In 1898 the United States invaded the Spanish controlled island of Cuba. This “splendid little war”, as John Hay called it, was an unbridled military success. In short order the Spanish forces on the island were defeated, surrendering on July 16th 1898. Yet, within a month the US invasion would be forced to evacuate the island in what would later be called by one historian, “the American Dunkirk”.
The cause was fiebre amarilla, yellow fever. Transmitted by mosquitos, the disease quickly spread amongst the American occupation force. The infected were quarantined in a separate camp north of Siboney.
As yellow fever continued to cripple the US Army in Cuba, officers agreed that they must convince Washington to withdraw them from the island. Not wanting to damage their careers, a junior officer, Theodore Roosevelt, was chosen to draft the request. The same day, the US commander, General Shafter, asked Washington to allow the withdraw from Cuba, describing his force as an “army of convalescents”. By the time of his letter, 75% of the force in Cuba was unfit for service. The evacuation began on August 7th.
Vincent J. Cirillo, Bullets and Bacilli: The Spanish-American War and Military Medicine (Rutgers University Press, 2004).
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.