- 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
At the gigantic farewell party of the British officers, the mischiania , he chose Peggy Chew to be his honored lady, fobbing off the other Peggy on a companion officer. And for Peggy Chew also he wrote and illustrated a souvenir booklet descriptive the mischianza , signing himself her most devoted Knight and Servant.’ The booklet is still in the Chew house, Cliveden, in Germantown. Thanks to André and to other recorders we may watch again the mischianza, that splendid and rather touching absurdity.
When news reached Philadelphia of General Howe’s recall and his replacement by Sir Henry Clinton, commandant at New York, a group of higher officers proposed to mount a farewell party of a magnificence unexampled in North America. It would be called a mischianza , or medley, a denomination lending itself to many a mispronunciation and misspelling. While a party needs no other justification than itself, this party was intended to imply to Howe’s critics that the general had the respect and confidence of his officers. In pursuance of this purpose one of them, perhaps André, wrote a description of the festivities, which appeared in the London Gentleman’s Magazine for August, 1778, well in time for the official examination of General Howe.
The first step, obviously, was to take up a collection for preliminary costs. Twenty-two field officers joined in, with pleasure genuine or feigned, putting 3,312 guineas in the kitty. This sum would have supported the entire American army for a week at least. Then elaborate tickets of admission were designed and engraved, no doubt by that Philadelphia engraver who had printed Continental paper money until the city fell, whereupon he turned out counterfeit Continentals to speed depreciation. The tickets of admission show a setting sun, a not very tactful symbolism, but with the encouraging motto Luceo discedens, aucto splendore resurgam (“I shine in setting; I shall rise again in greater splendor”). The rest of the ticket includes a seacoast, wreaths, the general’s crest, swords, flags, fasces, field guns, shells, ramrods, drums, and the adjuration Vive; vale (“Long life and farewell”).
The preparations must have occupied the officers through the spring. But there was leisure enough; Howe had no idea of embarking on an offensive that would just make trouble, whether successful or not. The promoters had to locate, adapt, and improvise materials for costumes and properties, raiding enemy attics and borrowing from lady friends. It was surely great fun; André was in his element.
By the chosen date, May 18, 1778, all was in readiness. The day was bright and warm. The four hundred fortunate ticket holders assembled at Knight’s Wharf, at the foot of Vine Street, just north of the present Benjamin Franklin Bridge. General Howe, his brother Richard Lord Howe, admiral of the fleet, Sir Henry Clinton, and their suites, embarked on a galley with some ladies, presumably including the notorious Mrs. Loring, General Howe’s maîtresse en titre . A second and a third galley followed, full of generals and ladies. Twenty-seven barges, beflagged and lined with green cloth, accommodated the guests. Three bands, each in its barge, discoursed sweet music. Naval vessels and transports, stationed along the river, flung out all their colors. And the citizens, enthusiastic, contemptuous, or merely curious, crowded onto the wharves to watch the regatta. At a signal all the rowers rested on their oars while the bands played “God Save the King.”
The expedition came ashore at the Old Fort, at the foot of our Washington Avenue. The Old Swedes’ Church, or Gloria Dei, stood near the landing place, as it still stands. As the generals disembarked they were saluted by nineteen guns from two anchored warships. Then they led a procession for several hundred yards between two files of grenadiers, supported by light-horsemen. Their goal was Walnut Grove, the rural seat of Joseph Wharton of the great Philadelphia Whartons. It flowed over the area near the junction of Wharton Avenue and Fifth Street. The mansion was a handsome though no-nonsense square brick building, with smaller dependencies in the same style.
The procession passed under a triumphal arch erected in honor of Admiral Howe. It was adorned with various naval trophies and was surmounted by Neptune clutching his trident. (Did this figure turn up readymade, or did some anonymous sculptor model him for the occasion?) In a niche on either side stood a sailor with drawn cutlass. They were alive but strove to simulate the insensibility of art. Plumes of feathers crowned the top; the entablature bore the inscription Laus illi debetur, et aime gratia major (“Praise is due to him, and most gratitude from me”).