Retro Baltimore

When World War I and the Spanish flu turned Fort McHenry into one of the country's largest hospitals

Star-shaped Fort McHenry is obscured by dozens of hospital buildings and barracks that were built during World War I.

One hundred years ago at Fort McHenry, commemorating the rockets’ red glare of the War of 1812 was probably the furthest thing from people’s minds.

That’s because the fort, which had so valiantly defended Baltimore when the British were assaulting its shores, was in the midst of another battle — one that was about to take an unexpected turn for the worse and become far more lethal than anything that had happened during the war.


Beginning around America’s entry into World War I in 1917, the 40-plus acres surrounding the star-shaped fort had been turned into one of the country’s largest hospitals, United States Army General Hospital No. 2. Some old Civil War-era buildings were used as quarters for the doctors and staff; temporary barracks were hastily put up to house patients.

Ironically, just five years earlier, the fort had been abandoned by the Army, and weeds had quickly taken over. “Poor old Fort McHenry — Can’t Somebody Do Something,” a headline in The Sun lamented. World War I provided an answer; in all, some 20,000 wounded and sick American soldiers would arrive at the fort, later returning to active duty or heading back to civilian life.

Nurses pose outside one of the United States Army General Hospital No. 2 buildings in this 1919 photo.

At its height, the hospital staff included some 200 doctors, 300 nurses, 300 medical corpsmen and 100 civilian aides. After the armistice was signed in November 1918 ending the war, the flood of wounded men returning from Europe began in earnest.

“To accommodate the rush, temporary buildings began springing up overnight… and within a matter of a few months, there seemed scarcely a square yard of space left,” Norman B. Cole recalled in an “I Remember...” piece written for The Sun in January 1959. “Buildings were set down without any semblance of a pattern, constructed at all sorts of odd angles to fit them in.”

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The hospital was teeming. On March 31, 1919, according to a contemporary article in The Sun, 2,109 patients were being treated there — more than at any other Army hospital in the U.S.

But perhaps the worst times for the fort-turned-hospital were not a direct result of the war, but rather of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that would eventually kill between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. The flu first hit Maryland in September 1918, and it quickly made its way to Hospital No. 2. Before the pandemic was over, some 300 people there came down with flu, and at least a third of them died.

“They dropped like flies,” Emily Raine Williams, superintendent of nurses at the hospital, wrote in her memoirs. “In this very large room, all the eye could see was a lot of cots, and on each cot was a sick boy, groaning and moaning, all huddled together. Poor kids. I so often think of that sight.”

Reported the Evening Sun in November 1918, “During its six-week reign as the king of all diseases, Spanish influenza struck down 50,000 persons in the city and state and killed 5,160.”

By 1920, the Army’s plans to close down Hospital No. 2 were already underway, with patients being transferred to permanent facilities. Some of those who remained complained that people seemed to have forgotten about them. “Especially do we feel bad on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, visiting days,” one wounded veteran told the Afro-American in a story that ran on Nov. 17, 1922, “when no one comes to look after us.

“We would be glad to see people, whether we knew them or not,” the man added, “if they would only come and bring us a word of cheer.”

Abandoned wooden hospital buildings at Fort McHenry are shown in this 1925 photo.

The last patient left Hospital No. 2 in 1923; two years later, the fort was declared a national park. In 1927, the War Department tore down the temporary wooden buildings that had been cluttering the grounds. No traces of the World War I-era structures remain.