Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Peggy’s family wasn’t really Loyalists but they weren't Patriots either; they sort of straddled the fence. While they believed that the colonists had definite grievances against the Motherland, they thought that things could be worked out, if both sides were willing to compromise. It was a tough line to walk, particularly since during the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was occupied by both the British and the Americans at different times. While Peggy was growing up both George Washington and Benedict Arnold had been entertained by her parents. When the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, they did the same for the British high command. The parties and balls that had been a feature of Philadelphia social life continued under British occupation, giving Peggy a chance to practice her dance steps and her flirting.
A frequent visitor to the Shippen home was a young officer named John André. André was handsome, cultured, and charming. Some historians speculate that Peggy and André fell in love but there is no evidence of this. In fact, he paid court to not only Peggy but also to her friends Peggy Chew, Becky Franks, and Becky Morris. One might call them André’s Angels; he spent that much time with them. When the British withdrew from the city a year later, he gave Peggy a lock of his hair to remember him by.
Peggy and her family had fled to the New Jersey countryside initially after the Americans occupied the city under the governorship of Benedict Arnold, but they soon moved back to the city because Edward Shippen felt that they would be safer. The family soon became reacquainted with Benedict Arnold. Arnold was immediately smitten and began courting the young woman despite their 20 year age difference. What did Peggy see in Arnold? Despite the age difference and the fact that he was widowed with three small sons, Arnold was also a hero, responsible for the capture for Fort Ticonderoga and also for key actions during the Battle of Saratoga in which he was wounded. Now a major general, he had been given the military governorship of Philadelphia. While Peggy was willing, her father was more skeptical. Arnold had just been brought up on charges of corruption and malfeasance with the money of the federal and state governments, and was awaiting trial. Arnold, however, knew the way to a woman’s heart, purchasing one of the nicest homes in town, Mount Pleasant for Peggy which he gave her the ownership of. On April 19, 1779, Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen were married.
If Peggy had encouraged Arnold to change sides, it would certainly be understandable. She was being a good wife, supporting her man, who felt unappreciated by the Americans. And she probably didn’t have to give him that hard a push. Arnold seems like he would have been a pain in the ass to live with, one of those men who never leave well enough alone. He made as many enemies as he did friends.Pissed off at his treatment in Philadelphia, Arnold resigned his command there in June of 1780. By this time, he had been corresponding secretly with André, who had gotten permission from his commanding officer, General Clinton to pursue the possibility of Arnold coming over to the British. The messages that were exchanged were sometimes transmitted through Peggy, she would write Andre a seemingly innocent letter asking for material or some sort of frippery, but the letter would also include coded communications from Arnold in invisible ink. Arnold had sought and obtained the command of West Point which was a critical defense post on the Hudson River. The plan was now for Arnold to weaken the defenses at West Point instead of rebuilding them, to make it easier for the British to capture the fort. Peggy and their newborn son Edward soon joined them staying at the home of Beverly Robinson, a Loyalist whose home had been seized by the Americans.
Image of a coded letter: Peggy Shippen Arnold's handwriting is interspersed with coded writing in Benedict Arnold's hand; Arnold's writing would have been in invisible ink
In September 1780, Arnold finally met André in the woods nearby, giving him vital documents regarding the fortifications at West Point. Unfortunately for André, he ended up behind the American lines, something that Clinton had told him expressly not to do. André was arrested on September 23, 1780 trying to cross back into British territory. The documents hidden in his boot were found, and the plot was exposed. When Arnold found out that the jig was up, he fled to the HMS Vulture that was on the Hudson River, leaving Peggy behind at Robinson House waiting for George Washington to show up. Washington had been scheduled to have a meeting with Arnold that morning. Peggy put on a tour-de-force performance, becoming completely hysterical, almost mad. The performance convinced Washington and his aide Alexander Hamilton that not only was Peggy completely innocent but it also gave Arnold enough time to escape.
Peggy was sent back to her family in Philadelphia but news of Arnold’s betrayal meant that it was too difficult for her to stay and put her family in danger. Instead Peggy was banished from the city of her birth, and sent to New York City to join her husband. Their second son James Robinson Arnold was born in New York on August 28, 1781. Peggy was initially welcomed into New York society. Meanwhile André was condemned as a spy and hanged at Tappan, New York. Now on the British side, Arnold was desperate to prove his worth but officers were naturally suspicious of the traitor in their midst. Just as he had when he was part of the Continental Army, Arnold clashed with other officers over the right way to proceed to win the war. Ironically, if he had been listened to, things might have been different and America might still be part of the British Empire. With the war all but over, the Arnold family moved to England.The Arnold family fortunes continued to decline during their time in England. Arnold was busy trying to get the British government to pay what he felt that he was owed for his actions betraying his country (he had asked to be paid £10,000 if he failed in his mission to secure West Point for the British, but the government ended up paying him a little over £6,000). Peggy meanwhile devoted herself to motherhood, giving birth to five more children, of which 3 survived. They moved to New Brunswick in Canada so that Arnold could pursue a business opportunity. When that failed, the family moved back to London, moving into increasingly smaller homes. When Arnold died in 1801, Peggy spent the last three years of her life paying off his debts. She used the pension money that she had been given by the British government and invested it wisely so that she had something to leave her children. She died in 1804 of uterine cancer and was buried with Arnold in St. Mary’s Church in Battersea.
After her death, a biographer of Aaron Burr first made the claim that Peggy had either manipulated or convinced Arnold to change sides like a Revolutionary War Lady Macbeth. The information came from Burr’s wife, Theodosia Prevost who had been a good friend of Peggy’s. Peggy had stayed with Prevost in what is now Paramus, NJ, enroute to Philadelphia from West Point. Apparently Peggy couldn’t take the lying anymore and confessed everything to Theodosia, telling her that “through unceasing perseverance, she had ultimately brought the general into an arrangement to surrender West Point.” When the biography was published, the Shippen family disputed this version of events. They claim that Burr made up these allegations because Peggy had spurned his advances made on the way to Philadelphia. However, papers were later found that showed that Peggy was paid £350 for handling secret dispatches.
Still, until recently, Peggy was seen as the innocent wife of a traitor. One reason is, of course, the idea that women are naturally less treacherous than men. Peggy was not the only woman who aided and abetted the British during the American Revolution, but very few women were caught, and the ones that were reprimanded at most. While male spies such as Nathan Hale and André were executed, not a single female spy met the same fate. Peggy Shippen Arnold was a survivor, a testament to her ancestors who crossed the ocean to the New World. Her life was more difficult than easy after her marriage but she made it work and never complained.