Harry D. Patterson

A group of men stood on the front steps of the old Pelham Town Hall in the spring of 1898.  With nothing else yet built to block their view, they could see a young man sprint from an arriving train at the Pelham Station to his home on Second Avenue.  From there, word soon spread throughout the small community:  at President William McKinley's request, Congress had declared war on Spain following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba.

On hearing the news, nineteen-year-old Pelhamite Harry D. Patterson turned to his pal J. Gardner Minard and dared him to enlist with him.

Left:  photo of Harry D. Patterson courtesy of Mary Ellen P. Kunst and the Patterson Family.

Harry Patterson was the youngest of ten children of Pelham’s first Justice of the Peace, Edward Alexander Patterson, and his wife, Margaret Jane Campbell Patterson. The Pattersons were among the first residents of “Pelhamville,” settling about 1866 in a home at the very north end of First Avenue at the edge of Chester Park.  Judge Patterson was born in 1815 in Loughrelisk Townland, County Antrim, Ireland, immigrated to the United States, and served in the “Revenue Cutter Service” (later merged to form the United States Coast Guard) remaining in service through the Mexican-American War.  He passed away in Pelham less than two years before this latest outbreak of war with Spain.

Right:  Judge Edward A. Patterson (January 29, 1815 - November 3, 1896), first justice of the peace in the Town of Pelham.  Photo from the Patterson Family Materials, Pelham Town Historian Collection, courtesy of Mary Ellen P. Kunst and the Patterson Family.

The Patterson Homestead located between First and River Avenues at the edge of Chester Park.  The house was demolished as part of the Hutchinson River Parkway project.  Photo from the Patterson Family Materials, Pelham Town Historian Collection, courtesy of Mary Ellen P. Kunst and the Patterson Family.

The U.S. Army with just 24,593 soldiers was woefully under-manned for war with Spain.  President William McKinley sent out a call for 125,000 volunteers, which was authorized by Congress on April 22, 1898.  A month later, the President issued a second call for 75,000 more.  Pelhamites Harry Patterson and Gardner Minard were among those who answered the call, enlisting with the 8th New York Volunteer Infantry, Company G.  But before they and the vast number of other soldiers could be shipped off to fight in Cuba or the Philippines, they would need to be trained.  Makeshift camps were set up, including one at Fort Thomas in Chickamauga Park, Tennessee, where tens of thousands of soldiers descended from all parts of the country.  Among them were Harry and Gardner.

“Fort” Thomas was little more than an open field with a few primitive structures located on a former Civil War battlefield that had been preserved, like Gettysburg, as a park.  Enlisted men like Harry and Gardner slept on the ground in tents.  There were shallow latrines, but many were not averse to making the open ground their facilities for relieving themselves.  Bathing took place in ponds and streams from which the soldiers also drank.  By the end of May, 1898 there were nearly 50,000 men at the camp.  It was not long before the unsanitary conditions led to outbreaks of disease, usually misdiagnosed as Malaria or Dysentery, but which was actually an epidemic of Typhoid fever.  About 22% of those stationed at Fort Thomas contracted Typhoid.  The death rate was 7.3%.  The camp was barely satisfactory for training; it was in no way prepared for providing hospital care for thousands of severely ill.

With the heat of the summer, conditions at Chickamauga deteriorated further and newspapers across the country began reporting on the fate of its soldiers.  The New York Times carried a report of an officer returning from the camp under the headline “Awful Suffering at Camp Thomas.”  “Boiling over with indignation” and speaking “with great vehemence and force,” he stated that, while one might expect a sick soldier to welcome going to a hospital, at Camp Thomas it is seen as “the house of doom.”   Medical supplies, thermometers, nurses and even cold water were in short supply.  There was virtually no ice to help bring down the fevers of stricken soldiers.   When he went to visit one of the men from his company in the hospital, he stated:

"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 around…. In another case, a man who died in the division hospital was found to be literally alive with maggots under his armpits, and his dying agonies were intensified by the movements of these vermins [sic].  There are other shocking cases of neglect which are too horrible to be recounted." 

Above:  Transportation of the dead at Camp Thomas, Chickamauga Park in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
Photo: Courtesy of News-Tribune (Rome, Georgia) 

Harry Patterson and Gardiner Minard were solemnly aware that they would be risking their lives on the battlefield against the Spanish, but growing up in the still rural and genteel community of Pelham, they could have never imagined that they were volunteering for these circumstances.

Eighteen days after the New York Times article appeared, Private Harry D. Patterson of Pelham, New York died of Typhoid fever at Fort Thomas on August 28, 1898.   J. Gardiner Minard also contracted the disease, but survived and recovered enough to fire the salute over the grave of his friend when Harry was buried at the Chattanooga National Cemetery, about 10 miles from their camp in Tennessee.

The day after Harry’s death, the New York Times reported that all troops were being evacuated from Camp Thomas.  The last unit departed on September 14, and that month, President McKinley appointed a commission to investigate Army conditions because “charges of criminal neglect of the soldiers in camp and field and hospital and in transports have been so persistent that, whether true of false, they have made a deep impression on the country.”  He asked for an investigation “so thorough and complete that your report … will fix the responsibility for any failure or fault, by reason of neglect, incompetency, or maladministration upon the officers and bureaus responsible.”  The “Dodge Commission” as it became known produced an eight-volume report, filled with eye-witness accounts of the horrible conditions at Fort Thomas.  After the Secretary of War, Russell Alger, was forced to resign, his successor used the Dodge Commission Report to implement reforms in the Army.

By the end of Spanish-American War, 345 soldiers had been killed in action or from injuries sustained in battle; another 1,590 died from Typhoid fever, nearly half at Camp Thomas. 

Harry D. Patterson
1879 - 1898

8th New York Volunteer Infantry,
Company G

Buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery,
Chattanooga, Tennessee

Thank you to Mary Ellen P. Kunst, for her donation of the Patterson Family Materials to become a permanent part of the Pelham Town Historian Collection. 

For more about the Typhoid fever epidemic at Fort Thomas, Chickamauga Park, see the comprehensive dissertation:  Pierce, Gerald Joseph , "Public and Private Voices:  The Typhoid Fever Experience at Camp Thomas, 1898, Georgia State University, 2007.  

Arthur L. Scinta, Town Historian

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