President Lincoln Meets with Wisconsin Widow

September 8, 1863

President Lincoln agrees to meeting with Cordelia A. P. Harvey, widow of Wisconsin Governor Lewis Harvey.   She later writes: “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 fited 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.

Published in: on September 8, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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