A Visit at the “White House”

So what was it?

An afternoon tea in the White House, “the people’s house,” as Mary Todd Lincoln referred to it.  She was the tea’s hostess.  Her feature guest, Mrs. Cordelia Perrine Harvey was the widow of the Governor Louis Powell Harvey, Wisconsin’s recently deceased governor.

Okay, no dream here. Or time travel.  Just a very informative and entertaining afternoon at Kenosha WI’s new Civil War Museum.

Mary Todd Lincoln hold a tea

Mary Todd Lincoln hold a tea

Mrs. Lincoln was most gracious.  She even granted me permission to snap a few photos of her after she had finished her presentation.  She looked charming in a light blue flower patterned frock with a short jacket of a solid blue.  She marveled at the camera which didn’t require long minutes of posing absolutely frozen until the shot was taken.  She showed more amazement at the immediacy of seeing the results and approved my photos.

Mrs. Lincoln talked a bit about her mission to redo the White House which in her words was nothing more than a “stinking pig sty” when her family arrived.  She so enjoyed that task though it has brought her no amount of distressing newspaper coverage and a marital discussion about finances with “Mr. Lincoln.”

She mentioned her enjoyment of the only house in Springfield, IL that she and Mr. Lincoln owned.  How Mr. Lincoln complimented her on her purchase of “gee-gaws and doo-dads” for the Springfield home as well as the Executive Mansion.  She informed Mr. Lincoln and us she never purchased “gee-gaws or doo-dads.”

A very personable and at times very humorous in a very ladylike manner provided tiny details of her life with such a man as her husband.  His worry about her weight, his love letters when he was away, how they handled the death of their son.  She left us for a time as her two surviving sons were ill with a slight fever and she wished to check on them.  While Mrs. Lincoln was gone, the staff served us our tea, sandwiches, salads, and a most delightful assortment of desserts.

When the First Lady returned, she indicated the boys were doing better.  She provided a bit more background about Mrs. Harvey to introduce the widow’s subject of discussion.

A study in contrast to Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harvey wore stiff black heavy silk and a small black hat.  Her only touches of color were a white lace handkerchief attached to her belt, a bit of white blouse, and a tiny white feather in her hat.  Even more petite than Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harvey bustled efficiently and spoke clearly but more quicker.  A study of northern woman vs a daughter of the south.

Mrs. Cordelia Harvey, Wisconsin's Angel

Mrs. Cordelia Harvey, Wisconsin's Angel

Known as the “Wisconsin Angel” for her service to wounded and ill Union soldiers, Mrs. Harvey was in Washington to plead with Mr. Lincoln, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.  After Mrs. Harvey’s death the new Wisconsin governor appointed her to the mission of seeing to the needs of Wisconsin soldiers serving in the western zones.  Her husband had died an accidental death while visiting infirmaries housing Wisconsin soldiers.  His last letter to her mentioned the despair of the men who were receiving neither care, food, or the concern of loved ones while they lay on dirty cots and died of disease.

Armed with her husband’s last words and a need to serve, Mrs. Harvey entered the camps with more authority than just being a worker.  She had a title and the Wisconsin governor’s backing.  What she found appalled her.  She quickly realized while the injuries and deaths from bloody battles along the Mississippi River states (and she went as far south as Vicksburg) were high, higher still were preventable deaths due to disease, unsanitary conditions, fevers, and diarrhea.  No one talked to these men who longed for home.

She believed moving these people out of the hospitals and sending them north to “clean, disease-free northern air” would hasten their recovery.  So would better supplies of food and clean supplies which were almost non-existent in the camps.

That’s why she beseeched President Lincoln, over the period of several days.  Her story showed her determination in meeting with him and his conflict with justice, politics, and dwindling resources.  Her meetings were much the same with the Secretary of War, but her determination impressed President Lincoln.  She won her request and recovering soldiers were moved north to hospitals near families and supplies.

Two strong and determined women, but different in their approaches.  A genteel setting.  A most interesting afternoon.  You can learn more about either woman with the links I provided.

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2 Comments on “A Visit at the “White House””

  1. Edie Says:

    MJ, I didn’t know they had this in Kenosha! My husband and I will have to check it out.

  2. caseyclifford Says:

    Oh, yes, Edie. It’s only been open about a year. They are doing quite a few things to celebrate A. Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

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