Online Exhibit: Red Cross Nursing and the War of 1898

Wednesday, Aug 5, 2020


Red Cross Nursing and the War of 1898: The Tampa Connection

Red Cross Nursing and the War of 1898: The Tampa Connection

This online exhibit is based on a 2018 panel exhibit of the same name created by history students at The University of Tampa and Dr. Charles McGraw Groh, Associate Professor of History.


Many people know that Tampa and the Tampa Bay Hotel played an important role in the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Most remain unaware that the conflict witnessed the first time that the American Red Cross provided nursing services in wartime. This exhibit traces the path that led dozens of young women from New York to Tampa and Cuba in 1898.


The Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) was the last of three conflicts waged by Cubans between 1868 and 1898 to achieve independence from Spain. Beginning in 1891, revolutionary leader José Marti made repeated trips to Florida to build support for the third war.  He called Tampa’s cigar districts “the civilian camps of the revolution.”

In January 1898, Patria, the newspaper of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, published a letter from the Club Beneficio Público.  The Ybor City club was established as an unofficial auxiliary of the Red Cross with “the mission to help our liberating army, as well as the Cuban families who are in distress in this city.”


Asked in early 1898 to distribute U.S. charitable donations in Cuba, Clara Barton looked to the New York Red Cross Hospital to provide medical assistance. Established in 1894, the small medical facility provided care to working-class immigrants, even as its nursing sisters trained to offer assistance in wars and natural disasters.

Sister Bettina Hofker Lesser (b.1872) immigrated to New York from Prussia in 1886. She completed a two-year program at the Mount Sinai Nurse Training School before opening the New York Red Cross Hospital, modeled after the German Red Cross. The hospital mandated that its nurses, called “sisters,” work without pay to demonstrate their selfless motives.

The U.S. declaration of war against Spain in April 1898 led Sister Bettina to offer a short training course in battlefield nursing to graduates of other nurse training schools. The new American Red Cross recruits could not afford to serve without pay, creating the distinction between Red Cross Sisters and Nurses.


Clara Barton (1821-1912) was seventy-six years old when she arrived in Tampa to oversee the American Red Cross relief program in Cuba. Decades of humanitarian service in the U.S. Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Johnstown flood did not protect Barton from discrimination based on her gender and age.

Sensitive to critical comments about her age, Barton became adept at using cosmetics to appear more youthful. Her fondness for green dresses and red ribbon accessories over more staid garments still led critics, including Christian Herald editor Louis Klopsch, to make unkind remarks.


Between 1896 and 1898, more than a quarter of the Cuban population died from starvation, poor sanitary conditions, and inadequate medical treatment under the Spanish policy of “reconcentration.” Civilians were herded into urban centers with military guards in an unsuccessful attempt to undermine the Cuban revolutionaries’ base of support.

In February 1898, Sister Bettina Hofker Lesser worked with local caregivers to establish an orphanage and clinic in Havana. Soon, Sister Blanche McCorristen took charge of the facility, while Sisters Minnie Rogal, Isabelle Olm, and Annie McCue assisted Lesser in converting a municipal shelter into a Red Cross Hospital.

Unlike the U.S. military intervention, American Red Cross aid was universally welcomed by Cubans. On March 25, 1898, twenty-one Cuban physicians gave thanks for the orphanage and hospital, where “all are attended with the greatest care … by the good and intelligent Mrs. Lesser, who is the angel of consolation.”


After touring the Red Cross orphanage in Havana, Senator Redfield Proctor praised the work of Sister Bettina in a congressional address on March 17, 1898. Newspaper editors who advocated war seized upon the image of the Red Cross Sister as a symbol of the supposedly selfless motives of the United States.

In the cartoon that follows, Life magazine dressed Columbia in a Red Cross uniform to distinguish U.S. motives from the typical behavior of imperial nations. Despite such depictions, the war with Spain allowed the United States to acquire a formal overseas empire, which came to include Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii.


After the Red Cross evacuated Havana in April, Sister Bettina traveled to New York to recruit additional nurses. Her four Red Cross sisters stayed in Tampa. The women staged a field exercise in Hyde Park, showing locals how to apply bandages and splints. All five sisters left Tampa on June 20, 1898 to return with Clara Barton to Cuba.

The first group of supplemental Red Cross nurses reached Tampa on July 4, finding accommodations at Henry Plant’s Port Tampa Inn. At the request of army physicians, they hitched up their dresses in torrential rain to reach Picnic Island on foot, where they treated soldiers suffering from typhoid.


Nurses spent at least one night at the Tampa Bay Hotel in July 1898. American Red Cross organizers worried that the professional women had developed an “independence of ordinary social requirements” that might be misinterpreted by military officials and Tampa residents, so their behavior was closely monitored in the mixed-sex spaces of the hotel.


Sister Bettina and her four Red Cross sisters returned to Cuba on June 26, 1898. Following General William Shafter’s assault on El Caney and San Juan, the nurses assisted U.S. military surgeons at the hastily-constructed First Division Hospital. The sisters also took charge of a hospital for General Calixto Garciá’s Cuban forces and a separate facility for fever patients.

Of the five trained nurses who served in Cuba, all but one, Sister Annie McCue, contracted yellow fever. They survived, but Sister Bettina struggled with health issues for years after the war. In 1900, the U.S. Army established the Reed Commission, which finally confirmed that mosquito bites transmitted the deadly disease. 


One nursing duty continued for years after the War of 1898, the task of writing condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers. Long after Pvt. Theodore Miller was fatally wounded in the Battle of San Juan Hill, Bettina Hofker Lesser offered words of comfort to his sister Mina, the wife of inventor Thomas Edison.

Lesser assured Mrs. Edison that the young soldier was cared for “with the same spirit as a mother would care for a child.” The nurse promised that his last hours were “peaceful and contented” and filled with memories of “his happy home life.”