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"City of Canvas: Camp Russell A. Alger and the Spanish-American War"

Author: Noel Garraux Harrison

Publisher: Fairfax County History Commission (1988)


Named for Secretary of War Russell A. Alger, the camp was established in May 1898 on a 1,400-acre farm called Woodburn Manor.  Some 23,500 men trained here for service in the Spanish-American War.  The large military population greatly affected the lives of the residents of the small communities of Falls Church and Dunn Loring.


When the United States declared war on Spain in April of 1898, it did so with an Army that was entirely unprepared for the effort.  At the onset of the war with Spain, the US Army was limited to 25,000 men.  The Spanish were estimated to have 400,000 men in uniform.  The need for rapid expansion and mobilization of US Army forces was self-evident.  In a matter of a few months in 1898, Army end strength would swell to over 200,000 men.  The need to equip, transport, house, feed, and provide medical care for the volunteers quickly overwhelmed the War Department’s capabilities.  The chaos that ensued provided a rich environment in which the typhoid bacillus would thrive.  By the conflict’s end, combat-related injuries would claim 345 lives.  Typhoid fever, on the other hand, would claim over five times that number leaving 2,000 dead.


Typhoid fever was one of the major scourges of the nineteenth century and a notorious military camp disease.  During the Civil War, over 75,000 cases occurred and more than 25,000 died.  At the onset of the war with Spain, typhoid fever was endemic in the United States.  In 1898, the US Army’s method of mobilizing from numerous small state camps to five large national assembly camps facilitated the spread of the disease.  These densely populated encampments provided the perfect setting for transmission of typhoid fever.  Some 24,000 soldiers contracted the disease in these camps.  At the height of the epidemic, up to 350 were struck down each day.  Seven miles west of Washington, DC, the situation was no less dire at Camp Alger.


In the spring of 1898, the fields and forests of Woodburn Manor (a largely untended and overgrown farm on the west side of Falls Church in the Dunn-Loring region of northern Virginia) would be inundated with soldiers preparing for war with Spain.  From May to August, over 23,000 soldiers would call this 1400-acre parcel of land home.  During its tenure as one of the five national assembly points, Camp Alger would host 24 infantry regiments from 14 states.  Overcrowding quickly became an issue.  A dry spring and summer that year resulted in a short supply of potable water.  An insufficient latrine system further complicated efforts to achieve and maintain sanitary measures.


The McKinley administration faced considerable criticism on the handling of the war with Spain.  Consequently, Secretary Alger resigned.  President McKinley appointed Major General Grenville Dodge to lead a commission to investigate the War Department's conduct.  The Army Surgeon General, George Sternberg, organized his own sanitary commission.  The latter’s Report on the Origin and Spread of Typhoid Fever in U.S. Military Camps During the Spanish War of 1898 is still regarded as a landmark in epidemiological studies.  The recommendations issued by these two commissions would catalyze major reforms in the Army’s (and by extension the nation’s) medical system.  By the onset of World War I, with improved understanding of disease transmission, better hygienic practices, and the advent of a vaccine, typhoid fever would largely be under control.


The camp was abandoned early in August 1898 and the War Department began the sale of land in September 1898.


Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0006EQ3KG
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Fairfax County History Commission (January 1, 1988)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 98 pages
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1 pounds



City of Canvas

SKU: FCH0063
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