- Historic Sites
You Are Invited To A Mischianza
Saluting a departing general, the British dazzled Philadelphians with the grandest party the city had ever seen; the tiny army that had toppled the general bided its time nearby
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
In the spring of 1778 William Howe, commander in chief of His Majesty’s forces in North America, received orders to return to London and justify his actions, or rather his inactions, for he had gained no conspicuous victory in three years of war. He was nearly fifty, plump and rosy, a friend of the gentler arts, the gentler sex. Through the winter of 1777–78 he and his troops had reposed comfortably in Philadelphia while Washington’s hapless little army, freezing and starving, lay vulnerable twentyfive miles away in Valley Forge. Howe and his staff lived delicately; they were adept at what was known in a later war as scrounging. Merchant ships brought in French wines, English cloth and woolens, green turtles from the Bahamas. Many Philadelphians, never fanatic types, discovered themselves to be Loyalists at heart; many more, with Quaker prudence, evinced a high-minded neutrality, gave no offense, and waited for the outcome. The young ladies of society, famed for their beauty and cultivation, smiled on the British officers, whose scarlet and gold regimentals put to shame the drab dress of their brothers and friends’ brothers.
The visitors played the military game of gallantry, for conquest is the soldier’s trade. They dined the fair, circumventing civilian scarcities. They organized a weekly ball and horse races and sleighing parties. They improvised a theatre with their own troupe, Howe’s Thespians, and produced thirteen plays, some of them, to be sure, merely brief farces. The scenery was painted by John André with the help of Captain Oliver DeLancey of New York.
John André, as yet only a captain, was a marked man in army society. He was nearly thirty, at the apogee of life’s curve. His good looks were startling; they deserved to be called beauty. One of his guards in his last days described him as “the handsomest man I ever laid eyes on.” He had every permissible grace; he wrote poetry, serious and comic; he sketched memorably well, limned water colors, and brushed the scenery for the dramatic club; he played the flute and pitched a tuneful song; he danced divinely. Of SwissFrench extraction, he was fluent in French, German, and Italian. But he was burdened by his gifts; they were not bestowed on him free.
He was petted and adored on two continents and in Philadelphia most notably by two Peggys, Peggy Shippen and Peggy Chew. His beauty was matched by that of Peggy Shippen, whom Lord Rawdon called the handsomest woman he had seen in America. At this time she was just seventeen and already well used to adulation. André made a pencil sketch of her, which is now in the Yale University Art Gallery. The artist’s interest is evidently centered on the headdress and furbelowed gown, probably his own creation, for among his accomplishments were millinery and dress design. Was love mentioned in their private colloquies on any serious note? I think not. She was an imperious beauty, demanding total devotion; she fell into hysterical rages when crossed] André wanted to be adored, not to adore. And did Peggy Shippen love André? Perhaps. There is no written evidence, but there is no question that a month after her marriage to Benedict Arnold in the following year she initiated negotiations for treason with Major André. At least she trusted André as she did no one else. If trust blended with love, both were too discreet to confess it in written words, or the words were promptly destroyed. But at Peggy Arnold’s death there was found among her intimate effects a lock of André’s hair. Make what you will of that.
The other Peggy was Peggy Chew, daughter of Benjamin Chew, former chief justice of Pennsylvania but under a cloud in 1778 (he was too broadminded; he could perceive justice on both sides). Peggy was eighteen in this year. Her portrait, by Thomas Sully, shows a lean, dark, intelligent, indeed aristocratic face, of a type now familiar along the Main Line. Evidently André loved her a little, and Peggy loved him more than a little. He wrote for her gay vers d’occasion , such as this lyrical pun: