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The Cordelia Harvey Myth

Was Cordelia Harvey responsible for the establishment of the Northwest Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers?

We know for a fact that, following her husband's tragic death in April 1862, Mrs. Harvey served Wisconsin's Civil War soldiers with dedication and ingenuity that won her the title of “Wisconsin Angel.”

Believing Northern soldiers should be moved to Northern hospitals, Harvey visited President Lincoln in Washington, DC, and patiently proved her case. President Lincoln authorized three hospitals in Wisconsin:the Harvey Hospital, later an orphanage, in Madison; another hospital in Prairie du Chien; and an Officer’s Hospital in Milwaukee.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Milwaukee Officers' Hospital was not the Soldiers' Home, neither the independently run Wisconsin Soldiers' Home in downtown Milwaukee storefronts nor the much-later National Home.

Did she know or correspond with Lydia Hewitt and the women who managed the Wisconsin Soldiers' Home? We have yet to find any evidence of such a relationship.

The following excerpts from the Milwaukee Sentinel describe Mrs. Harvey's attempts to raise funds for her Asylum for Soldiers' Orphans in the Milwaukee area and the ethical dilemma posed to the Lady Managers of the Wisconsin Soldiers' Home, who had been raising funds for a permanent home and were also contemplating an orphanage in Milwaukee.

JULY 29, 1865
Mrs. Harvey is now engaged in enlisting the sympathies and cooperation of the citizens of the state in an enterprise which cannot fail to meet general approbation. It is to found an asylum for the orphan children of soldiers where they can be maintained and educated. The Journal says:

“Mrs. Harvey’s plan is to reply upon the munificence of the general and State government and partly on individual generosity for funding such a charity of this State. She proposes to ask the general government to do what it has done in enlarging the Harvey Hospital in this city; to obtain from private subscriptions funds to purchase the original edifice and grounds; and having thus provided  an amole building and a site which for beauty and salubrity cannot be equally; to ask the State to support it:”

This is certainly a praiseworthy object and eminently characteristic of Mrs. Harvey. The managers of the Soldiers' Home in this city have had in contemplation the same project, and now that the fair has left them with more funds than will probably be needed to carry out the object for which they were raised, no doubt this benevolent and necessary work will be undertaken by them.

SEPTEMBER  22, 1865
Mrs. Harvey has received a donation of $250 from the Soldiers’ Sid Society of the ladies in this city…

OCTOBER 21, 1865
SOLDIERS' ORPHAN HOME. AN APPEAL TO THE LIBERALITY OF MILWAUKEE. Mrs. Cordelia Harvey, General Superintendent of the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Orphan Home, is now in this city for the purpose of soliciting subscriptions from the generous and patriotic people of Milwaukee…

JANUARY 27, 1866
THE SOLDIERS HOME FUND—Letter from Board of Directresses to Citizens of Madison. They decline diverting funds to Orphans Home.

Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home
Milwaukee, January 15, 1865
Hon. James T. Lewis, Philo Demming, Samuel Marshall, David Atwood, N B Van Slyck, D. Worthington and B E Hopkins, Ex. Committee Soldiers Orphan Home, Madison Wisconsin.

Gentlemen: The ladies of the Board of Directresses of the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home are sensible that they owe you an apology for the delay which has occurred in formally answering your communication, received by them in November last suggesting the propriety and wisdom of appropriating a portion of the funds, which have been raised and placed under their control (for the purpose of providing a home for disabled Wisconsin soldiers.) to aid in establishing a home for the orphans of soldiers at the Capitol Of the State.

It can scarcely be necessary to assure you of our sympathy in your noble work, your earnest and practical endeavor to redeem the sacred pledges which were given to our patriot brothers. Who have freely died that we might live, who have laid down their individual lives that the life of the nation might be preserved, and who have made their children orphans, that our loved ones may enjoy the blessings of freedoms and good government forever by making their bereaved and dependent ones a perpetual care. It would be both a pride and a pleasure to us to participate, in any way we consistently can, in your undertaking.

Several circumstances have contributed to delay our reply to your letter.

First, The temporary absence of some, among both gentlemen and ladies of those to whose opinion and advice we are accustom to attach much weight.

Second. The other cases which have divided our attention, for as you probably know nearly everything about our enterprise has to be devised and done by ladies who have the daily care of their own household and cannot give it their entire time.

Third.  The time that had necessarily been consumed in procuring facts and estimates which alone would enable us intelligently to judge of the amount of money which we must employ, and the time within we must use it in order to reasonably meet, either expectations of the donors of the funds, or the pressing wants of those who were intended to be the chief and primary beneficiaries.


Fourth. The doubt and to some extent, diversity of opinion among our own number, arising from a conflict in our own minds between the natural strong impulse which would lead up to accede to your request and to be sharers in your generous labors (which we are sure will be successful) and in the high satisfaction that must attend those labors of love, on the one side, and a strong conviction on the other side, under the best advice and information that we were able to obtain, that we could not be justified in using any part of the moneys under our control in the manner suggested by you, that such use of the same would be an unwarrantable diversion of the fund from the purpose for which it was raised. We can not view otherwise than that we control the funds on hand simply as trustees that those funds were solicited and given expressly for one specific and definite object that in the earnest call that was made for this money and in the generous response that was made to the call, no other object was so much as named that in effect there is a solemn and binding contract between the donors of this fund and ourselves to devote the moneys to the proposed purpose of this fund and ourselves to devote the moneys to the proposed purpose alone; that therefore we have no right to divert the same to any other use, and that we cannot do so without a violation of the trust reposed in use.  We think also, that the circumstance that the other object to which we are tempted to divert the fund is in every way a meritorious one, which, in the strongest manner, appeals to our sympathies, or even that it might seem to be of higher merit than the one of which we have special charge, can make no difference with our duty as such trustees, that were we now persuaded that even more good could be done with the monies by using it in some other good cause than by supporting the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home, surely could not justify us in diverting the same to a purpose foreign to the design of those who placed it in our hands.


It may not be proper for us to add the remark, that while the friendly suggestions comes to us from you, that it would be wise for us to send you a part of the fund in our hands we have also been frequently and urgently reminded by others among those who are active in raising the funds in different parts of the State, that we should manifestly mistake our duty if we should act on such suggestions.


We will add that from the number of disabled and dependent soldiers who are now constantly under our care from the frequency of applications by suitable persons for admission to the Home, and from such information as we have leading to the opinion that such applications will rather increase than diminish in number, we are fully persuaded that we had rather underestimated than overestimated the need of such an institution as this.


Knowing your high character for intelligence and probity, we are persuaded that you will, upon reflection, appreciate the movie and sense of duty which impel us to reluctantly decline to do as you request. We know you understand as well as we do the sacred character of a public trust, and we believe you will appreciate the sense of duty which will not permit us to disregard our obligations, even to do an otherwise good and generous act. We strive to promote, (and you cannot estimate it more highly than we do) no good could arise from a deviation from the strict line of duty by us, so great as that which must follow the example of keeping strict faith in this age of general laxity in public officers and trusts.


Permit us to repeat to you our highest appreciation of and deep interest in the enterprise you represent; and furthermore to express to you our full confidence that in addition to what has heretofore been  contributed by a few of our citizens, a larger amount can be raised among our people by a timely and wise presentation of your cause when the necessity shall be shown. Accept our wishes for your success, and believe us yours very respectfully,


By order of the Board of Directresses,  Mrs. O. H. Waldo, Secretary.



JANUARY 27, 1866
THE SOLDIERS' HOME FUND. We print elsewhere the letter of Mrs. Waldo, Secretary of the Board of Directresses of the Wisconsin Home for Disabled Soldiers, to several prominent citizens of Madison who solicited a portion of the funds raised for the Soldiers’ Home, for the use of the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, now establishing at Madison. It will be seen that the Board, after mature deliberation during which a large portion of the principle donors to the Soldiers’ Home have been consulted, decline to devote any portion of the funds in their hands of the purpose for which it was requested.

With all due deference to the merits and importance of the noble work undertaken by Mrs. Harvey, we cannot but commend the action of the Board. Aside from the fact that they hold the funds belonging to the Home as trustees merely, and have no power so appropriate than otherwise a specified in soliciting them, even should be a surplus sum—it must be evident to everyone that to fund and endow sufficiently to maintain, from year to year, a Soldiers’ Home in anywise adequate to the accommodation of all the needy disabled soldiers of Wisconsin, will require every cent of the $100,000 realized by the late Fair and now placed to the credit of the Home fund. Any appropriation of any portion of it for any other purpose than that for which it was contributed, would, therefore, clearly be a violation of trust, or at least, an inexcusable fault of judgment on the part of the trustees.

The letter of the Board explains the delay in making the formal answer to the proposition which was made in November last—a delay that was perhaps required by a due respect for the importance of the proposition, and the excellence of the cause in which behalf it was made, though informal intimation of the result was doubtless given some time since.  While feeling a duty bound to deny the request proffered by the Executive Committee of the Orphan’s Home, our ladies express great solicitude for the noble charity which they represent, a solicitude which we felt will be felt by all our citizens and manifested, if necessary by still further and more liberal contributions than those already made.


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