Disease was the truly the biggest enemy of the man in the field during the Spanish American War, as is witnessed by the casualty reports. Many men, traveling away from home, were exposed to many illness for the first time. In the tightly packed camps, disease spread fast. Tragedy often resulted. This article recounts a unit that experienced the problem of disease in the extreme.
The Misfortune of Company H, Nobles County, Minnesota, 1898…About the sickest military outfit you could ever imagine
By RAY CRIPPEN
It was the sickest military outfit you ever could imagine. Below is
only a random report from this unit - Company H. 15th Minnesota
Volunteer Infantry. The unit consisted of four commissioned officers,
105 enlisted men. Of these, only eight (Woolson, Fixemer, Green,
Irwin, Libaire, Panno, Roberg, Walsh) never answered sick call. There
were three (Everett Calvert, George Michael, Joseph Moffitt) who died.
Dolan, Edward, age 29, Resident Worthington, sick in quarters, Oct. 17 and 18, on sick leave Oct. 18 to Oct. 27.
Bitner, Fred, age 22, resident Worthington, Sick in quarters, Aug. 8 to 10; on sick leave, Aug. 11 to Sept. 27.
Town, Loren B., age 21, resident Worthington, in hospital July 29, returned to duty Dec. 23, sick in quarters Jan. 15
Childs, Howard, age 31, resident Adrian, sick in quarters, Aug. 9; in hospital Aug. 10 to Sept. 12; on sick furlough, Sept. 13 to Oct. 13; sick in quarters, Oct. 27 to Nov. 8.
Bass, John, age 26, resident Worthington, in hospital, Aug. 15 to Sept. 26; sick in quarters, Nov. 18.
Apel, William, age 20, resident Worthington, in hospital, Sept. 22 to Sept. 30; on sick furlough, Oct. 1 to Oct. 30; on sick furlough, Oct. 1 to Oct. 30 sick in quarters, Dec. 2 to 4 and Dec. 10.
Wigham, Earl, age 20, resident Adrian, sick in quarters, Aug. 16 and Aug. 20; in hospital, Aug. 21 to Sept. 20, on sick furlough, Sept. 21 to Nov. 14; sick in quarters, Dec. 17-18 and Dec. 234-27 and Feb. 21 and March 1-4
If ever there was a troop that should have stood in bed…well, finally, that is what happened.
The company of spirited, young, healthy volunteers who marched from Worthington to help drive the Spaniards from Cuba became one of the most bedraggled outfits that ever did duty with the U.S. Army.
All credit to them. They were volunteers to a man, responding to a patriotic appeal. They set out to fight their nation's foe. Woe was their lot.
Company H - the Nobles County Volunteers - a troop of greenhorns, left Worthingon July 6 after a feast and fete at the Court House Park where tables and trees were lighted by hundreds of electric lights especially for the occasion. They departed for St. Paul on a special train and they were mustered into federal service on July 18, 1898. An armistice was reached with Spain less than a month later. Unfortunately, the troops could not be permitted to be sent home as a final peace had not yet been reached.
The 15th Regiment with its Company H was the fourth volunteer regiment organized in Minnesota for the war with Spain. The regiment began its tour of duty on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, which had been named Camp Ramsey. The unit moved into tents which had been occupied before by the 12th Regiment on the present-day site of Machinery Hill. Straw was spread inside each tent for the mens’ bedding and each trooper was issued one blanket.
The Minnesota 15th was in its fourth day of active service when its commander, Col. John C. Shandrew, was brought down by a cerebral hemorrhage at his home at St. Paul. That seemed an omen of things to come.
In the first days of August a number of men reported for sick call. Their conditions soon became alarming. By Aug. 6 there were 16 critical cases in the regimental hospital.
Diagnosis was prompt - typhoid fever, one of the ancient plagues both of armies and civilian populations. It had been barely more than a dozen years - 1884 - since the typhoid bacillus first was isolated. Little was known regarding what to do with it or about it, although everyone knew what it was. News accounts in the Worthington Advance referred to it only as “the fever.”
The use of ice at the makeshift military encampment was quickly banned. It was recognized this might be a source of contagion. All water was ordered boiled. The men were given special instructions on basic elements of hygiene ("Wash your hands"). The general state of human cleanliness in that era was notably below contemporary standards. Plumbing still was a novelty.
There were four companies - F, K, M, and Nobles County's H - which were notably hard-hit. The four were ordered to relocate and they were separated from the remainder of the regiment by a distance of 100 yards. Lime was spread over the areas they had vacated.
By Aug. 21, seven days after the armistice was instituted, 180 men had been sent to hospitals at St. Paul and Minneapolis and new victims were succumbing at a rate of 20 per day. Chaplain Tell A. Turner remembered, "There were not enough ambulances in the two cities to meet the Requirements and the street cars had to be called into service."
Typhoid fever runs a long and relentless course. In the third week it reaches a crisis stage. Some of the earliest victims among the 15th Regiment volunteers began to die at that juncture.
On Aug. 23 the regiment was relocated to Fort Snelling. The Nobles County company, one of four which still was in semi-quarantine, was ordered into encampment two miles farther down the Minnesota River. An effort was made to disinfect blankets and clothing.
On Sept. 15 the plague at last began to ebb and the regiment was ordered to set out for Camp Meade in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Many regiments had been experiencing similar problems. In an effort to get the men away from the diseased camps, new camps were created, including Camp Meade.
Dr. Walter Reed and a board of U.S. Army surgeons arrived on special assignment to investigate the origin and spread of the typhoid fever. Another, more thorough disinfection of all men, tents, blankets, clothing, bedding and equipment of the 15th Regiment was ordered.
The scourge at last was brought under control. It claimed 18 lives. Each of the plague's victims who recovered was disabled, on an average, sixty-eight days.
The initial source of the infection ultimately was credited to the "notoriously infected water" supply of the City of Minneapolis. The official report of the investigating board said "the close proximity and ease of access to Minneapolis, in which city something over 3,000 cases of typhoid fever were estimated in 1897, may explain the first cases." This may be true, since, in those days in which people seldom traveled, this may have been the first many of these men were exposed to typhoid and similar diseases.
"We are sicker than dogs," one young soldier wrote to the family at Worthington.
On November 15, 1898, three months after the armistice went into effect but still a month before the end of the war, the 15th Minnesota was ordered on to Camp McKenzie near Augusta, Georgia.
Nobles County's Co. H, together with Co. L, was ordered out to intercept and arrest a company of mutineers who were bent on avenging the murder of one of Minnesota's young soldiers by a Georgia saloonkeeper. Public sentiment in Georgia still ran high against "Damn Yankees". There was hostility between the local populace, which included a host of Confederate Civil War veterans, and the inexperienced young federal soldiers from Minnesota.
And then at long last - March 27, 1899 - eight months after the troops
began their pointless and ill-fated tour of duty - the regiment was
mustered out of the federal service. The men were free to return home.
Their short footnote in the nation's annals avers only that nearly every
young soldier got sick.
Holbrook, Franklin F., Minnesota in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. (St. Paul, Minnesota War Records Commission, 1923).
Turner, T.A., Chaplain, Story of the Fifteenth Minnesota Volunteer
Lessard Printing Co., 1899).
Newspaper Files, 1898
Adrian [MN] Guardian
Kinbrae [MN] Herald
Minnesota Signal [Bigelow MN]
Worthington [MN] Advance
Worthington [MN] Herald
Letters of Cpl. Leo A. Dewey, Worthington MN; Pvt. Frank S. Markham, Bigelow MN;
Pvt. G.L. Michael, Bigelow MN