoning were correct, it would be a good argument.’ I saw that I had misspoken. “I don’t see how,’ he continued, ‘Sending one sick man north is going to give us in a year ten well ones.”
A quizzical smile played over his face at my slight embarrassment. ‘Mr. Lincoln, you understand me, I think. I intended to say, if you will let the sick come north, you will have ten well men in the army one year from today, where you have one well one now; whereas, if you do not let them come north, you will not have one from the ten, for they will all be dead.”
“Yes, yes, I understand you; but if they are sent north, they will desert; where is the difference”
“Dead men cannot fight,” I answered, “and they may not desert.”
Mr. Lincoln’s eye flashed as he replied, ‘A fine way, a fine way to decimate the army, we should never get a man of them back, not one, not one.”
“Indeed, but you must pardon me when I say you are mistaken; you do not understand our people. You do not trust them sufficiently. They are as true and as loyal to the government as you say. The loyalty is among the common soldiers and they have ever been the chief sufferers.”
“This is your opinion,” he said with a sort of a sneer. “Mrs. Harvey, how many men do you suppose the government was paying in the Army of the Potomac at the battle of Antietam, and how many men do you suppose could be got for active service at that time? I wish you would give a guess.”
“I know nothing of the Army of the Potomac, only there were some noble sacrifices there. When I spoke of loyalty, I referred to our western army.”
“Well, now, give a guess. How many?”
“I cannot, Mr. President.”
He threw himself around in the chair, one leg over the arm, and again spoke slowly: ‘This war might have been finished at that time if every man had been in his place that was able to be there, but they were scattered hither and thither over the North, some on furloughs, and in one way or another, gone; so that out of 170,000 men which the government was paying at that time, only 83,000 could be got for action. The consequences, you know, proved nearly disastrous.”
“It was very sad but the delinquents were certainly not in northern hospitals, neither were they deserters therefrom, for there are none. This is, therefore, no argument against them.”
“Well, well, Mrs. Harvey, you go and see the Secretary of War and talk with him and hear what he has to say.” This he said thoughtfully, and took up the letter I had given him, and after writing something on the back of it gave it to me.
“May I return to you, Mr. Lincoln?” I asked.
“Certainly,” he replied, and his voice was gentler than it had been before.
I left him for the war department. I found written on the back of the letter these words, “Admit Mrs. Harvey at once; listen to what she says; she is a lady of intelligence and talks sense. A. Lincoln.” Not, of course, displeased with the introduction, I went on my way to Mr. Stanton, our secretary of war, about whose severity I had heard so much that I must confess I dreaded the interview; but I was kindly received, listened to respectfully, and answered politely. And let me say here, as a passing tribute to this great and good man, that I never knew a clearer brain, a truer heart, a nobler spirit than Edwin M. Stanton.1
Secretary Stanton told Mrs. Harvey that he had sent the Surgeon-General to inspect the military hospitals along the Mississippi River. Mrs. Harvey cordially dissented that no good would come of this inspection tour and told Secretary Stanton: “any person with discernment, with a medium allowance of common sense and humanity, who is loyal, and has been throughout southern river hospitals, knows and feels the necessity for what I ask, and yet you say you have never received a report to this effect. The truth is, the medical authorities know the heads of department do not wish hospitals established so far way from army lines, and report accordingly. I wish this could be overruled; can nothing be done?” Mr. Stanton told her that no changes could be made until the surgeon-general returned. Mrs. Harvey took her leave.
Returning to Mr. Lincoln, I found it was past the usual hour for receiving and no one was in the waiting room. The messenger said I had better go directly into the President’s room. It would be more comfortable waiting there, and there was only one gentleman with him and he would soon be through. I found my way to the back part of the room, and seated myself on a sofa in such a position that the desk was between Mr. Lincoln and me. I do not think that he knew I was there. The gentleman with him had given him a paper. The President looked at it carefully and said, ‘Yes, this is sufficient endorsement for anybody; what do you want?”
I could not hear the reply distinctly, but the promotion of somebody in the army, either a son or a brother, was strongly urged. I heard the words, ‘I see there are no vacancies among brigadiers, from the fact that so many colonels are commanding brigades.”
At this the President threw himself forward in his chair in such a manner as to show me the most curious, comical face in the world. He was looking the man straight in the eye, with the left hand raised to a horizontal position, and his right hand patting it coaxingly, and said, ‘My friend, let me tell you something; you are a farmer, I believe; if not, you will understand me. Suppose you had a large cattle yard, full of all sorts of cattle, cows, oxen, and bulls, and you kept selling your cows and oxen, taking good care of your bulls; bye and bye, you would find that you had nothing but a yard full of old bulls, good for nothing under heaven, and it will be just so with my army if I don’t stop making brigadier generals. The man was answered; he could scarcely laugh, though he tried to do so, but you should have seen Mr. Lincoln laugh – he laughed all over, and full enjoyed the point if no one else did. The story, if not elegant, was certainly apropos.
As I commenced to tell you everything I remember of this singular man, this must fill its place. The gentleman soon departed, fully satisfied, I doubt not, for it was a saying at Washington when one met a petitioner, ‘Has Mr. Lincoln told you a story? If he has, it is all day with you. He never says ‘yes’ after a story.”
I stepped forward as soon as the door closed. The President motioned to a chair near him. ‘Well, what did the Secretary of War say?”
I gave a full account of the interview, and then said, “ I have nowhere else to go but to you.”
He replied earnestly, “Mr. Stanton knows very well that there is an acting surgeon-general here, and that Hammond will not be back these two months. I will see the Secretary of War myself, and you come in the morning.”
I arose to take leave, when he bade me not to hasten, spoke kindly of my work, said he fully appreciated the spirit in which I came. He smiled pleasantly and bade me good evening.
As I left the White House, I met [Illinois Congressman] Owen Lovejoy who greeted me cordially and asked, ‘How long are you going to stay here?”
“Until I get what I came after,” I replied.
“That’s right, that’s right; go on, I believe in the final perseverance of the saints.”
I have never forgotten these words, perhaps it is because they were the last I ever heard him utter. [Congressman Lovejoy died of cancer in early 1864.]
I returned in the morning, full of hope, thinking of the pleasant face I had left the evening before, but no smile greeted me. The President was evidently annoyed by something, and waited for me to speak, which I did not do. I afterward learned his annoyance was caused by a woman pleading for the life of a son who was sentenced to be shot for desertion under very aggravating circumstances.
After a moment he said, “Well,” with a peculiar contortion of face I never saw in anybody else.
I replied, “Well,” and he looked at me a little astonished, I fancied, and said, “Have you nothing to say?”
“Nothing, Mr. President, until I hear your decision. You bade me come thing morning; have you decided?”
“No, but I believe this idea of northern hospitals is a great humbug, and I am tired of hearing about it.” He spoke impatiently.
I replied, “I regret to add a feather’s weight to your already overwhelming care and responsibility. I would rather have stayed at home.”
With a kind of half smile, he said, “I wish you had.”
I answered him as though he had not smiled. “Nothing would have given me greater pleasure; but a keen sense of duty to this government, justice and mercy to its most loyal supporters, and regard for your honor and position made me come. The people cannot understand why their friends are left to die when with proper care they might live and do good service for their country. Mr. Lincoln, I believe you will be grateful for my coming.” He looked at me intently; I could not tell if he were annoyed or not, and as he did not speak, I continued: ‘I do not come to plead for the lives of criminals, not for the lives of deserters, not for those who have been in the least disloyal. I come to plead for the lives of those who were the first to hasten to the support of their government, who helped to place you where you are, because they trusted you. Men who have done all they could, and now when flesh, and nerve, and muscle are gone, still pray for your life and the life of this republic. They scarcely ask for that for which I plead – they expect to sacrifice their lives for their country. Many on their cots, faint, sick, and dying, say, ‘We would gladly do more, but I suppose that is all right.’ I know that a majority of them would live and be strong men again if they could be sent north. I saw I know, because when I was sick among them last spring, surrounded by every comfort, with the best of care, and determined to get well, I grew weaker day by day, until, not being under military law, my friends brought me north. I recovered entirely, simply by breathing northern air.”
While I was speaking the expression of Mr. Lincoln’s face had changed many times. He had never taken his eye from me. Now every muscle in his face seemed to contract, and then suddenly expand. As he opened his mouth you could almost hear them snap as he said, ‘You assume to know more than I do,” and closed his mouth as though he never expected to open it again, sort of slammed it to.
I could scarcely reply. I was hurt, and thought the tears would come, but rallied in a moment and said, ‘You must pardon me, Mr. President, I intend no disrespect, but it is because of this knowledge, because I do know what you do not know, that I come to you. If you knew what I do and had not ordered what I ask for, I should know that an appeal to you would be vain; but I believe the people have not trusted you for naught. The question only is whether you believe me or not. If you believe me you will give me hospitals, if you not, well— ”
With the same snapping of muscle he again said, ‘You assume to know more than surgeons do.”
“Oh, no! Mr. Lincoln, I could not perform an amputation nearly as well as some of them do; indeed, I do not think I could do it all. But this is true – I do not come here for your favor, I am not an aspirant for military honor. While it would be the pride of my life to be able to win your respect and confidence, still, this I can waive for the time being. Now the medical authorities know as well as I do that you are opposed to establishing northern military hospitals, and they report to please you; they desire your favor. I come to you from no casual tour of inspection, passing rapidly through the general hospitals, in the principal cities on the river, with a cigar in my mouth and a rattan in my hand, talking to the surgeon in charge of the price of cotton and abusing the generals in our army for not knowing and performing their duty better, and finally coming into the open air, with a long-drawn breath as though just having escaped suffocation, and complacently saying, “You have a very fine hospital here; the boys seem to be doing very well, a little more attention to ventilation is perhaps desirable.’
“It is not thus; I have visited the hospitals, but from early morning until late at night sometimes. I have visited the regimental and general hospitals on the Mississippi River from Quincy to Vicksburg, and I come to you from the cots of men who have died, who might have lived had you permitted. This is hard to say, but it is none the less true.”2
Mrs. Harvey’s message was a hard sell to the President. She recalled that as spoke, “Mrs. Lincoln’s brow had become very much contracted, and a severe scowl had settled over his whole face. He sharply asked how many men Wisconsin had in the field, that is, how many did she send? I replied, “About 50,000, I think, I do not know exactly.”
“That means she has about 20,000 now.” He looked at me, and said, ‘You need not look so sober, they are not all dead.”
I did not reply. I had noticed the veins in his face filling full within a few moments, and one vein across his forehead was as large as my little finger, and it gave him a frightful look.
Soon, with a quick, impatient movement of his whole frame, he said, “I have a good mind to dismiss every man of them from the service and have no more trouble with them!”
I was surprised at his lack of self-control, and I knew he did not mean one word of what he said, but what would come next? As I looked at him, I was troubled, fearing I had said something wrong. He was very pale.
The silence was painful, and I said as quietly as I could, “They have been faithful to the government; they have been faithful to you; they will still be loyal to the government, do what you will with them; but if you will grant my petition you will be glad as long as you live. The prayer of grateful hearts will give you strength in the hour of trial, and strong and willing arms will return to fight your battles.”
The president bowed his head, and with a look of sadness I can never forget, said, “I never shall be glad any more.” A severity had passed from his face. He seemed looking backward and heartward, and for a moment he seemed to forget he was not alone; a more than mortal anguish rested on his face.
The spell must be broken, so I said, “Do not speak so, Mr. President. Who will have so much reason to rejoice when the government is restored, as it will be?
“I know, I know,” he said, placing a hand on each side and bowing forward, “but the springs of life are wearing away.”
I asked if he felt his great cares were injuring his health.“No,’ he replied, “not directly, perhaps.”
I asked if he slept well, and he said he never was a good sleeper, and, of course, slept less now than ever before. He said the people did not appreciate the magnitude of this rebellion, and that it would be a long time before the end.
I began to feel I was occupying time valuable to him and belonging to him. As I arose to take leave, I said, ‘Have you decided upon your answer to the object of my visit?”
He replied, “No. Come tomorrow morning. No, it is [cabinet] meeting tomorrow – yes, come tomorrow at twelve o’clock, there is not much for the cabinet to do tomorrow.” He arose and bade me a cordial good morning.
The next morning I arose with a terribly depressed feeling that perhaps I was to fail in the object for which I came. I found myself constantly looking at my watch and wondering if twelve o’clock would ever come. At last I ascended the steps of the White House as all visitors were being dismissed, because the President would receive no one on that day. I asked the messenger if that meant me, and he said, ‘No. The President desires you to wait for the cabinet will soon adjourn. I waited, and waited, and waited, three long hours and more, during which time the President sent out twice, saying the cabinet would soon adjourn, that I was to wait. I was fully prepared for defeat, and every word of my reply was chosen and carefully placed. I walked the rooms and studied an immense map that covered one side of the reception room. I listened, at last heard many footsteps – the cabinet had adjourned. Mr. Lincoln did not wait to send for me but came directly into the room where I was. It was the first time I had noticed him standing. He was very tall and moved with a shuffling, awkward motion.
He came forward, rubbing his hands, and saying, “My dear Madam, I am very sorry to have kept you waiting. We have but this moment adjourned.”
I replied, ‘My waiting is no matter, but you must be very tired, and we will not talk tonight.”
He said, ‘No. Sit down,” and placed himself in a chair beside me, and said, “Mrs. Harvey, I only wish to tell you that an order equivalent to granting a hospital in your state has been issued nearly twenty-four hours.”
I could not speak, I was so entirely unprepared for it. I wept for joy, I could not help it. When I could speak I said,’God bless you. I thank you in the name of thousand who will bless you for the act.” Then, remembering how many orders had been issued and countermanded, I said, “Do you mean, really and truly, that we are going to have a hospital now?”
With a look full of humanity and benevolence, he said, ‘I do most certainly hope so.” He spoke very emphatically, and no reference was made to any previous opposition. He said he wished me to come and see him in the morning and he would give me a copy of the order.”
I was so much agitated I could not talk with him. He noticed it and commenced talking upon other subjects. He asked me to look at the map before referred to, which, he said, gave a very correct idea of the locality of the principal battle grounds of Europe. ‘It is a fine map,” he said, pointing out Waterloo and the different battle fields of the Crimea, then, smiling, said, “I am afraid you will not like it as well when I tell you whose work it is.”
I replied, “It is well done, whosoever it may be. Who did it, Mr. Lincoln?”
“[George B.] McClellan, and he certainly did do this well. He did it while he was at West Point.” There was nothing said for awhile. Perhaps he was balancing in his own mind the two words which were then agitating the heart of the American people, words which have ever throbbed the great heart of nations, words whose power every individual has recognized – “success,” and “failure.”
I left shortly after with the promise to call next morning, as he desired me to do, at nine o’clock. I suppose the excitement cause the intense suffering of that night. I was very ill and it was ten o’clock the next morning before I was able to send for a carriage to keep my appointment with the President. It was past the our; more than fifty persons were in the waiting room. I did not expect an audience, but sent in my name and said I would call again. The messenger said, ‘Do not go, I think the President will see you now.”
I had been but a moment among anxious, expectant, waiting faces, when the door opened and the voice said, “Mrs. Harvey, the President will see you now.” I arose, not a little embarrassed to be gazed at so curiously by so many with a look that said as plainly as words could, “Who are you?” As I passed the crowd, one person said, “She has been here every day, and what is more, she is going to win.”3
At Mrs. Harvey’s request, President Lincoln ordered the hospital to be named after her late husband. She herself came to be called the “Wisconsin Angel.” Mrs. Harvey worked as a school teacher before she married her husband, who was also a school teacher at the time. After the war, Mrs. Harvey founded an orphanage in Wisconsin for children whose fathers had died in the Civil War.
- Cordelia A. P. Harvey, A Wisconsin Woman’s Picture of President Lincoln, pp. 9-13.
- Harvey, A Wisconsin Woman’s Picture of President Lincoln, pp. 13-18.
- Harvey, A Wisconsin Woman’s Picture of President Lincoln, pp. 18-21.