LIFE AT CAMP CHICKAMAUGA with Capt. Quinby
The weary and battered veterans of the 1 st Maine finally made it back from their war experiences in Dixie. "Horrors of Chickamauga," screamed a New York Times headline, adding, "The First Maine Regiment Returns with Tales Resembling Those of Andersonville." Two hundred of their 1,000 men were "only fit for bed," and two died on the train taking them back North. Fifty men, too weak to travel, remained behind in Georgia. But Confederates did not cause the 1st Maine's casualties. Their losses at Chickamauga happened in 1898, at a military camp set up on the grounds of the national park that commemorated the old Civil War battlefield.
When war broke out with Spain in April 1898 the U.S. Army listed 2,143 officers and 26,040 enlisted men, a number that increased tenfold within three months. New camps sprang up to gather regular regiments until they could be sent overseas and train new volunteers. The largest of these camps was Camp George H. Thomas, named for the Union's "Rock of Chickamauga," established on the Chickamauga battlefield, which became a National Military Park in 1890. An 1896 Act of Congress stipulated that the grounds, administered by the War Department, would be available for military encampments.
Camp Thomas was established on April 14, 1898, with Major General John R. Brooke assuming command on April 20. At first it held only regular troops, but eventually it housed 69,161 volunteer soldiers as well as 7,283 regulars who spent all or part of their Spanish-American War time there. The over 7,000 acres of pleasant forests and fields set aside for the park gave ample room for a large military installation, but Camp Thomas also had serious drawbacks. Although medical knowledge made tremendous leaps since the end of the Civil War, typhoid and other diseases spread as the hordes of soldiers overwhelmed the available water supplies. Hospital space and staffing was woefully inadequate. Poor planning left thousands of men chafing at their weeks or months of pointless inactivity at the crowded camp. Pay was weeks in arrears and even the mail was backed up when the small post office in nearby Lytle, Georgia, was hopelessly inundated.
Sergeant William Wahle, 9th New York Volunteers, complained to the Times, "You in New York think that we are fighting for the starving Cubans, but you ought to see the starving volunteers...we must walk three miles to a creek, get a canteen full of musty water, take it back to Camp Thomas, boil it, put it into a hole in the ground to cool and settle, and then we have at hand a muddy creek cocktail." The headline of Wahle's article warned Republican President William McKinley, "Veterans of This War Will be Democrats."
Camp Thomas also recreated a Civil War tradition with an impressive "robbers' row," as brothels, gambling houses, and saloons quickly appeared to entertain the troops and relieve them of as much pay as possible. In june a bartender shot a 21st Kansas private during a quarrel. Brooke had to send armed guards to quiet a mob of angry solders as word got out the bartender had been cheating the soldier with loaded dice. "It took the soldiers, according to the Times, "only a few minutes to demolish the place. They broke up the furniture, scattered the gambling paraphernalia in the street, and were only deterred from pulling down the house by the arrival of officers."
Canteens on the post provided some amusement and served beer, but also brought temptation. More than once "rowdies have attempted to cause a stampede and loot" a canteen. Creative minds hit on the idea of setting fire to some trees near a canteen to steal beer kegs in the excitement.
Chattanooga, nine miles away, lured many soldiers. One army surgeon, staying there, said he once saw 13 drunken soldiers sleeping in the street from his hotel window. The city dithered between clamping down on disturbances and reeling in some $15,000-20,000 a day spent by soldiers. Conditions grew worse as the summer wore on. Newspapers clamored against the poor rations and burgeoning sick rates. In june H.V. Boynton, chairman of the Chickamauga Park Commission charged that "a few sensational newspapers in the East...deliberately manufactured" the accusations. Captain Frederick J. Quinby, 9th New York, wrote he was swamped by letters from concerned relatives but, "In nine cases out of ten," he said, the men claimed they were sick or short of rations just to get money from home.
Despite denials, sickness increased. By August 27 5,000 men had been sent home on sick furlough. Army and Red Cross officials reported the ground was poor and sinks were inadequate. To prevent an epidemic, regiments started being sent away August 2, so by the end of September the camp was deserted except for two regiments left as guards for the supplies left behind.