Robert Hunter Harrison was my 3rd great uncle. He was born on January 18, 1887, in Norfolk, VA, the youngest of the six Harrison sons born to Samuel H. Harrison (1842-1896) and Louisa Hunter Harrison (1850-1897).
He was an accomplished tailor who worked in the very successful tailor shop, Chas. S. Carter, in Norfolk, VA.
The Norfolk Journal and Guide did a great write-up of Robert’s accomplishments and great promise in October of 1917. Sadly, that article ran nearly one year to the day of Robert’s passing away.
World events eventually came to directly affect Robert, as he was drafted into the U.S. Army for the Great War or WWI.
Robert’s elder brother, Atty. James M. Harrison, wrote in his 1926 published book of poems, Southern Sunbeams, that Robert, “in his 31st year gave his life for his country.” I felt a sense of pride in learning that.
I looked closer. According to census information, that meant that Robert died in 1918. I checked for battles in October of 1918, the time of Robert’s passing according to a VA death index record. (Very little info)
I looked for a battle in which the U.S. was involved. The Battle of Vittorio Veneto occurred in Oct. of 1918, and according to battle lists, was the sole battle that month in which the U.S. was a belligerent. I checked casualty lists, no Robert H. Harrison. This had to be the battle in which Uncle Robert gave his life for his country, right?
I needed to brush-up on the history of African-Americans in WWI, apparently. I read and learned that the majority of Black troops served in non-combat positions. Where was Robert stationed? What was his regiment? There was such a lack of Robert-specific information, and additional facts were necessary to glean just how Uncle Robert “gave his life.”
Then, in June of 2015, the state of Virginia released a treasure trove of vital records via Ancestry.com. I helped to transcribe over 300 VA vital records at FamilySearch, to assist in making these records available. Well, in that huge release of records, there was the record of Robert Harrison’s 1918 passing.
He died on October 12, 1918, in Ft. (Camp) Eustis, VA, from pneumonia, which was a complication of influenza. With the answers came more questions.
Influenza? This was how Robert “gave his life for his country”?
I looked online for additional information and located a report from the U.S. Army Medical Dept, Office of Medical History regarding the 1918 (Spanish flu) influenza epidemic at Camp Eustis:
Q. CAMP EUSTIS, DIVISION SURGEON’S REPORT.
No epidemics of infectious disease have occurred except that of influenza, which began in this camp about September 26, 1918, and of which special report has been made. From the date of its appearance to December 31, there were 2,243 cases of influenza admitted to hospital; during the same period there were 110 deaths from influenza and 26 from pneumonia. When influenza appeared in this camp the entire camp was placed under quarantine and no passes were allowed; the congregating of men except for drill and necessary fatigue duty was forbidden; increased attention was given to ventilation of barracks, to arranging of beds alternately head and foot, to the proper washing of mess kits, and to instructions relative to “covering the cough,” etc. Attendants on the sick were required to wear face masks.
R. CAMP EUSTIS BASE HOSPITAL REPORT.
On September 22, the first case of influenza was admitted. From this date, the epidemic progressed rapidly, so within 10 days practically every ward in the hospital was equipped and running. Equipment for the wards was on hand, and construction was at a point where all wards practically were sufficiently finished to be occupied. Whenever there was a deficiency in construction, rush work in the wards enabled the medical service to keep even with the urgent demand for bed space. The months of October, November, and December were months of influenza. There were 2,288 cases of influenza admitted to the hospital. Maximum admissions were during October and the beginning of November. Of this number 412 were definitely diagnosed as having a complication of broncho-pneumonia. Death (138) occurred associated with this complication of broncho-pneumonia. Only 12 cases of empyema developed. The remaining broncho-pneumonia made a satisfactory recovery. Deaths were principally of two types. One in which there was an overwhelming infection, the patient dying in one to three days with marked dyspnea, cyanosis, and a lung picture showing a massive edematous broncho-pneumonia excluding all aeration to the lungs. The other type, less fulminating, showed an increasing toxemia, in which a terminal toxic nephritis was present associated with a bronchopneumonia, which frequently progressed to a lobular pneumonia, seldom to a lobar pneumonia. The jaundice frequently seen in cases where the streptococcus hemolytica is present, was terminal in many of these cases.
And so it was, Uncle Robert had been a casualty of this epidemic, rather than of direct combat. But there was more.
I later happened across this poignantly visceral letter about conditions at Camp Eustis around the time that Robert was there. The letter was written to the editor at Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ compelling periodical, The Crisis, and is dated April 12, 1919:
More about conditions in Virginia Camps
April 19, 1919
To the Editor:
We wish to say that Camp Eustis, VA is a hell on earth. We are still asking for discharges and receiving none. Some of the Fellows have affidavits signed by a Notary Public, stating that they are needed at home. In addition to this we have this matter to the Company Commander and he told us that the matter has been sent to Washington to the the War Department and they say we cannot be spared as it will weaken the ranks of the company. In the face of this state
ment we read an article in the Baltimore Star issued by the Secretary of War (Baker) that all drafted men would be out of the service by March, so we are confident that it is only the commander of the camp who is detaining us. We are doing nothing but laboring work, for which civilians receive from $3.75 to $4.00 per day. It is extremely difficult to secure a pass to visit our home folks even if they are sick. If a colored soldier stays over the time allotted by his pass, from $5 to $10 is deducted from his pay.
Of course a colored soldier never gets sick, he is always able to do his duty.
There is nothing here for enjoyment except listening to the frogs at night and the bugler in the morning. Our colored YMCA secretaries are as bad as the white, for they are afraid that if are discharged, they will be out of a job. A party was planned for us and our “Y” secretaries said that after the party we would not want to go home. But parties cannot take our minds off of our mothers, fathers, wives, and sweethearts.
Many of whom have not received the allotments we made them on our entrance to the Army. Capt. G.V. Gates, our morale officer, says that the “ni—r” did not need anything. That the men here resent the treatment they receive was shown when a moving picture was shown in a garage and the colored soldiers were segregated. Every soldier man as he walked in and was told by the armed white sergeant to sit on one side would turn around and walk out. The camp morale officer
said, “if he had his way with the blacks, he would turn a machine gun on them and kill them.” It is a prevalent idea that the white and colored should not mix. The colored soldier gave his life in France just like the white soldier. They didn’t Jim Crow the Negro soldier from the German bullets. They like the whites have their lives just like heroes, yet members of our race are lynched and burned at the stake just as before the war. Our men fought for Democracy and the preservation of the Stars and Stripes, for
the safety of their mothers, wives, and sweethearts. They have given their lives, their all, that their homes might be safe. Yet we are still Jim Crowed, segregated, and made to live in alleys, and scorned because we are not healthy.
A Boy from Camp Eustis, VA
The answer was clear, yes, Robert Hunter Harrison, did give his life for his country. Whether he’d fired a shot at the enemy or no, he’d fought the good fight and is remembered today.
Thank you for your service, Uncle Robert H. Harrison. We are all the better for your and others’ unknown sacrifice. 🇺🇸
Harrison, James M., Southern Sunbeams (Richmond: St. Lukes Press, 1926)
Norfolk New Journal and Guide (Proquest: Oct. 6, 1917)
Robert Letter from unidentified correspondent to Editor of the Crisis, ca. April 12, 1919
The 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic
Office of Medical History
The Genealogy Situation Room