Forgotten History: The 1898 Typhoid Epidemic

s-a war campsite copy

Spanish – American War Campsite at Thoroughfare Gap. Note the Chapman – Beverley Mill at center top.

For all the broad strokes of history, the ones school children read about in text books, there are far more ‘forgotten moments’ that effect individuals and communities.  One such episode was the 1898 typhoid epidemic.

In April 1898, the U.S. entered the Spanish-American War.  In order to prepare troops for battle, new military camps were established throughout the country, but the one with the greatest impact on the Mill’s history was Camp Alger.

Established May 18, 1898, Camp Alger was named for then Secretary of War Russell A. Alger and was located near Falls Church, Virginia.  By June, the Camp was populated by thousands of men from the Second Army Corps.  Several wells had been planned to provide the men with fresh drinking water, but at the time of move in, they were unfinished.  Because water was difficult to come by, the camp was not kept clean.  Rodents quickly infested the area and the troops were forced to drink from the same local creeks in which they bathed.  Soon, a typhoid fever epidemic broke out and there were wide-spread complaints of inadequate water and poor sanitation.

In order to control the disease, just three months after it opened, Camp Alger was ordered to be abandoned.  The already weakened soldiers, numbering about 23,000, were ordered to march 32 miles west to Thoroughfare Gap taking only small shelter tents with them.

It seems that bad luck followed the men.  During the trek, the army encountered severe rainstorms and were supplied with inadequate rations.  A hurriedly assembled brigade hospital meant that surgeons had scarce supplies to treat sick or injured men.  Once at the Gap, some regiments found that they did not even have tents in which to house their hospitals.

Though the Treaty of Paris brought an end to the war, soldiers were still fighting the typhoid epidemic and suffering ongoing ration shortages at Thoroughfare Gap. Regiments became so disgruntled that they refused to drill and by mid August it was necessary to supply armed guards to protect nearby farms.

When the outbreak finally subsided about a month later and all troops were withdrawn, at least 34 men had succumbed to typhoid at the Gap.

In the years following the epidemic, many Thoroughfare Gap citizens reported damages to their property due to unrest in the army. The episode finally came to a close in February 1903, nearly five years after it began, when the Virginia Senate passed a bill to pay for the property damaged during the encampment.


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