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Civil War Governor Harvey's Knife

Pocket knife found on the corpse of Wisconsin Governor Louis P. Harvey after he drowned in the Tennessee River on April 19, 1862.
(Museum object #1969.4)

Louis P. Harvey had been the Governor of Wisconsin for only a month when the Battle of Shiloh (also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing) was fought on the banks of the Tennessee River, April 6-7, 1862. The 14th, 16th and 18th Wisconsin Regiments fought in this bloody melee. Together they suffered a shockingly high 27.4 percent casualty rate. Harvey, with a contingent of doctors and surgeons, traveled to Shiloh after the battle to bring supplies, relief, and his cheerful attitude. On April 19 he prepared to return to Wisconsin, but while stepping from one steamboat to another he fell into the Tennessee River and drowned. A week later his body was found 65 miles downriver. This knife was on his body. That fact is not disputed. How it found its way to the Wisconsin Historical Society, however, is something of a mystery.

A Fatal Drowning

Commissary General Edwin Wadsworth witnessed the fatal accident and a few days later shared his experience with the Wisconsin State Journal.

According to Wadsworth, the Wisconsin party prepared for their homeward journey on the rainy evening of Saturday, April 19. While waiting for the steamer "Minnehaha" to take them to Cairo, Illinois, they boarded the docked steamer "Dunleith" and most of the party laid down to rest. Around 10 pm the "Minnehaha" came into sight and the group was roused. Harvey waited at the front of the "Dunleith" as the bow of the "Minnehaha" came near. At this point "the Governor took a step back—apparently to get out of the way, but the night being very dark and rainy, he made a misstep, and fell overboard, between the two steamers." Two doctors on board tried to rescue the governor, but neither succeeded. Harvey floated under a flat boat and the fast current carried his body downriver.

Body Found, then Buried … Twice

Seven days later, on April 27, children playing near the river saw a body floating in it and asked "a negro man" to pull it ashore. After doing so he and the children rifled the pockets of the corpse for its valuables and then slid it back in the water. A local farmer, hearing about the body's discovery, found it near the riverbank. He quickly identified it as the recently deceased Wisconsin governor by the papers found on the corpse. He then buried the body near his home.

On April 30 the farmer flagged down the steamer "Lady Pike" and informed those on board that he knew where Governor Harvey was buried. The body was recovered and returned to Wisconsin, where Harvey received a state burial.

But what of his personal belongings, which included, according to an April 30, 1862, Monroe Sentinel article, money, a watch, papers, a pencil, and a pocket knife?

Harvey's Civil War Relic Resurfaces Decades Later

Jump ahead a little over 50 years. On October 9, 1913, the Racine Journal-News announced that a "priceless relic of Civil War days" would be sent from Racine to the Wisconsin Historical Society. According to the newspaper the relic was a little silver-handled pocket knife, and had been the clue to identifying the body of Governor Harvey.

The reporter told the story of how Samuel Bell, a famous Civil War surgeon, was at the landing when the governor's body was brought ashore. He had been a boyhood friend of Harvey's when both were growing up in the village of Shopiere (Rock County) and knew that Harvey always carried a pocket knife "of curious design with his initials engraved upon the blade in a secret pocket."

Bell had checked the secret pocket overlooked by thieves, found the knife, and kept it as a memento. Bell died in Beloit in April 1913. Before his death he told his nephew, Frank Swingle of Racine, about the knife and that he wanted it sent to the State Historical Museum. Swingle found it in Bell's safety deposit vault and sent it to the Museum in compliance with his uncle's wishes.

Bell's Story Doesn't Ring True

This is a great story. Unfortunately it doesn't match the facts or the eyewitness accounts. To begin with, Louis P. Harvey was born in 1820 and Samuel Bell in 1841, so they couldn't have been boyhood friends.

Harvey lived in Shopiere from 1851-1859. Bell didn't move there until 1860, and left for medical school in Michigan shortly after. At the time of the drowning, Bell was still a student, but he did work as a contract surgeon for the Union army during his vacations, including a stint in Nashville, Tennessee, about 130 miles from Shiloh.

There is very little likelihood that Bell and Harvey ever knew each other.

The Knife Continues its Journey

William P. Mellen, a United States post office agent, was aboard the steamer "Lady Pike" when it was hailed by the Tennessee farmer. Mellen wrote a letter to Harvey's successor, Governor Edward Salomon, describing the discovery of the body. In it he mentioned a Mr. Singleton, the local farmer who had heard about the valuables taken from the body and recovered them. "By dint of mingled promises and threats," Mr. Singleton, according to the Janesville Daily Gazette, "obtained the valuables and papers." These were turned over to Lieutenant Colonel John Hancock, of the 14th Wisconsin Regiment. Hancock sent them to James H. Howe, Wisconsin Attorney General, with the understanding that they would be forwarded to the late governor's widow, Cordelia Harvey. Hancock sent Mrs. Harvey a list of the valuables and papers to make sure she received everything.

The Mystery Endures

So how did the small pocket knife get into Dr. Samuel Bell's safety deposit box? Despite the reports in the Racine Journal-News, Bell does not appear to have been present when Harvey's body was found and did not have any prior acquaintance with the governor.

At this point we can only speculate. Samuel Bell did go on to become a pre-eminent surgeon in Wisconsin and was widely known throughout the state.

Cordelia Harvey also became famous in medical circles with her establishment of the "Harvey Hospital" for soldiers (and later orphans).

Both Bell and Mrs. Harvey resided in Rock County at the end of their lives. There is a possibility that Mrs. Harvey gave this knife to Dr. Bell as a memento long after the governor's death, but we may never know for sure.

[Sources: Quiner, E.B., "The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union" (Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866); Brown, William Fiske, "Rock County Wisconsin," (Chicago: C.F. Cooper & Co., 1908); Wisconsin. Executive Department, Military Correspondence, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Series 49, Box 13; Wisconsin Regiments at the Battle of Shiloh website; Janesville Daily Gazette, May 5, 1862, p. 3; Wisconsin State Journal, April 24, 1862; Monroe Sentinel, April 30, 1862, p. 1; Wisconsin State Journal, May 9, 1862; Racine Journal-News, October 9, 1913, p. 1. The newspaper articles can be found online at the websites for Newspaper Archives, Articles related to Harvey's death from Wisconsin in the Civil War, and Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles.]

LAB


Posted on September 21, 2011

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