Editor’s note: This is the first Vintage Albany column, a continuation and expansion of our popular Vintage Albany photo feature. This will not normally be found on our front page, but we hope you will continue to enjoy it.
Tensions between the US and Spain had been growing strong ever since the “Ten Year War”, one of three wars fought by Cubans desiring independence from Spain beginning in 1868. Tensions continued to escalate as the Philippines also wanted independence from Spain. Spain sent an estimated 200,000 troops to Cuba to put a stop to Cuban independence. Americans began reading horror stories in the American press of atrocities Spain was carrying out against Cuban citizens. In January of 1898 the US had sent the battleship USS Maine to protect American sugar farmers, living in Cuba, from the conflict.
The crew of the Maine had been treated well upon arrival. The officers had even attended dinners and parties held by the Spanish. The goodwill came to a stop on the evening of February 15, 1898 with the explosion of the USS Maine while anchored in Havana Harbor. The ship sank killing 266 American sailors and injuring many more. The captain and some of his officers were not on board the night the ship sank. Though no one was ever certain if the explosion was accidental or intentional, the US press called Spain responsible. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer created a press frenzy which finally resulted in the US declaring war on Spain on April of 1898. The sinking of the Maine was the 1898 equivalent of Pearl Harbor. Patriotism was high and men began volunteering in droves. Women began to join the effort as nurses. Americans began a new rally cry, “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” The war with Spain ended up being fought in Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.
The government set up a new training camp here in Albany in November of 1898. The camp was named Camp Churchman for 2nd Lt. Clark Churchman, 12th U.S. Inf., who died at Santiago, Cuba on July 2, 1898 from wounds suffered the previous day at San Juan Hill. The camp was located on the south bank of the Kinchafoonee Creek along Old Leesburg Road (State Route 133) where the former American Legion Golf Course was located. The men sent to the Albany training camp all came from Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico and the Indian Territories along with a few troops from Mississippi as well. The camp was under the command of Col. Myron McCord of Arizona.
Vintage Albany Facebook group member, Francis Marion Hay said that his grandparents and other family members once lived in two houses on the peninsula during WWII on Lake Worth, which had been part of the old camp. “The old barracks building still remained there at the time and was used by the Georgia Guard during WWII for camp outs.” Hay recalled.
The regiment had originally been stationed at Fort Hamilton, Lexington, Kentucky. Winter had come early and hard and 1898 was one of the coldest winters on record. The day the battalions left Lexington for the long train trip to Albany, it was still raining. It rained the entire trip and was still raining when they arrived in Albany. It made setting up camp and unloading equipment nearly impossible. The weather that year was miserable and it played a part in a lot of the illnesses the troops suffered.
Many Albanians probably remember the “Wig-Wam” at the corner of Jefferson and 7th Avenue. It was a popular hangout for teenagers in the 40’s and 50’s. However during the war it served as an army hospital. The troops had been ill with the grippe, typhoid fever before coming to Albany. At first conditions seemed much better here. Before long the men suffered from the largest outbreak of meningitis in Albany’s history. In fact disease killed 90 percent of the about 3,000 men lost in the war. One of the nurses assigned to the camp hospital, A. McInnes, was one of youngest Army nurses at that time.
Albanians referred to the troops as “cowboys and Indians” and people were curious to meet these rough and wild westerners. There were accounts in old newspapers of an incident when an Albanian overheard some soldiers plotting to set fire to one of the Tift warehouses. The warehouse burned the very next day. The impact of over 1,000 troops arriving in Albany practically overnight could have caused some problems, however most accounts of the time showed the townspeople were friendly with the soldiers.
There was one other noteworthy incident. One of the Arizona soldiers married an Army nurse while in Albany. Their secret wedding was soon found out and it was revealed that Steward Fred Castelle was already married and had children. According to old news accounts, Castelle actually had several wives. The nurse, Miss Clara Sparks was sent home to Buffalo New York and Castelle was tried in Savannah for bigamy.
Oddly enough the local men from Albany that were involved in the war were never stationed here. They were trained in Griffin Georgia as part of Company G, made up of volunteers from Dougherty, Lee, Glynn, McIntosh and Wayne Counties. Though the war ended before Albanians could be sent to battle, some did serve in peace-keeping efforts in Cuba and some were sent to other regions. Although not part of camp Churchman, African American soldiers from Georgia, Missouri and elsewhere in the south made up a special unit called “the Immunes.” Booker T. Washington, in an attempt to get black men into the military, had stated to leaders that black men were better suited to fighting in the tropical weather of Cuba and the other islands. It was believed that these men could tolerate malaria and were thus immune, this proved to be completely false. The “Immunes” camp had been shot at by fellow white soldiers. When the Immunes were put on a train headed south, they themselves began shooting guns randomly out the window of the train as it went through Macon. This occurred again when another train carrying the Immunes passed through Georgia.
None of the soldiers at Camp Churchman ever saw combat in Cuba. The war was a short one, ending officially on December 10, 1898 with the Treaty of Paris. The fighting had actually ended months before. Spain gave control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam to America. We maintained only a small part of Cuba, the Guantanamo Bay base. The war with Philippines would soon start; Americans would soon end up fighting the very people that had just achieved freedom from Spain. It is possible that some of the men from Camp Churchman, as well as the Albanians of the old Company G may have ended up in that war.
Camp Churchman shut down completely by February of 1899. The Missouri unit consisted of 1,060 enlisted men. In that one unit16 men died of disease, 2 died in accidents and 28 were left disabled and 44 men deserted. One soldier died the very day the troops were due to leave Albany.
In May of 1939 the Department of Georgia National Auxiliary erected a monument to the Veterans of the Spanish American War and the related war in the Philippines (1898-1902). The monument stood at the Albany Auditorium for decades before being moved to the city Cemetery where it still resides.
Betty Rehberg is historian for the Albany Journal and maintains a group on Facebook called Vintage Albany Georgia.