In October 1777, after two years of service in America, General Sir William Howe, the commander-in-chief of all British forces in America penned his resignation to Lord George Germain the English Secretary of State to the American Colonies.
In Philadelphia, on May 11, 1778, by acquiescence of Lord Germain, William relinquished his position to his second in command and often rival, General Sir Henry Clinton. There was no change of command ceremony. William just wanted to be gone. But William was a popular commander who frequently charmed even his critics. He was an affable man and no martinet, who socialized easily and was always decorated with his mistress, the beautiful Mrs. Elizabeth Lloyd Loring, draped on his arm. His eminent departure for London deserved recognition.
A group of British army officers led by the young and handsome, Captain John Andre, financed and arranged a brilliant spectacle on the banks of the Delaware River to honor William Howe. The event was called the Mischianza, Italian for “medley” or “mixture.” It was a form of entertainment that had become popular in London that combined regattas, parades, costumes, and touches of medieval knights.
The guests received an elaborate invitation with an engraving of a shield, a view of the sea and the setting sun, and a Latin inscription on a wreath that said “I shine as I set, I shall rise up again in increased splendor.” The shield was emblazoned with cannons and cannonballs, swords, pikes, and kegs of gunpowder. General Howe’s crest was above the shield with the words Viva Vale! (Live and be strong!)
At 3:30 p.m. on May 18, the entertainment began with a grand regatta at Knight’s Wharf. There were huge crowds of spectators aboard the ships and along the moorings. The 400 guests who included General Howe and his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, the army’s principal officers, and a careful selection of the most beautiful women in the city including Elizabeth Loring boarded galleys and flat boats lined with green cloth. Generals Sir Henry Clinton and Wilhelm von Knyphausen with their staff officers and ladies were among the procession of galleys. Magnificently decorated British warships added to the spectacle.
The passengers disembarked at Walnut Grove, the British confiscated mansion of the Wharton family. On the arrival of Sir William Howe, a seventeen gun salute was fired from his brother’s flagship the Roebuck. The guests promenaded through an avenue formed by files of grenadiers and cavalry. Then, they passed through two triumphal Doric arches.
The first arch, in honor of Sir William, was guarded by two grenadiers and painted with military motifs. At the top was the inscription, “Go, good man, whither your virtue calls you, go with an auspicious step!” The second arch, in honor of Lord Richard, was guarded by two sailors and had naval motifs. At the top was the inscription, “He is due praise and greater thanks from me”
The company proceeded to a lawn with pavilions on both sides. There, colorful medieval-style tents stood in front of rows of risers, before which sat two groups of seven women in gauzy Turkish dress to give the flavor of the crusades.
Here history diverges. According to John Andre’s written account, seventeen-year-old Peggy Shippen, the future wife of Benedict Arnold was among the women. However, the aristocratic loyalist-leaning Shippen family said her father prohibited her from attending because he thought the costumes too scandalous.
Nevertheless, in accordance with the customs of ancient chivalry, the sound of trumpets announced the beginning of a joust. The tournament was between two teams of mounted army officers: The Knights of the Blended Rose dressed in red and white silk and The Knights of the Burning Mountain clad in black and orange.
Each jouster fought in honor of one of the ladies chosen for their youth, beauty, and fashion. Clanging lances and clattering swords shattered the air through four rounds of the tournament; culminating in a match between the knights’ two leaders. Then, the Marshall of the Field appeared declaring the tournament a tie and the beauty of the ladies a draw.
The knights, ladies, and guests retired to the Wharton mansion embellished with artificial flowers that glowed in the reflected light from eighty-five tall mirrors and countless candles. A dance continued until 10 p.m. After fireworks and a supper, a ball recommenced.
In the midst of the midnight supper, the Continental Army sneered at the festivities. The British fortifications near Germantown exploded into flames. Under cover of night, the Marquis de Lafayette and his men poured kettles of whale oil onto the British barriers, ignited them, and then slipped away. The startled guards responded with a drum roll signaling an attack. When nothing else happened, the soldiers told the civilians the noise was just part of the fireworks.
The Mischianza was more like a victory celebration than a farewell to a general who was leaving under a cloud, with Washington’s army undefeated at Valley Forge, and William’s miscalculation in taking Philadelphia rather than relieving British General John Burgoyne who was forced to capitulate at Saratoga.
The sheer extravagance of the event elicited disgust in London where one of the newspapers called the spectacle “nauseous.” Even Admiral Lord Richard Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, was among the critics. “Every man of sense, among ourselves, tho not unwilling to pay a due respect, was ashamed of this mode of doing it.” With or without the Mischianza, Sir William Howe must have known his hope for vindication was a long shot.
Fleming, Thomas. Washington’s Secret War The Hidden History of Valley Forge New Word City, Inc. 2016. Print.
Stuart, Nancy Rubin. Defiant Brides Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. Print.
O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.
Lender, Mark Edward and Stone, Gary Wheeler. Fatal Sunday University of Oklahoma Press Norman, 2016. Print.
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