One of the many informative and absorbing talks given at the grand opening of the Adams County Historical Society’s new building and museum, “Beyond the Battle,” on April 15 and 16, was shared by Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of President and Mrs. Eisenhower. She mentioned a fact that often escapes many students of the late president’s life. The young Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915 and was sent to Gettysburg’s Camp Colt a few years later to oversee the operations of the camp where the United States Army was training soldiers to use a newly developed weapon of war: the tank. The War Department awarded the then 27-year-old Eisenhower the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership and for displaying “unusual zeal, foresight, and marked administrative ability” while in command during the devasting Spanish flu pandemic that devastated Camp Colt and the nation from 1918 to 1920.

“Pandemic” is a word quite familiar to us today, having lived through one in our own time. In 1918, with no preventions and few treatment options, places like Camp Colt, where troops lived close together in barracks, had very high cases of the Spanish flu. About 3,300 soldiers of the approximately 10,000 troops stationed there contracted this virulent influenza, and around 150 died. The young Eisenhower’s first enemy encounter was at Gettysburg with an invisible enemy, not a foreign power. As he would repeatedly do in his career, he rose to the occasion. Eisenhower ordered the entire camp to be disinfected daily, restricted the soldiers from entering the town or even attending church, and forbade local citizens from entering the camp. Worse cases were put in isolation in Xavier Hall, which the St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg offered Eisenhower for use. It was 55 years earlier that this same church housed wounded soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg. By the end of 1918, Americans who lost their lives in combat numbered 53,402, but about 45,000 additional soldiers lost their lives to the Spanish flu and related pneumonia.

Howard F. Burrell is an Adams County Historical Society trustee.

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