Puck magazine turned ten the year of the Yorktown Centennial. Sort of the Onion of its day, it naturally had to poke some fun of the occasion.

Puck magazine turned ten the year of the Yorktown Centennial. Sort of the Onion of its day, it naturally poked fun of the occasion.

I have been preparing this week for Civil War Weekend at Governors Island, which is this Saturday and Sunday. One of the most fascinating periods in the island’s history is the stretch from 1878 until Elihu Root’s reforms began transforming the island in the early 1900s. Eighteen seventy eight is the year Winfield Scott Hancock arrived and took command of the Department of the East. He quickly had his hand in many things, one of which was the Yorktown Centennial of 1881. That was the anniversary of the American and their French allies took on the British and their hired guns in Virginia. The battle involved none  of than the General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. A Congressional organizing committee was put together that included none other than Joseph Roswell Hawley.

When we think of the post-Civil War era, we immediately think of the reconciliation vs. emancipation paradigm that underscored so much of the nation’s domestic politics. (Hawley himself had been a Civil War general and was very much part of the reunion circuit until his death in 1905.) It is important to remember though that so much more was happening. The Gilded Age was in full swing when the U.S. and France marked the occasion of their great Revolutionary War victory. Other nations were represented as well, but Yorktown 1881 was really a Franco-American affair. The timing could not have been better for a reunion of these once and former allies. Relations between France and American had become strained over the previous twenty years. Most egregiously, Napoleon III had stuck his nose in North American affairs, trying to undermine the fragile peace that existed between Mexico and the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War. He even managed to get Maximilian I, the brother of Franz Josef I, installed as the ruler of Mexico in 1864. France and the United States might well have gone to war after Appomattox had things gone a little differently. It was that close.

Napoleon III was gone after the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s and by 1881 the Third Republic had had a decade to establish itself. That is why everyone was so determined to make nice in Yorktown for the 100th anniversary of the battle. General Hancock was in charge of providing the American military contingent for the event. Various regiments left from Brookllyn’s Fort Hamilton under his orders in mid-September for Virginia. The idea was that they would march the same route that Washington and his men had taken 100 years earlier. Hancock, among others, was charged with entertaining the many dignitaries as well. This was so true that when he died five years later the government still owed him at least $2500, money he had paid out-of-pocket for the festivities in Virginia. His widow Almira was still petitioning Congress for reimbursement in the late 1880s. (Reimbursement was a delicate topic for Governors Island commanders, who were expected to entertain the many VIPs who passed through the base while visiting New York City.)

There were some glitches during the Yorktown Centennial, especially relating to such logistical issues as accommodations. Still, the commemoration was a big success and did much to restore the Franco-American alliance that had fractured during the Civil War. The memory of Lafayette had a great deal to do with that. On the 4th of July 1917 the 16th Infantry Regiment made its famous march to the marquis’s grave at Picpus Cemetery n Paris, where a senior officer famously declared “Nous sommes ici, Lafayette.” In the 1920s, after the Versailles, the 16th was stationed on Governors Island.

(image via Library of Congress; permalink: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012647294/)