Cordelia Harvey Worked Tirelessly to Improve Medical Care for Soldiers

Wisconsin had a new governor in January 1862.  Louis P. Harvey, a Republican and former Wisconsin Secretary of State, took office on January 6th.  Four days later, Harvey addressed the state legislature, asking that more funds be made available for financial help for families of soldiers under the Soldier Volunteer Aid Act. Many families suffered financial hardship when the family breadwinner went off to war, and the Act provided some a small amount of money to those families.  A reluctant legislature finally provided funding in April.  Governor Harvey wanted to be an advocate for Wisconsin soldiers, and had taken the first step.

When the casualty reports were released after the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, Governor Harvey called on the citizens of Wisconsin to donate medical supplies.  The state responded, and the governor personally delivered the supplies and some volunteer surgeons to the field hospitals near the battlefield.  He also visited Wisconsin regiments at their camps.  But on April 19th, while transferring between steamboats on the Tennessee River, Louis Harvey slipped and fell into the river and drowned. 

But as the soldiers lost one advocate, another one emerged.  The governor’s widow, Cordelia Harvey, continued her late husband’s cause.  In September 1862, she was appointed a Sanitary Agent of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a U.S. government agency set up to improve conditions for soldiers in camps and in hospitals.    Mrs. Harvey traveled to Missouri and inspected hospitals there.  She found them to be overcrowded, badly organized, and poorly staffed, including some surgeons she deemed “incompetent”.  She had the U.S. Sanitary Commission send medical supplies to the hospitals.

After reporting her findings to the new governor, Edward Salomon, Mrs. Harvey returned to the south and inspected hospitals in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.  As she did so, she came to the conclusion that the sick and wounded were receiving inadequate care and would receive much better care if they could be sent to hospitals closer to home.  When she visited General Ulysses S. Grant near Vicksburg, Mississippi in March 1863, she convinced Grant to send patients with chronic dysentery to northern hospitals for treatment.

Cordelia Harvey was now ready to take on her biggest challenge.  She wanted to establish military hospitals in the northern states and ensure that the sick and wounded would be sent to them from the south.  In September 1863, she went to Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in the hope of establishing these hospitals.

President Lincoln listed to Mrs. Harvey, but was skeptical.  He felt that many wounded or sick soldiers sent north would desert from the army.  Lincoln then sent her to see Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  Stanton listened, but wanted to hear a report from the Surgeon General (who was touring hospitals in New Orleans) before making any decision.  So she went back to Lincoln, who said he would talk with Stanton the nest day.  On her way out, someone asked Mrs. Harvey how long she planned on staying in Washington.  “Until I get what I came after” she replied.

She did get what she came after.  Refusing to take no for an answer, Mrs. Harvey returned to see Lincoln and adamantly restated her position.  Finally, the persistent Cordelia Harvey convinced Lincoln to establish the hospitals.  He signed an order for three to be built in Wisconsin, one at Madison, one in Milwaukee, and one at Prairie du Chien. 

The hospital in Madison was named after Governor Louis Harvey.  Cordelia Harvey returned to the south and continued her work improving conditions for the sick and wounded, in hospitals and camps from  Memphis to New Orleans.  She was a welcome sight to the Wisconsin soldiers.  When the war ended, and the Harvey Hospital was to be shut down, she established an orphanage in the building for the children of Wisconsin soldiers killed in the war.  The orphanage remained in operation until 1875.


  • Harvey, Cordelia A. P.  “A Wisconsin Woman’s Picture of President Lincoln.”  The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Volume I, Number 3, March 1918.
  • Klement, Frank. Wisconsin in the Civil War.  Madison, Wisconsin:  The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997.
  • Quiner, E.B.  The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union.  Chicago:  Clarke & Company, Publishers, 1866.

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