One of the biggest “no way!” moments I’ve ever had while reading about the American Revolution (and there have been many) was the Meschianza. I first came across the story while reading “History of New York During the Revolutionary War” by Thomas Jones. Jones, a New York Tory (Loyalist) and former court judge, wrote a scathing account of the activities of the Howe brothers, Richard and William, and their failure to defeat Washington’s army in the early years of the war. The story was so outrageous I thought it had to be a fake. Propaganda to discredit the brothers, for sure. Well, I was wrong!
A Massive Celebration
The Meschianza was held May 18, 1778 in Philadelphia and planned by British Major John Andrè and Captain John Montresor. (See Newsletter #7 for more on both officers.) General Howe had resigned his commission as Commander of the King’s forces in America and to say good-bye the British officers did one of the things they did best: threw an extravagant, day long celebration. More than 400 people were invited to the festivities. They wore costumes and participated in a series of activities that were scorned for years to come by critics on both sides of the conflict. Colonists had never seen anything like it before and it just might have been, up until that time, the biggest blowout ever held on the continent.
The guest list was a whos-who of wealthy Philadelphia society and British officers. It even included the “most beautiful woman in America”, as she was known, Peggy Shippen, the future Mrs. Benedict Arnold. The day started with a regatta on the Delaware River.
Guests arrived at 3:00pm, at Knight’s wharf on the Delaware River, where they were “met with a vast number of boats, barges, and galleys to recieve us, all adorned with small colors of jacks of different colors.”1 Vessels carried them along the river with music playing. Brightly colored flags streamed in the breeze and the participants cheered as their boats passed each other. When they reached their destination they were greeted by an artillery salute.
On the lawn of an estate, four hundred yards on every side, the scene was set for a jousting tournament according to the laws of old chivalry. Two pavilions with rows of benches were set up on either side. The British officers divided into two groups: The Knights of the Blended Rose and The Knights of the Burning Mountain.
Knights of the Blended Rose
The Ladies took their places at each pavilion. “Those who wore pink and white were called the Ladies of the Blended Rose. Lord Cathcart, who lead the Knights of the Blended Rose appeared upon a superb charger. Two young black slaves, with sashes of blue and white silk, wearing large silver clasps round their necks and arms, their breasts and shoulders bare, held his stirrups. On his right hand walked Captain Hazard, and on his left Captain Brownlow, his two esquires, the one bearing his lance, the other his shield. His device was Cupid riding on a Lion; the motto, ‘Surmounted by Love.’ “2
Knights of the Burning Mountain
“The Ladies of the Burning Mountain, whose dress was white and gold, and whose chief was Captain Watson, superbly mounted, and arrayed in a magnificent suit of black and orange silk, appeared, with the motto “Love and Glory.”3
After everyone was seated, the Knights of the Blended Rose entered, mounted on white steeds covered with satin ornamented pink roses, each with a squire carrying a spear and shield. The Knights rode to their ladies and saluted them, with two trumpeters and the declaration “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 other accomplishment all other ladies in the world, and if any knight or knights shall be so hardy as to deny this, they are determined to support their assertion by deeds of arms, agreeable to the laws of ancient chivalry.”
Next, the Knights of the Burning Mountain entered in orange and black and assured their ladies “that that their claims to wit, beauty, and all other charms, par excellence, should be vindicated by the knights whose colors they wore, against the false and vainglorious assertions of the Knights of the Blended Rose.”
A glove was thrown down by the Blended Rose, picked up by the Burning Mountain, a trumpet sounded and the joust was on! Complete with lances, pistols and broadswords, the Knights fought each other for their ladies’ honor. (Alas, if only there had been video in 1778.)
At then end of the joust the Knights passed through a triumphal arch, in honor of Lord Richard Howe and arranged themselves on either side. The Ladies followed, the Knights dismounted and together they proceeded along a broad avenue, brilliantly decorated, through another arch and on to the banquet.
Two folding doors opened to a large hall where the Ladies were greeted by their Knights, who received them on bended knee. Coffee, tea and cakes were served. After a time they entered a second hall “elaborately decorated and hung with eighty-five mirrors, decked with rose-pink silk ribbons and artificial flowers. In this ball-room, walls were pale blue and rose-pink, with panels on which were dropping festoons of flowers, the company danced.”4
At 10:30 the windows were open and the guests enjoyed a magnificent fireworks display near the lawn, where the triumphal arch was brightly lit. After the fireworks they returned to dancing until midnight, when supper was served in yet another hall. Two hundred feet long by forty wide, the floor was covered with painted canvas and the roof and sides adorned with paintings and ornamented with fifty large mirrors. From the roof hung twelve chandeliers with twenty candles in each. Two tables were set up, stretching the length of the hall, and on them were fifty elegant pyramids of jellies, cakes and sweetmeats. The guests drank and dined until dawn.
Reactions to the Meschianza
You know my favorite part of this story is the reaction to it, so here we go!
Surely a horrific waste of money at a time when the taxpayers of England were supporting the war, it also made the British Officers appear to be out of touch with the realities of the hardship of war. The American Army was only a few miles away, always suffering under lack of finances, supplies, and men.
Welcome Home, General Howe!
In 1779, Israel Mauduit wrote “Strictures on the Philadelphia Mischianza or Triumph Upon Leaving America Unconquered”. Mauduit, an Englishman, merchant and agent to the colonies chastises General William Howe for “the disgraces and losses we had suffered under his command in America.” He says “at a time when the British empire in America is sunk, and when thousands and thousands of good subjects in both countries are ruined by its fall… at such time of public calamity.. to suffer himself to be crowned with laurels, and to have triumphal arches erected to his honor – is such an insult as cannot but raise in the mind of every man of sense, the highest degree of astonishment and indignation. Click on the image for the full sixty-six pages of wonderfully written wrath!
General Wayne, of the Pennsylvania Line didn’t spare his English opponents, either. After the American victory at Monmouth, New Jersey, six weeks after the Meschianza he declared “Tell the Phil’a ladies that the heavenly, sweet, pretty red Coats — the accomplished Gent’n of the Guards & Grenadiers have humbled themselves on the plains of Monmouth “The Knights of the Blended Rose” & “Burning Mount”— have Resigned their Laurels to Rebel officers who will lay them at the feet of those Virtuous Daughters of America who cheerfully gave up ease and Affluence in a city for Liberty and peace of mind .” 5
Finishing where we started, with “History of New York During the Revolution”, Jones is furious. “The exhibition of the triumphal Mischianza will be handed down to posterity, in the annals of Great Britain and America, as one of the most ridiculous, undeserved, and unmerited, triumphs ever yet performed. Had the General been properly rewarded for his conduct while Commander-in-Chief in America, an execution, and not a Mischianza, would have been the consequence.”6
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1, 2, 3, 4. Through Colonial Doorways, Anne Hollingsworth Wharton, 1898 (contains a full chapter on the Meschianza, download here)
5. Major-General Anthony Wayne, Charles J. Stille, 1893
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