When I heard on the news about a field hospital being constructed on the Van Cortlandt Park Parade Ground to aid in the COVID-19 hospitalization effort, I couldn't help but think that history was repeating itself. It's been just a little over a century since the Parade Ground last saw a mobilization of this magnitude. As a former Weekend Manager at Van Cortlandt House Museum, I also couldn't help but think about how much history has been witness by Van Cortlandt House over the last 270+ years.
Formerly planting fields for the Van Cortlandt Family, the Parade Ground was developed in 1886 as a facility for the National Guard of New York. It quickly became a “home field” for the 71st Infantry Regiment for weekend drills and polo matches. Later, as the war in Europe escalated, the Guard put on a display of their military readiness in September of 1915.
It wasn’t until the conflicts in Mexico in 1916 when the Parade Ground became a full-time National Guard operation. Mexican general and guerrilla leader Pancho Villa had been causing trouble on the Mexico/United States border, necessitating National Guard troops from New York to be sent west to protect the U.S. borderlands.
The National Guard presence on the Parade Ground switched into high gear with the United States declaration of war on the Central Powers in Europe in April 1917. During this time, the National Guard became nationalized and thus could travel beyond the country’s borders. The entirety of the modern-day parade ground and north beyond the Henry Hudson Parkway (which had not yet been built) was transformed into a mobilization camp which could accommodate roughly six thousand troops. It included space to practice military maneuvers, a full mess set up, field hospitals, and a sea of canvas tents where soldiers prepared to be shipped off to Europe. National Guard troops from all over New York and beyond descended upon The Bronx. Due to its proximity to Broadway, Camp Van Cortlandt as it was known, became quite a spectacle for onlookers.
After the spring of 1919, the Parade Ground once again became a place for the National Guard to do their weekend drills. During World War II, it would also be used as a training area, but not to the extent of what was witnessed during the Great War. After World War II, Van Cortlandt Park’s military history became a distant memory as baseball fields and cricket pitches were installed and cross-country runners began to dominate the fall months.
As I ponder the news of a field hospital once again being built on Parade Ground, I can’t help but think that we are watching history repeat itself in our backyards. I’m choosing to remember those who created this space, a place for the greater good of New York, and saluting those who are to this day still working for the greater good of New York.