August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
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
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:
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”).
A hundred yards farther on stood a second triumphal arch, dedicated to General Howe. It was decorated with military trophies, including a bombshell and a bleeding heart. On top stood a figure of Fame, with the inscription I, bone, quo virtus vocat; tua, I pede fausto (“Go, good man, whither your noble character calls you; go, and good luck attend you”). The hundred yards between the two arches constituted the lists for the great tournament. Pavilions, or temporary grandstands, were erected on either side of the field.
The bands of the army led the way, followed by the managers, wearing white and blue ribbons, and by the honored guests, without regard for precedence. The front seats of each pavilion were reserved for fourteen young ladies of Philadelphia, seven on a side. They were chosen from the foremost in youth, beauty, and fashion, though we are not told the criteria of selection nor the rivalries that ensued. André describes the costumes, for which he was probably responsible:
They wore gauze Turbans spangled and edged with gold or silver; on the right side a veil of the same kind hung as low as the waist, and the left side of the Turban was enriched with pearl and tassels of gold or silver & crested with a feather. The dress was of the polonaise kind [i.e., sheer and flowing] and of white silk with long sleeves; the sashes which were worn round the waist and were tied with a large bow on the left side hung very low and were trimmed, spangled, and fringed according to the colors of the Knight.
Then came the pièce de résistance , the tilt or tournament, “according to the customs and ordinances of ancient chivalry.” The bands played a very loud and animated march, and seven white knights galloped into the arena, displayed their horsemanship, and saluted the ladies. The device borne by their herald and trumpeters was a white rose and a red with stalks intertwined, with the motto “We droop when separated.” The gallants, styling themselves the Knights of the Blended Rose, bore each his separate motto, such as “Surmounted by Love”; “Absence Cannot Extinguish It”; “Each Fair by Turns.” Each chevalier proclaimed his lady. André declared his to be Miss Peggy Chew. (He was in a difficult spot between the two Peggys. He had arranged that Peggy Shippen and her two sisters should be numbered among the chosen belles; he provided their polonaises. But their Quaker father interrupted the try-on, found the heathenish costumes indecently gauzy, and put his foot down, forbidding their attendance at the mischianza. He may also have wished, prudently, to dissociate himself from the British. At any rate the Shippen girls stayed home, in tears, and Peggy had an attack of hysteria.)
The costumes of the white knights provoked many a gasp of delight. André identifies the style as that of the court of Henry iv of France. Of course it should properly have been medieval, but there was certainly not a full suit of armor in North America at the time. André continues:
The vest was of white satin, the upper part of the sleeves made very full, but of pink confined within a row of straps of white satin laced with silver upon a black edging. The trunk hose were exceeding wide and of the same kind with the shoulder-part of the sleeves. A large pink scarf fastened on the right shoulder with a white bow crossed the breast and back and hung in an ample loose knot with silver fringes very low under the left hip, a pink and white swordbelt laced with black and silver girded the waist, pink bows with fringe were fastened to the knees, and a wide buff-leather boot hung carelessly round the ankles. … The horses were caparisoned with the same colors, with trimmings and bows hanging very low from either ham and tied round their chest. The Esquires, of which the chief Knights had two and the other Knights one, were in a pink Spanish dress with white mantles and sashes … they wore high-crowned pink hats with a white and a black feather, and carried the lance and shield of their Knight. The lance was fluted pink and white with a little banner of the same colors, and the shield was silvered and painted with the Knight’s device.
The devices were such as Cupid on a lion, or a burning heart, or a pelican feeding her young, or a sunflower turning to the sun, or a heart aimed at by several arrows and struck by one.
After their evolutions the white knights ranged themselves before their ladies. They were joined by their esquires, on foot. Their herald stood forth and announced: “The Knights of the Blended Rose, by me their Herald, proclaim and assert that the Ladies of the Blended Rose excel in wit, beauty, and every accomplishment those of the whole world ; and should any Knight or Knights be so hardy as to dispute or deny it, they are ready to enter the lists with them and maintain their assertions by deeds of arms, according to the laws of ancient chivalry.”
At the third repetition of the challenge a flourish of trumpets was heard; and another herald, wearing a tunic representing an erupting volcano and attended by four trumpeters, galloped into the lists. He displayed the motto “I burn forever.” The two heralds briefly parleyed; the Black Herald bade his trumpets peal and announced: “The Knights of the Burning Mountain present themselves here, not to contest by words but to disprove by deeds the vain-glorious assertions of the Knights of the Blended Rose, and enter these lists to maintain that the Ladies of the Burning Mountain are not excelled in beauty, virtue, or accomplishments by any in the universe.”
A parley was sounded; the two lines of knights confronted each other. The chief knight of the Whites threw down his gauntlet; the chief of the Blacks directed his esquire to pick it up. The knights received their lances from their esquires, saluted one another gracefully, and retired to what would now be the goal lines. At a signal they took their career, lowering their lances. They met at full gallop, each shivering his spear against his opponent’s shield. One presumes that the shivered spears were of cardboard. In a second and third encounter the contestants discharged their pistols at one another but without hurting anyone. They then drew their swords and exchanged apparently ferocious blows. The marshal of the field intervened, doubtless, says André, “deeming the Ladies so fair and the Knights so brave that it would have been impious to decide in favor of either.” Only the two chief knights continued to engage in single combat, until the marshal of the field parted them, declaring that “the Fair Damsels of the Blended Rose and the Burning Mountain were perfectly satisfied with the proofs of love and the signal feats of valour given by their respective Knights; and commanded them, as they prized the future favours of the Mistresses,” to desist instantly from further combat. Obediently they passed under the triumphal arch nearest the house and took their stand beyond, in a line alternately black and white. The company passed before them, receiving the salutes of the champions.
The guests traversed a formal garden before the house. They mounted a flight of carpeted steps, entered the house, and found themselves in a spacious hall, newly painted in imitation of sienna marble with festoons of white marble. This was the handiwork of John André and his friend Oliver DeLancey. Here were served tea, lemonade, and other cooling liquors. The knights entered and fell on their knees before their ladies, who unpinned their prepared favors and transferred them to their joyful swains.
One of the adjoining rooms was reserved for the pharaoh, or faro, table. On entering the room one observed over the chimney a painted cornucopia exuberantly filled with flowers of the richest colors; but on exiting one perceived over the door another cornucopia, shrunk, reversed, and empty. It was reported that the faro bank opened with two thousand guineas, not play money but British gold. The symbol of the voided cornucopia was appropriate. General Howe loved the gaming table, and his love was reciprocated. But a number of his young officers, lacking his luck and skill, were ruined and had to be sent home.
The company now passed to the ballroom, which, to judge from its size, must have occupied one of the dependent structures. It was decorated in
a light elegant style of painting. The ground was a pale blue, pannelled with a small gold bead, and in the interior filled with dropping festoons of flowers in their natural colours. Below the surbase the ground was of rose-pink, with drapery festooned in blue. These decorations were heightened by 85 mirrors, decked with rose-pink silk ribbands and artificial flowers; and in the intermediate spaces were 34 branches with wax-lights, ornamented in a similar manner.
The mirrors and candelabra were borrowed from Philadelphia residents and to general surprise were all returned intact.
After a light collation and the dance, darkness descended, and the fireworks were announced. All crowded to the windows and to the terrace before the house, overlooking General Howe’s triumphal arch. Fireworks were yet a novelty in Philadelphia. These began with a magnificent bouquet of rockets and continued through twenty set pieces. Toward the conclusion the interior part of the arch was illuminated with an uninterrupted flight of rockets and bursting balloons. The military trophies on top of the arch were bathed in strange brilliance. The bombshell and flaming heart on the wings sent forth Chinese fountains succeeded by firepots. The figure of Fame appeared at the top, spangled with stars and blowing from her trumpet in letters of fire and in impeccable French the words Tes lauriers sont immortels . The display concluded with a general sauteur, or outburst, of rockets.
(One wonders if the fireworks show did not cause a psychological backfire. The conspicuous waste suggested, no doubt intentionally, the contrast with Washington’s army, which lacked explosives as it lacked clothing, boots, and medicines. All the guests had friends, if not sons or brothers, on the rebel side. The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, must have made them think of death.)
“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.
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 .