When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
September 27, 1777 British take possession of Philadelphia
During the summer of 1777, the British army began an initiative to capture the colonial capitol of Philadelphia. British General Howe approached Philadelphia from the Chesapeake River. In the meantime, General Washington set up defensive positions along the Brandywine River in order to guard the route between Baltimore and Philadelphia. However, General Howe outmaneuvered Washington. Washington’s the defeat at the Battle of Brandywine led to the eventual capture of the continental capitol at Philadelphia by the British army on September 26, 1777.
In anticipation of their arrival, many patriots and businessman had abandoned the city. Those citizens who remained were mostly a mixture of Loyalists, Quakers, and the poor. Three fourths of the population were woman and children. Most looked forward to British rule — after all they had always considered themselves loyal English citizens. Moreover, they had long chafed under the excessive zeal of the American patriots who had been running the city.
British officers were quartered in the finest houses, merchants from other towns started moving in, and the occupying Englishmen established a puppet government composed of local residents loyal to the crown. Churches were turned into hospitals. The Walnut Street Jail and the Pennsylvania Statehouse were filled with American prisoners of war. Food, clothing, and firewood were scarce.
During the long fall and winter months, the British built up the city’s defenses, kept an eye on the American army at Valley Forge, and sent foragers into the countryside to search for wood and hay. But such tasks could not occupy the thousands of men in the army, and the British also turned to a wide variety of leisure activities. Some occupied themselves by playing cards, drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. Others sought more elaborate entertainments, arranging dinner parties and taking part in amateur dramatics. British officers put on plays at the Southwark Theatre on Monday nights from January to May, performing at least fourteen different plays.
When General Howe resigned in April 1778, his officers planned a grand celebration to honor him before his departure. This “Meschianza” (in Italian, “medley”) began with elaborately decorated flatboats and galleys carrying officers and hundreds of guests down the river. This procession was followed by a tournament in which British officers dressed as medieval knights jousted in honor of the “Ladies of the Blended Rose” and the “Ladies of the Burning Mountain.” The tournament was followed by a feast, fireworks, and dancing. Participants judged the event a stunning success, but not all Philadelphia citizens agreed. The Meschianza cost more than three thousand guineas, a stunning amount of money in an occupied city where citizens complained regularly of shortages and high prices. The diarist Drinker criticized the officers’ extravagance, writing, “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.”
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