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Chattanooga battlefield to showcase ties to Spanish-American War connection

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — More men died during training here for the Spanish-American War than fell during the nearly eight-month war.

Lessons learned about how to quickly raise, house and train an army in Chattanooga's backyard led to major improvements that likely shaped military troop-building forever forward, said Will Sunderland, park ranger for the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

In the months leading up to the United States' declaration of war against Spain in April 1898, 70,000 young men traveled to Camp George Thomas on the battlefield of Chickamauga.

This weekend Sunderland and local living history presenters will share stories of the buildup on the local park and its effects on the area for decades afterward.

It was the site where the fathers and grandfathers of some of those new soldiers had fought, bled and died. It would be where they would set up camp and begin training.

The land had only recently been acquired to form a park, and monuments were still being built in the background as the new troops trained.

The camp held more than twice the population of Chattanooga at the time.

Things quickly went wrong.

The influx of men from various parts of the country, poor infrastructure and even worse sanitation methods resulted in an outbreak of typhoid fever.

Between April 1898 and the end of actual fighting in August, camp doctors reported 4,400 cases of the fever. By the end of the camp's existence that year, 425 had died.

More than 300,000 men served in the conflict, and 385 were killed in action.

Camp Thomas was the largest of the four camps set up specifically for the war, Sunderland said. Other units trained on existing military installations.

Few of the soldiers here saw fighting or even were deployed. But the site was chosen to amass troops for the same reason that human beings have chosen to live in the Chattanooga area for 12,000 years, Sunderland said.

"Chattanooga is a passing point; transportation is the key to why we're all here," Sunderland said.

The access to shipping from the Tennessee River, the area's location between the mountains and the sea and the existing railroad hub of the time all made for a great location to move many people quickly.

Alongside Sunderland this weekend, Preston Brown and a clutch of local re-enactors will wear period uniforms and carry weapons of the time to show visitors a little of how the soldiers lived.

Brown was drawn into the re-enacting scene with a local Civil War group and then learned about Spanish-American War links to the park.

"It wasn't the war itself that interested me to begin with. It was the fact that there was a camp there on Chickamauga," Brown said. "It's an extension of my Chickamauga experience."
 

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