For both sides of the Revolutionary War, the winter of 1777 in Philadelphia must have felt like the eye of a hurricane — an eerie, dreary calm between periods of absolute chaos.
After resounding defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, Gen. George Washington and his troops licked their many wounds in Valley Forge. There they suffered illness and cold and hunger, watched their fearless leader execute mutineers (you know, to boost morale), and tried to get organized.
And the Brits, well, they marched into Philadelphia pretty much unopposed that September and just sort of hung out for nine months.
See, the Continental Congress and thousands of other revolution-oriented people had already skipped town, so all that was left were some like-minded British Loyalists and a whole bunch of everyday citizens keeping their heads down.
“It was definitely an occupying army,” says Tyler Putman, gallery interpretation manager at the Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut Streets. “But it didn’t feel like a foreign occupying army for a lot of people.”
The Brits commandeered blankets and beds, stashed prisoners of war in Independence Hall, put on plays, and threw one of the biggest, most ridiculous parties of all time. (More on that in a sec.)
It’s this weird, mostly bloodless era of the city’s history that the museum, in a joint effort with the National Park Service, aims to shed some light on with its annual Occupied Philadelphia Weekend programming, which includes walking tours, street theater, and lots of costumed historical interpreters stationed around Old City this Saturday and Sunday. The tours cost $29 for adults and $21 for kids, but pedestrians can wander around many of the attractions for free. These include a live encampment of actors cooking and telling stories behind City Tavern, a colonial market in the museum’s outdoor plaza, and interactive attractions at several places, including Carpenter’s Hall and Franklin Court.
“Our big goal is to evoke the events of this period in a way that makes them seem complicated,” says Putman. “Was this even an occupation? Was it actually a liberation?”
A new temporary exhibition opening this weekend at the museum certainly fits the “it’s complicated” theme. “Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier” tells the story of poor Richard St. George. After barely surviving the Battle of Germantown — he escaped with a head wound and PTSD a few centuries before anybody knew what that was — the British soldier was brought to occupied Philly to recoup.
Later, St. George traveled to Europe and became a noted painter, as well as the subject of works by other artists of the time.
“People paint him because he’s seen as sort of this Gothic romantic figure. He dresses all in black,” says Putman. “And then in 1798 — spoilers — his Irish tenants rise up and murder him because he’s a wealthy Protestant landlord. That’s at the beginning of the Irish Revolution of 1798. So he kind of ends up on the wrong side of two different revolutions.”
Life was a lot kinder to Gen. William Howe, the commander-in-chief of the British Army who’d decided to “invade” Philly in the first place. After a long career and several military successes, Sir William — he was knighted after winning the Battle of Long Island summer slam in 1776, and would later inherit the title of viscount from his brother — was finally given permission to retire in the waning days of the Philly occupation.
Now the war was not nearly over, and the Brits had little to show for their long stay here, but still they decided to throw Howe a killer retirement party. The May 18 Meschianza — sometimes spelled Mischianza, doesn’t matter; it’s a faux-Italian word — was, as Putman puts it, “an all-night rager” at the late Joseph Wharton’s “country house south of the city.” (Today there’s a public school on the site, near Fifth and Washington.)
As planned by British officer/artist/writer/real piece of work John André, the Meschianza was a bizarre blowout, according to contemporary accounts — full of fireworks, mirrors, candles, silk, men dressed as knights, women dressed as “Turkish maidens,” slaves in “oriental dresses” made to serve dinner in “silver collars and bracelets.”
There were even jousting exhibitions at the Meschianza. “It’s like Medieval Times as envisioned by Revolutionary War soldiers,” Putman says, chuckling.
Even then, the party was seen as the height of hubris and folly.
Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, a Philadelphia Quaker with a spectacular name, kept a diary throughout the occupation and she pulled no punches when it came to the Meschianza: “How insensible do these people appear, while our land is so greatly desolated, and death and sore destruction has overtaken and impends over so many.” (For more on the Meschianza, and to learn the surprising fate of party planner André, swing by Franklin Court on Saturday or Sunday.)
A month after the party, the Brits quietly left the city, accompanied by a few thousand loyalists and ex-slaves who were promised freedom for serving in the British Army. Howe went home. The revolutionaries came back. And the hurricane of war resumed in earnest.