Soldiers from the 2nd Massachusetts at Lake Morton camp
Lakeland, Florida was selected as a site to quarter troops bound for Cuba via Tampa to fight in the Spanish-American War. Among the reasons for that selection were good rail connections, abundant water supplies and close proximity to the embarkation point of Tampa, which was being overwhelmed with troops awaiting transport to Cuba. Tampa was unable to cope with the large number of soldiers arriving and Lakeland was chosen to help relieve some of the burden on Tampa.
The War Department ordered five units totaling 9,000 troops to Lakeland in May 1898 to await departure to Cuba. The units ordered to Lakeland were the First United States Cavalry, the Tenth United States Cavalry, the First Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, the Second Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, and the Seventy-first New York Volunteers. Each of the units was assigned an area of Lakeland in which to set up camp. Two of the units, the Second Massachusetts and the Seventy-first New York, established camps on Lake Morton not far from where the Lakeland Public Library now stands.
By the end of August, most of the troops had departed, either to go to Cuba or to return home to their permanent bases. The presence of 9,000 troops in a community of approximately 1,000 permanent residents created enormous logistical problems and some tension between citizens and soldiers. Tension flared in particular between the white citizens of Lakeland and the predominantly black troops of the Tenth Cavalry, who chafed under the restrictions imposed by the city's Jim Crow laws.
Other problems were more mundane, yet equally difficult to resolve. Among the principal difficulties was the weather. Northern troops had difficulty adjusting to the heat and humidity of a central Florida summer and heat exhaustion was the most common ailment treated at the camp hospitals. Other difficulties with which the troops had to contend included an abundance of mosquitoes and shortages of food, milk, and ice.
On the whole, however, Lakeland coped remarkably well for a small community suddenly inundated with a population nine times its size. The city accounted itself well as host to troops readying for battle in Cuba. The city's role provides an interesting footnote to the history of the Spanish-American War.
(For more detailed information on Lakeland's role in the Spanish-American War, see Hal Hubener. "Army Life in Lakeland During the Spanish-American War." Tampa Bay History. v.20 no.1 (spring-summer) 1998, 32-47.)