September 11, 2007

‘Lafayette, We Are Here’

Skillman Library Exhibit Connects the Marquis and World War I

On July 4, 1917, General John J. Pershing, commander of the newly-arrived American Expeditionary Force in Europe, made a special pilgrimage to a small cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. There the general and his staff stopped beside a simple grave. It was Pershing’s aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, who actually uttered the words: “Lafayette, we are here!”

The “Lafayette, We Are Here” exhibit explores ways in which Americans acknowledged their debt to the Marquis as they came to France’s aid during World War I. The exhibit is located on the first floor of Skillman Library in the Lass Gallery, named in recognition of the generous support of E. Donald Lass ’60.

The exhibit will be on display from Sept. 6 through Dec. 31 and is part of the College’s yearlong celebration during 2007-08 in recognition of the life and legacy of the man for whom it is named. Major events include a birthday party Sept. 6; a lecture series, entitled Lives of Liberty; and a historical exhibit at the Williams Center for the Arts, entitled A Son and his Adoptive Father: The Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington.

  • A web site dedicated to the celebration and to the Marquis’ unique connection to the College provides information and updates.

The exhibit in Lass Gallery consists of photographs, mementos, handkerchiefs, sheet music, and books that were produced during World War I as Americans tried to invoke the Marquis as they came to France’s aid.

“The exhibit shows how Lafayette as a symbol has continued on to the 20th century,” says Diane Windham Shaw, special collections librarian and College archivist.

A photograph of Pershing’s visit with Stanton to the Marquis’ grave in Picpus Cemetery on July 4, 1917, begins the exhibit and a watercolor of the visit adds another interpretation of the scene.

Posters of America’s support for France are on display, including one declaring Sept. 6, 1918, Lafayette Day.

In hopes of aiding French soldiers, in 1914 the Lafayette Fund was started by Americans to provide comfort kits. The exhibit contains an advertisement encouraging individuals to donate $2, which would provide a soldier with a poncho, a pair of socks, a combination knife and spoon, a can of Cretol ointment, soap, and a pipe.

Several books, a poster, and a certificate describe the work of the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps. Formed in April 1916, the Escadrille was a squadron of American pilots who offered their services to fly for France. Because of the excess of willing servicemen, the Lafayette Flying Corp was added later. Several books from Skillman Library’s Rare Book Collection depict the actions of these men, while a certificate declares the repayment of the debt which America owed to France.

Souvenir handkerchiefs depict the collaboration of France and the United States by showing President Woodrow Wilson, Pershing, the Marquis, George Washington, and the Statue of Library.

A photograph of Lafayette’s birthplace, Chateau Chavaniac, nicely ties the exhibit in with the celebration of the Marquis’ 250th birthday. Chateau Chavaniac was bought by John Moffat in 1917 with the intention of turning it into a memorial to the Marquis and the allied war dead. The estate became a home and school for French war orphans.

Sheet music for two songs entitled, “We’ll Pay Our Debt to Lafayette” and “Lafayette, We’re Going Over,” also express the patriotic feeling of the time.

The exhibit also features a poem written by Maxwell McKeen ’17, entitled “Lafayette – The Man and the College,” which was read at the dedication of Colton Chapel in October 1916. The poem links the College with the struggle which was occurring at the time in Europe by using the image of the Marquis. In July 1918, McKeen himself sailed for France where he was mortally wounded. Sadly, he died on Nov. 9, 1918, just before the Armistice ending the war.

Shaw reflected on the exhibit, saying “It’s another way to remember Lafayette’s legacy and how Americans continue to honor him.”

All of the items in the exhibit are a part of the Marquis de Lafayette collections in Skillman Library.

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