“Barre never saw so many people in so small a space as that which gathered between ten and eleven o’clock this forenoon to witness the ‘send-off’ which the citizens of the Granite City were to give our local pride, the crack and loyal Company E.” The Barre Evening Telegraph also reported that Main Street storefronts had been decorated with patriotic bunting and festooned with flags despite the short notice of muster on the morning in early May of 1898, when the citizenry turned out in force to send the boys from Barre to fight the war with Spain.
A cornet band from Williamstown played patriotic airs while local service clubs assembled for a farewell parade. The Grand Marshal was City Clerk Burt Wells, who was followed by Barre’s Transatlantic Band, the High School Cadets, the Fire Department, Clan Gordon, the Granite City Foresters of America, the Knights of Pythias, Crandall Post G.A.R., the Williamstown Band, and Company E with its new recruits. The parade moved down Main Street, around City Hall Park, and then up Main Street to the depot where a special train waited to convey the soldiers to Montpelier, where they would be joined by other units in the regiment, and then north by rail to Fort Ethan Allen for assimilation into the First Vermont Infantry.
The jingoistic fervor on the morning of May 6, 1898 would be in sharp contrast to the men’s return, three months distant, when these favored sons of Barre would return to Vermont broken in spirit and health, sustaining casualties without ever seeing the rigors of battle.
Barre’s militia company was one of the first to be called to active duty — it was considered one of the finest National Guard units in Vermont, having been in existence since 1886 when it was formed by Captain C. M. Spencer. For years the unit had been known as the Spencer Rifles. By the late 1890s their headquarters was on the third floor of the Miles Building on North Main Street. An exclusively volunteer group of citizen-soldiers, it joined the Vermont National Guard as Company E.
In late March of 1898 a secret communication was sent to all companies in the Vermont Regiment that armed conflict with Spain was increasingly likely. A speech by Vermont Senator Redfield Proctor was the deciding factor, persuading Congress of the necessity of war. By mid-April a second communication to the units asked if they were willing to volunteer in the event of war. Two days later they were asked to increase their numbers to 100 officers and enlisted men. Within 48 hours war had been declared against Spain, and in early May Company E, along with other units of the Vermont National Guard, assembled at Fort Ethan Allen for training and equipment. On May 15 scores of friends and family made their way from Barre to Colchester for a final farewell, and on the following day the soldiers of Company E boarded railroad cars for their journey to Camp Thomas at Chickamauga Park in Georgia, “which place was destined to become,” noted the Telegraph, “a scene of disappointed military hopes, of sickness, of nostalgia, and death itself.”
Severe heat, hardship
Chickamauga had been the site of a major Civil War battle 35 years earlier. Heavy casualties on both sides earned Chickamauga Creek the soubriquet “River of Death.” At first glance Chickamauga had some positive attributes. In Bullets and Bacilli, a book on medicine in the Spanish American war, Vincent Cirillo delineated the army’s rationale for this encampment.
Its 11 square miles could accommodate the entire regular army, and it had an abundant supply of pure water. In addition, its summer heat and humidity could help acclimatize soldiers to the weather conditions they would face in Cuba. Its major drawback, dense clay soil nearly impervious to water, would come back to haunt the army. Poor drainage and drenching rains in July and August caused the sinks (pit latrines) to fill and overflow, contaminating the camp site.
The initial response of Company E to their new home was positive as they set about turning their temporary bivouac into something resembling suitable quarters. William H. Pitkin was listed with the rank of Musician in Company E and he also served as “Special Correspondent” to the Barre Evening Telegram. His letters to the paper evoke day-to-day camp life for the soldiers of Company E, at least until he got sick. Pitkin contracted typhoid fever and spent the last week of July in his quarters. In August he was furloughed back to Vermont to recover at his parents’ home in Fair Haven.
Pitkin’s first letter from Camp Thomas warned of the severe heat, 90 to 108 degrees “in the shade,” and observed that opportunistic Southerners tried to sell them glasses of water at 5 cents each on the long march from the train depot to the camp.
“We would gladly pay 5 cents a glass for Barre water, although our salary is so low we’d soon be as dry as before,” he wrote. A consortium of Vermont companies established a canteen “where the boys may purchase six glasses of cool lager beer or soda, and have a place to buy their tobacco, etc. The profit goes to the Co’s with which they may buy sugar, milk, potatoes, etc.” Pitkin continued, “It might be of interest to know what we had to eat yesterday. Breakfast, 5:50 tomatoes, coffee, hardtack; dinner 12:00 coffee, hardtack, tomatoes; supper 6:00 hardtack, coffee, tomatoes, and still some of the field officers wonder why the boys complain… So far none of Co. E. boys are in the hospital, but some do not feel like walking in heavy marching order more than ten or fifteen miles per day.”
The hospital at Camp Thomas soon became notorious for poor sanitation and inadequate care of sick soldiers. The belief of many was that admission to the hospital was tantamount to a death sentence. Captain Morris of the Ninth New York testified some months after: “The day before a sergeant whom I had known long and well was taken to the hospital of the division. As he left the regiment, he said to me that I need not look for him again, as he was going to the hospital, and frankly, I doubt whether I shall ever see him again.”
The Captain graphically described the horrors of the hospital. “I heard one day that a man from the Ninth, one of my own company, was dying there. The man was ill with typhoid fever, and his temperature was far above one hundred. When I reached his cot I nearly staggered with horror. The man’s face was literally black with flies. His mouth, which was open — the poor fellow was too weak to close it — was filled with flies. The person in charge nonchalantly remarked that there were not enough nurses to go round.”
For the northern boys of the First Vermont Infantry, the nickname for Chickamauga Creek, “River of Death,” became meaningful once again as the National Cemetery had to be reopened to accommodate the bodies ravaged by disease. By June 1, the first death of a Vermont soldier was recorded by the regiment. Musician William Spafford of Bennington “died of a brain fever. He had been sick only a little more than a week.” Sanitary conditions in the sweltering heat of Georgia resulted in deadly cases of typhoid fever, dysentery, and malaria. One officer from a New York Regiment complained that the camp was a modern Andersonville, evoking memories of the prisoner of war camp made infamous during the Civil War.
“By the end of June,” reported Cirilli in ‘Bullets and Bacilli,’ Camp Thomas swarmed with 58,548 men and nearly 15,000 horses and mules. The influx of thousands of raw recruits ignorant of basic sanitary principles overtaxed the facilities and led to serious camp pollution. “It was not long before the ground became a mass of putrefaction,” wrote Col. Charles B. Dougherty, a line office with the Ninth Pennsylvania Infantry, “which no effort towards sanitation on our part, using quicklime and disinfectants, could prevent.”
On June 17 Pitkin remarked on the monotony of their situation. There had been a good deal of sameness to camp life for the past few days. Their uniform issue was in process with each soldier receiving “Two pairs of shoes, three pairs of stockings, two sets of underwear, two blue flannel shirts, two pairs of blue trousers, one blouse, one campaign hat, one suit brown duck, one pair of leggings, new haversacks and canteens, two wool blankets, one blanket bag, one rubber poncho, new overcoats, one meat can, etc. Pitkin also writes appreciatively of gifts sent from Barre.
On June 13 Pitkin mentioned the first watermelons to arrive in camp. Many of the boys had never seen one before and “went very light with them,” some because they were afraid of them.
By mid July Pitkin acknowledged that there had been reports of typhoid fever in the camp but the few in the 1st Vermont that have the malady are “doing nicely.” But this was Pitkin’s last missive from Chickamauga. He spent the last week of July sick in quarters and was furloughed to his parents’ home in Fair Haven, where he convalesced from typhoid fever. In a month’s time the situation had changed dramatically. On Aug. 16 he noted in his last missive written in Fair Haven, “When there are over two hundred who are unfit for duty and the number increasing, it is time something was done to improve the health of the camp.”
Faced with an epidemic that had incapacitated two thirds of many companies of the First Vermont, the decision to send the Vermont boys home seemed most practical. Company E left Chickamauga on Aug. 19 and arrived at Fort Ethan Allen the night of the 22nd. Records in the Adjutant General’s office in Montpelier show that 658 soldiers were sick at one time or another at Camp Thomas — this out of a total of 1,058. or over 62 percent. Company E’s rate of illness was relatively light at about 37 percent. Amazingly, the mortality from disease in the Spanish American War was almost ten times that from enemy fire. And Camp Thomas, the camp for the First Vermont and other regiments, suffered an epidemic of typhoid fever several times the rate of other camps.
The boys come home
A reporter for the Telegram witnessed the arrival of First Vermont as the train pulled into Essex Junction. “There is no denying that a harder lot of looking men have not been gathered together in Vermont since the veterans of the Civil War returned from the front. The sight of those in the hospital train made one’s heart ache, but there was little that was inspiring in the tight-drawn sunburned features of the well ones.” The reporter for the Telegram continued, “As the train of sleepers was pushed on the siding they were about the worst looking cars ever seen in the state, and people crowded around and there was an attempt at something like an ovation, the women had their handkerchiefs out and some of the men began to wave their hats, but one look of the sad, haggard faces that were thrust from the windows took away all the gladness of the homecoming and the feeling of sorrow was increased when it was known that Corporal Lamson of Company E, Barre, had died on the way.”
Harry Lamson was from Brookfield but had been living and working at the Wells-Lamson granite shed in Barre for several years. He was a graduate of Goddard Seminary and well-liked by his comrades. “No young man in this city had a brighter future before him, yet all too early he was taken from us by the Reaper Death, and we must reconcile ourselves to the loss,” noted the Telegram. The newspaper also reported that 214 sick soldiers returned to Fort Ethan Allen on the same train and that the “appearance of these young men brought tears to the eyes of everyone and many of the women wept as though their hearts would break.” Several other members of Company E. were on the train, and some had to enter the hospital upon arrival. “Of these Frank McRae was the most dangerously ill. He was taken with malarial fever several weeks ago and it was not thought that he would survive the trip north. William Rust has been having a hard case of malaria. He was very weak when seen yesterday and was but a skeleton of his former self. William Fraser is so much reduced in flesh that his father scarcely knew him. William Burroughs has been sick with acute indigestion for nine weeks. He has loss 60 pounds.” The litany of illness went on, and for years after their stint at Camp Thomas, Captain Joe Jackson, a surgeon with Company E. received requests for verification of the illnesses so that the afflicted soldiers could collect disability pensions, such was the chronic nature of malaria and dysentery.
Corporal Lamson’s funeral was held at the Barre Congregational Church and all seats were taken long before the scheduled service. A processional was played by S. Holister Jackson, and the church was decorated with red, white, and blue floral tributes. Pastors from all of Barre’s churches participated in the service.
Company E’s return to Barre on August 24 was met by a restrained and sober crowd. “Their arrival was a very quiet one,” noted the Telegram. “Each man carried his blanket in a roll and their haversacks, guns and other equipment were left behind, having been turned in to the ordnance department. The boys brought with them a young dark complexioned gentleman by the name of ‘Walter’ from the south and he is attracting a good deal of attention.”
Within two days after returning home another Barre soldier died. William Dunham of Clark Street succumbed to the malaria he had contracted at Camp Thomas. Will had been graduated from Goddard Seminary in the same class as Harry Lamson but he had continued his education at Tufts University, receiving a baccalaureate degree in 1895. Two years later he was a member of the faculty at Goddard, teaching literature and elocution. His funeral was held at the Universalist Church and he was buried in Hope Cemetery.
The next day Company E was mustered out of the active service of the United States and returned to National Guard status. It was not long after that an official inquiry was initiated into the circumstances of Camp Thomas, where hundreds of healthy men were infected with chronic disease which would plague them for the rest of their lives. As soldiers returned to Fort Ethan Allen they were willing to level criticism at the officers who tolerated their harsh conditions while at Camp Thomas.
A reporter for the St. Albans Messenger interviewed an officer “who had much to say concerning rations that were dealt out to them. Over 700 pounds of maggoty meat was turned over to his company which sold it at 1 cent a pound rather than eat it. The boys spent their own money for better food than the government furnished them, and spent lots of it, too.” The reporter noted that “most of the members of the regiment speak in the highest terms of all the officers with one exception. There is slowly coming to light much that reflects on this officer and if his treatment of the men finds its way into the newspapers it will create a sensation.”
A commission, headed by Norwich alumnus Grenville M. Dodge, held hearings in several parts of the country, including Vermont. It was soon clear that one officer held accountable for the poor treatment of the soldiers was Maj. Jenne, a doctor from St. Albans who was charged with supervision of the hospital at Camp Thomas. It was alleged that Jenne “very seldom visited the hospital or paid any attention to it.” The investigation was conducted by Dodge Commission member U.A. Woodbury, a former Vermont Governor. Maj. Jenne had charge of the first and second division hospitals and was grilled by Woodbury for four and a half hours. He read from one of his reports where he noted the bad drainage in the camp which allowed latrine-pits to “overflow into the ground occupied by tents. Garbage was thrown near the tents. There was no thorough investigation of the water...insufficient care was taken of refuse. Hospitals were insufficiently supplied and staffed. Many sinks (latrine pits) filled with water from percolation as in a spring. Saw the sinks filled by rain and the contents spread over the surface of the camps. In the case of the Vermont Regiment it was impossible to locate the sinks further away.” The instances of poor sanitation, infestation of flies and vermin, and poor medical care were detailed in the examination which was reported in the Vermont press.
While the public hearings were quick to blame the medical officers, the Dodge Commission Report found that the Regimental commanders were, in fact, equally culpable. Their indifference to the requests for better sanitation in the camps made the epidemic of typhoid fever inevitable. The Commission found the Medical Department “was unprepared to meet the needs of the camps, did not investigate the sanitary conditions, had an insufficient nursing staff, and were insufficiently supplied with medicine due to inadequacies in the Quartermaster Department.”
The great tragedy of the disease that killed and incapacitated so many at Camp Thomas was that it was entirely avoidable. Great advances had been made in medicine and sanitation since the days of the Civil War, and had there been cooperation among the line officers and the medical corps, the heartbreak of epidemic and disease could have been averted. The volunteers from Barre were sad victims of military indifference and incompetence, and to the discredit of the regiment two lives were unnecessarily lost.
Sen. Frank Greene was Captain of Company K from St. Albans. Some 30 years later he recalled the misfortunes of the Vermont regiment at Camp Thomas:
“The First Vermont Volunteers did not see battle but did experience indescribable misery through the Nation’s neglect. I am certain the Regiment would have preferred, yes, welcomed, battle to the suffering, heat, poor water, typhoid fever, dysentery, disgusting food, and lack of medical equipment at Chickamauga. Vivid, undimmed by the years is my memory of the suffering of the sick, their courageous fights to live, and the despair of those trying to aid them. All honor to them and to those men of Vermont who went stoically about their duties, half sick, through that terrible experience. Soldiers true, all of them.”MORE IN Central Vermont
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