Image courtesy Chattanooga Public Library
The German naval officers, merchant seamen and civilians trapped in U.S. territory were detained in one of four camps. The naval officers, altogether 1,400 of them, fell under the authority of the War Department and were mostly detained in Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Fort McPherson, Atlanta, Georgia. The 2,300 merchant seamen, under the supervision of the Labor Department, were detained in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Lastly, the Department of Justice held 6,000 German civilians in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
The six-acre Fort Oglethorpe camp lay on a hilly plot of land. The area was devoid of trees and turned into solid mud every winter. The camp was enclosed by ten-foot-high, barbed wire fences, and tripod watch towers, equipped with searchlights, telephones, and machine guns, encircled the camp. The camp was divided into two sections. Camp A, which was also known as the “millionaires’ camp,” consisted of three barracks, and it housed the wealthier inmates, who paid for their upkeep and lived in relative comfort in small, individual rooms. Camp B, on the other hand, contained more than thirty barracks, and lodged up to 100 prisoners per barrack. These barracks, the mess hall, the executive office, the canteen, and the bath houses were the set against which the lives of 6,000 German civilians unfolded for more than two years.
Even though the inmates suffered because of the monotonous diet, the overcrowded barracks, the inadequate sanitation facilities, incompetent medical care, and the censorship of their letters, compared to the concentration camps and work camps of World War II, they led a life of relative ease and comfort. The inmates were allowed to run their own “university,” and since many of the leading German intellectuals of the time were detained at Fort Oglethorpe for suspicion of being propagandists, the number and variety of courses were remarkable. Though under censorship, the inmates were also allowed to print their own newsletter, called the Orgelsdorfer Eulenspiegel, which included poems, short stories, woodcut illustrations, essays, and art criticism. The YMCA brought movies to the camp, and the detainees played chess, cards, and a variety of different sports to keep fit. One of the most spectacular events of the camp was the concert given by an orchestra comprised entirely of inmates and conducted by Karl Muck, the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Despite these amenities, confinement took its toll on the detainees. More than half of the inmates came down with influenza when an epidemic hit the camp, and 88 of them died eventually. Even more widespread were the psychological effects of confinement, also known as “barbed-wire sickness,” which resulted in anxieties, impatience, shifting moods, diminished ability to concentrate, eccentric behaviors, and increased tension between the inmates. One of the most psychologically taxing aspects of confinement was the fact that some of the detainees were not released immediately when the war ended. The last internee was not released until late March 1920.
Image Courtesy Chattanooga Public Library