Past Tense

Spanish Influenza spread around the world in the fall of 1918, including Chamblee’s World War I encampment, Camp Gordon. World War I training camps established around the U. S., which held thousands of men in close quarters were hit particularly hard. On September 29, 1918 The Atlanta Constitution reported that 1,893 cases of Spanish Flu had been reported at Camp Gordon. 962 soldiers were sent to the camp hospital.

Camp Gordon fared better than most training camps. Several actions were taken to prevent the spread of disease, including a requirement that everyone wear gauze masks. The masks were made all over Atlanta by groups such as Red Cross auxiliaries, churches and schools.

In October 1918, the number of new cases at Camp Gordon jumped to five thousand. Soldiers were ordered to sleep in bivouac, outside with no cover overhead. Visitors were limited to close relatives and a pass was required to leave camp. A special antiseptic oil was applied to the roads to prevent the spread of germs through dust. In addition to the gauze masks, a gargle and nasal rinse was prescribed by the camp surgeon to be used several times a day. As soon as a soldier had a slight fever, he was quarantined from the healthy soldiers.

Across the U. S. people were wearing masks, including street car conductors, mail carriers, and police officers. Schools and churches were temporarily shut down. Atlanta had less deaths from Spanish flu than many other U. S. cities. By November, the disease seemed to be tapering off.

As I have told before in this column, my grandfather James Mathis was at Camp Gordon from June until November 1918.

On Sept. 28, he wrote to his new wife, “Well I have had an attack of the Spanish influenza, the epidemic that has been prevailing in all of the camps. I got sick Thursday a.m. and believe me, I surely did feel bad. It makes you think that you are going to die for a while. I am nearly OK now, however and will go back to the 24th Company tomorrow. The hospital was so full of cases that no more could be sent there, so they sent us to an infirmary where we were treated for it and nearly all the bunch that came with me are well, too. While the influenza is so widely prevalent we are not allowed to leave camp but are placed under quarantine until the stuff dies out a little.”

World War I led to an estimated sixteen million deaths in 1918; an estimated fifty million deaths in 1918 around the globe were due to the Spanish flu.


Other sources cited include:

“The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918,” National Archives; 1,893 Cases of Spanish Flu are Reported Camp Gordon, The Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 28, 1918; Help Make Flu Masks, The Atlanta Constitution, Oct. 9, 1918.

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