You Are Invited To A Mischianza

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“At twelve supper was announced, and large folding doors, hitherto artfully concealed, being suddenly thrown open, discovered a magnificent saloon of 210 feet by 40, with three alcoves on each side, which served for side-boards.” This dining saloon was a marvel of rapid military engineering. It was designed, thrust up, and equipped in only a few days with what material could be readily found. The structure was round-arched, a half cylinder, like an army Nissen hut. The interior was painted a light straw color, with vine leaves and festoons of flowers in various greens. The Gentleman’s Magazine correspondent counted fiftysix large pier glasses ornamented with green silk artificial flowers and ribbons, a hundred branched candle holders with three lights on each, eighteen lusters each with twenty-four lights, suspended from the ceiling, and three hundred wax tapers disposed along the supper tables. It must have been very, very brilliant and pretty hot.

“The tables, decked profusely and with a great deal of taste,” says André,

held 400 people. There was some appearance of enchantment on entering the room, when such a perspective of ornament and illumination caught the eye unexpectedly, when at the upper end were discovered 24 negroes in blue and white turbans and sashes with bright bracelets & collars bowing profoundly together, as the company journeyed through the prodigious length of the saloon; and when the most pathetic music was performed by a concealed band everyone seemed to hesitate if they should proceed, whether the objects before them appeared sacred or whether they involuntarily stopped to gratify their surprise.

When the feasters’ hunger was sated, the Herald of the Blended Rose, in his ceremonial habit, entered to the sound of trumpets and proclaimed the king’s health and that of the queen and royal family, the army and navy, with their respective commanders, and the health of the knights and their ladies and of the ladies in general. Then the dancers set to their work and continued till the dawn.

There was one incident that the British narrators omitted. Captain Alien McLane, Washington’s harumscarum commando leader, profited by the distraction of the enemy to make a sally against the British lines. The defenders opened up with their cannon, which sounded distantly in the dancers’ ears. With British phlegm the gentlemen asserted that it was just part of the fireworks and bade the musicians play louder.

The disapproving dawn looked down on the gray river. The dancers were delivered to their homes by army horses; the common soldiers finished the wine in the heels of glasses, pocketed the precious candle ends, policed the grounds, packed the finery to be sold or purloined at higher levels. Many affecting farewells were made at Philadelphia doorsteps. A week after the mischianza General Howe sailed away to stand before the bar of Parliament; and in three weeks the British army, giving only the briefest notice, evacuated Philadelphia, leaving behind ruined Loyalists and broken contracts, promises, and hearts.

Save by the participants, the mischianza was almost universally censured. Mrs. Henry Drinker, a prim Quaker, to be sure, spoke for the American patriots, writing in her diary: “This day may be remembered by many from the scenes of folly and vanity promoted by the officers of the army under pretext of showing respect to General Howe. … How insensible do those people appear, while our land is so greatly desolated, and death and sore destruction has overtaken and impends over so many!” Many of the British and their Tory sympathizers agreed that the gaieties were out of place in the somber mood of the moment. Ambrose Searle, secretary to Admiral Lord Howe, confided to his journal: “Our enemies will dwell upon the folly & extravagance of [the mischianza] with pleasure. Every man of sense among ourselves, though not unwilling to pay a due respect, was ashamed of this mode of doing it.” And an English pamphleteer termed the festival “this ill-timed and preposterous medley of a triumph … [General Howe’s] friends perhaps may wish that all this raree-show had passed only in a dream.” One last testimony: a Philadelphia miss, hearing talk of the mischianza, asked an old Tory major billeted in the house the difference between the Knights of the Burning Mountain and those of the Blended Rose. “Why, child,” said he, “the Knights of the Burning Mountain are torn-fools, and the Knights of the Blended Rose are damned fools. I know of no other distinction between them.”

Now, after two centuries, we should regard the great party less with partisan reproof than with an effort for understanding. The mischianza was an attempt to deny the present world, to realize a dream of chivalry, gallantry, beauty, to re-create a world that had never existed in fact. The celebration took the aspect of medievalism, for the gothic-romantic was invogue. Young King Gustavus in of Sweden was mounting elaborate medieval mimicries with the rigmarole of challenges and jousts for the favors of fair ladies in costume; perhaps his example inspired André and his companions.