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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Reform of Military Hospitals

The current scandal over conditions at Walter Reed Hospital prompts reflections on Wisconsin's great reformer of military hospitals, Cordelia Harvey (1824-1895).

In the fall of 1861 her husband, Louis P. Harvey (1820-1862), was elected governor of Wisconsin. The following April three Wisconsin regiments fought in the first major battle of the Civil War, at Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh), Tenn. In 48 hours about 15,000 Union troops were killed or wounded there, and Gov. Harvey hurried south to see what help the state might send to injured Wisconsin soldiers. On April 19th, while moving from one boat to another on a rainy, dark night, he slipped into the Tennessee River and drowned.

Although his widow initially went home to grieve, she soon felt she could be more useful by carrying on the medical inspections and advocacy that her husband had begun. She received an appointment from his successor and went south to investigate conditions in military hospitals. "These hospitals," she later recalled, "were mere sheds filled with cots as thick as they could stand, with scarcely room for one person to pass between them. Pneumonia, typhoid, and camp fevers, and that fearful scourge of the southern swamps and rivers, chronic diarrhea, occupied every bed" in the "uncomfortable, ill-ventilated, hot, unclean, infected, wretched rooms."

The consequences of housing the wounded in these conditions were devastating. Of the roughly 12,000 Wisconsin soldiers who died in the war, almost three-fourths died not in battle or from their wounds but rather from illness, disease, or accident. Harvey quickly became convinced that if the sick and wounded could be shipped north to proper hospitals, the Army would see a much higher recovery rate, soldiers would return to the front more quickly and in larger numbers, and thousands of lives would be saved.

Army leaders, however, argued that their own doctors were as good as civilian ones and that furloughed soldiers who went north would likely desert. They accepted that large numbers of deaths from illness were an inevitable part of warfare. Mrs. Harvey did not.

For much of 1862 and 1863 she visited Wisconsin troops in military hospitals along the Mississippi River and helped organize shipments of relief supplies from the home front. In 1863 she went to Washington where, as the widow of a martyred Republican governor, she managed to meet more than once with President Lincoln. Several compelling and vivid pages of her memoir are devoted to the conversations in which she lobbied him to establish northern hospitals.

At first, he was unsympathetic, telling her "Madam, this matter of northern hospitals has been talked of a great deal and I thought it was settled ... If they [soldiers] are sent north, they will desert ... A fine way to decimate the army, we should never get a man of them back, not one, not one indeed." But through persistence and logic she ultimately convinced him to authorize a hospital in Madison, and the Harvey Army Hospital opened in her former home on the city's near east side. It proved so successful that similar hospitals were funded in Prairie du Chien and Milwaukee.

At the close of the war, Harvey Hospital was converted into an institution for soldiers' orphans, with Mrs. Harvey acting as superintendent until the state took over the institution in 1867. More than 700 children were cared for there in the years following the war. In 1876 she married Rev. Albert T. Chester and moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where she taught until her husband's death, ultimately returning to Wisconsin and dying at the home of her sister in 1895 .

:: Posted in Curiosities on March 7, 2007

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