- 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
The revellers created a satire on war, much as war, said Alexander Hamilton, is a satire on human nature. They formalized battle as a gentleman’s sport, with its reward a lady’s smile, not power or gain. They were suggesting, unconsciously, that war’s miseries are just part of a game, that bullets and bayonets do not really hurt, that after the conflict the dead men will rise up and join in the dance. This is indeed ridiculous, but it is not contemptible.
At any rate, the dreamworld vanished with the dawn, to the grief of the “mischianza ladies.” They found themselves a class apart, in much disfavor in Philadelphia. Their fathers and brothers had, mostly, proved their astuteness during the British occupation, doing business as usual, refraining from uncharitable acts and angry words—hedging their bets, in short. But the mischianza ladies were still the prettiest, richest, and most accomplished maidens of the city. One could not dismiss them just because they had been implicated in political affairs too deep for them. Three years after Howe’s departure Philadelphia gave celebrations for the French officers on their way to confront Cornwallis in Virginia; it was found impossible to omit the mischianza ladies.
And what of the characters who trod the measures of the glorious dance? André probably loved Peggy Chew as well as he ever loved anyone. But immediately after the party he was called upon to join his army in its march to New York. Catching the favor of Sir Henry Clinton, he was commissioned major and was appointed deputy adjutant-general of the army. He had no time for further mischianzas. He made no effort to communicate with Peggy Chew across the hostile lines until he needed her as an innocent go-between in the Arnold treason plot. When André was seven years dead, Peggy married a proper Whig, Colonel John Eager Howard of Baltimore. She once recalled Major André in public as “a most witty and cultivated gentleman.” Her husband must have recognized a certain melting look or intonation. He broke in with: “He was a damned spy, sir; nothing but a damned spy!”
Peggy Shippen fulfilled her tragic destiny, joining Arnold in London and becoming a faded, querulous figure.
And André met the fate he dreaded —shameful death by hanging. Such a conclusion, he felt, would destroy the image of himself that he had laboriously composed. He was not quite a gentleman, in the English sense; he came of a merchant family and had spent two or three years on a countinghouse stool. He had to outdo by his brilliant looks and accomplishments the gentlemen by birth. He felt a passionate desire for applause. While awaiting trial he confided to an American guard that “military glory was all he sought. The applause of his king and country would overpay his services.” And the instrument for gaining applause and glory, clearly, was his personal charm.
Well, it worked. He became a legend of devotion to a cause even unto shame and death, and the legend is illuminated by his beauty and charm. The shameful death, like certain other shameful deaths, turned to glory, not shame. Lamentations for André rang through America as well as through his own country. Still his moldered beauty captures modern readers, who have no tears for the honest men who did their duty and obscurely died before their proper term.
In 1821 his remains were exhumed, shipped to England, and interred in Westminster Abbey. He lies under a grieving Britannia and a doleful lion, hard by Isaac Newton and Neville Chamberlain. The monument may betoken the triumph of charm over time. Or, in the language of the mischianza, gratia omnia vincit .