We know World War I brought the Spanish flu to Atlanta’s doorstep in October 1918.
But how many people in the city got sick or died as a result is anybody’s guess.
The War to End All Wars had been raging on the other side of the pond since 1914. On one side were the Allies— the “Triple Entente” of Russia, France and Great Britain — on the other was an alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The United States sought to remain neutral. President Woodrow Wilson won a second term on a promise to keep America at peace. The German sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, in which 128 Americans lost their lives, helped draw the United States into the conflict.
It would take another two years. The United States declared war in April 1917 after an intercepted German telegram offered to help Mexico regain territories lost in the Mexican-American War. The war had suddenly come to America’s border.
To prepare soldiers for the conflict, the United States quickly constructed 16 National Army Training Camps. These massive infrastructure projects meant jobs and money for the chosen sites, which needed to be on cheap land near large cities with access to double-tracked railroads.
Gen. Leonard Wood headed the effort. He had served as an army surgeon at Fort McPherson in Atlanta and played football for Georgia Tech. He knew Atlanta well. Along with Mayor Asa Candler and Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Ivan Allen Sr., he selected the Camp Gordon site in Chamblee, which Candler owned. It was named after Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, who later served as governor of Georgia and as a U.S. senator.
The camp was built on 2,400 acres, had 1,600 buildings and could handle 47,000 troops. It cost $11.9 million to build. Completed in July 1917, it was the largest construction project in Atlanta’s history. Today it is Peachtree-DeKalb Airport.
By September 1918, Atlanta was aware of the Spanish flu, especially after an outbreak in Philadelphia following a parade supporting the war effort. Word got around that the Second Infantry Replacement Regiment at Camp Gordon had been placed under quarantine because of the epidemic. The camp was just 12 miles from downtown Atlanta. Within a few days, with cases spreading, half the camp was under quarantine.
Dr. J.P. Kennedy was the health officer for Atlanta. By the time of the outbreak at Camp Gordon, the city had experienced just one death from the flu and three from pneumonia. Kennedy realized Atlanta could be overwhelmed with cases.
On Oct. 7, with the support of Candler and the city board of health, Kennedy closed all theaters, dance halls, churches and schools for two months or until the pandemic passed. The Spanish flu put a significant strain on nurses and doctors, who were pulled in myriad directions to help with the outbreak at military bases and in neighboring communities.
Atlanta’s death rate was the lowest for Southern cities. By late October business owners and Candler began demanding the city open back up, which it did over objections from the health board and Kennedy.
There is no mention of any of this in historian Franklin Garrett’s set of books, “Atlanta and Environs.” There is, however, a great deal about Camp Gordon and Nov. 11, 1918, when an armistice ended the war.
Garrett writes about the massive Nov. 12 victory parade, which included tens of thousands of troops and thousands of civilians along Peachtree and Whitehall streets in downtown Atlanta, the buildings all decorated with Allied and American flags.
By Thanksgiving, Atlanta’s flu cases surged. The city did not close down again, with the public safety committee stating, “The influenza situation in Atlanta is up to the people themselves.”
The death rate remained above normal through February, but doctors and health officials pivoted to assigning the causes of death to the common cold among other ailments. In mid-March, the death rate returned to normal, and Kennedy declared the second wave — which was much worse than the first — had passed.
About 500 million individuals, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the virus. The number of deaths is estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide, with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.
At least 800 Atlanta residents died of the Spanish flu between October 1918 and March 1919. Because of the record-keeping and doctors ascribing deaths to illnesses other than the Spanish flu, we will never have an accurate picture of how many lives it actually claimed or how many residents were sickened.