Spanish-American War (1898)
Women and Wartime
The onset of the Spanish-American War changed things for Louise and other women of her era. As a cloud of international tension lowered around Cuba’s efforts to win independence from Spain, America’s sympathies lay with Cuba, a diplomatic position that President McKinley made quite clear in January 1898, by sending the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American interests there. Generously armed, the Maine lay uneventfully at anchor for three weeks. Then, on the night of February 15th, all of Havana heard a terrible explosion as the entire front of the ship shattered and flew skyward. The cause of this disaster has never been satisfactorily explained, but Spain was immediately blamed for both the loss of 200 American lives and for the Spanish-American War, which was declared by the American Government in April of the same year.
A desperate need for nurses was not enough to persuade the conservative U.S. Army to allow a military draft for mere women. The obstinate Surgeon General refused to consider this shocking possibility -- that is, until Daughters of the American Revolution Vice-President Anita McGee MD offered to do the recruiting. McGee, the daughter of a military officer, understood exactly how to please the unbudging miltary top bras. She offered qualified women a tempting salary of $30 per day, in return for four inflexible requirements: No nurse would be a member of the armed forces; each candidate had to be a graduate of a reputable nursing school; she could not be young; and she definitely could not be good-looking. Almost 8,000 responses to this urgent call poured in between May and July, but only about 1,600 nurses cleared Dr. McGee’s stringent hurdles. Some of the lucky employed were immediately sent down to Florida to staff a new military hospital then being organized. Among this group was 28-year old Louise Klehm.
As exasperated doctors and nurses have noted since time immemorial, patients can be their own worst enemies. This soon proved to be the case at the new Florida hospital. Though the nurses scrupulously provided boiled water for their patients, the wounded soldiers preferred the taste of water from the wells, some of which could not be separated from the hospital sewers. The result was predictable -- a roaring epidemic of the grinding cramps, delirium and frequent deaths that spell typhoid fever. The ill starred hospital was hastily abandoned, and the patients were shipped to their home states for their convalescence. For Nurse Klehm, who accompanied the wounded Illinois veterans home on the train, there was a short stay at Fort Sheridan in Northern Illinois.