Friday, November 18, 2016

Margaret Shippen Arnold, Collaborator or Dupe? Part III

By Lauren Gilbert

So far in this series we have been introduced to Peggy (Margaret) Shippen, and the career of her husband, Benedict Arnold. * Part II concluded with the end of the American Revolution ** but our story did not end there:

Peggy Shippen and her daughter, c 1783-1789

As time passed, things grew harder for the Arnold family as his income declined: he had made military expenditures from personal funds that had yet to be repaid and had had failed efforts in trade. He attempted to borrow money without success. The family moved from the home he had been assigned as major general of Philadelphia, which they still occupied when in town and not at Mount Pleasant, to a smaller one belonging to his father-in-law in an attempt to retrench. Another blow fell on Arnold on April 6 of 1780, when Washington issued the required reprimand. Washington tried to soften it as much as he could, and wrote him a private letter to encourage him to put the matter behind him and work to rebuild his reputation. It seems this was the last straw; Arnold turned fully to British General Clinton and Major André, determined to seek a significant command to generate the needed boost to the British efforts. West Point fit the requirements due to its strategic position north of New York on the Hudson River (a major waterway), conquest of which would severely damage the Continental army’s activities. While jockeying for the appointment to command of West Point, Arnold continued his bargaining with Clinton and André for financial guarantees. On the home front in Philadelphia, Peggy was using her social skills to lobby support for Arnold’s desired appointment as well.
Benedict Arnold

In July of 1780, Washington offered Arnold command of the left wing of the army, which was considered a significant honour. Arnold’s lack of enthusiasm for the post or gratitude for the appointment was noted not only by Washington but others, who wondered why Arnold wasn’t pleased. Fortunately, from Arnold’s perspective, Washington ordered him to West Point to take command upon hearing that the British fleet was returning to New York. Arnold arrived at West Point August 5, 1780, and began efforts to resupply the fort with a view to British advantage, not American, although Washington remained ignorant of his intent. Finally accepting that Arnold really meant his offer to put West Point into British hands, General Sir Henry Clinton offered Arnold 20,000 pounds if the British captured three thousand soldiers with the fort. The assignment of an artillery unit by Washington to the fort put sufficient men in place to make that a possibility. A meeting was scheduled between Arnold and André on the opposite shore of the river on September 11 but didn’t happen due to communications failures. Peggy and their baby son arrived at West Point on September 14, 1780 after an arduous trip of several days. One overnight stay for Peggy was at the Hermitage, the home of Anne Watkins, who had her daughter Theodosia Prevost with her, both known Loyalists. Theodosia was married to a British officer stationed in South Carolina at the time. This could have appeared to be a serious offense, except that Washington had stayed at the Hermitage earlier, knowing the family to hold divided loyalties.

Also on September 14, Washington told Arnold of his plans to meet French leaders in Connecticut and informed Arnold of arrangements to be made. Arnold immediately sent this information to the British, while assuring Washington the arrangement would be made. Arnold took his family to a country house that had been seized by the Americans, which was not convenient for the West Point post but was excellent from the standpoint of privacy and intrigue. Peggy’s presence was a perfect cover for Arnold’s secret treason. While entertaining at a dinner on September 17, Arnold received a missive advising him that Major André's arrival was expected, indicating the plot was proceeding. This must have been a nerve-wracking period, as the next day Washington indicated he was planning to come to West Point on September 23 and would stay with the Arnolds, a real prize for the British. Finally, on September 21, André arrived by ship, was rowed to shore and the meeting between Arnold and André came off. Things rapidly became complicated as André was in uniform and refused to cross the British line, to avoid the appearance of a spy. Arnold provided the information, and again tried to negotiate the money amount. Sunrise surprised them, and the major’s transport refused to row him back to his ship. At that point, André had no choice but to cross the lines. Subsequently, his ship was attacked, damaged and driven off, leaving André stranded. Arnold gave him two passes to help him cross through American territory to British held New York, and insisted that he take maps and documents back to Clinton. Arnold returned home, while André was left in disguise with guides to get him safely back. On September 23, Arnold was told that André had been safely seen to the British lines. On that day, Washington changed the plans to arrive with the Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton and other American notables on September 25.

When September 25 arrived, a completely fraught day ensued. Washington’s party was delayed, and Arnold received a letter at breakfast advising him that a certain John Anderson had been captured with papers about West Point in his boots. Arnold took Peggy upstairs and advised her of the situation. When Washington’s imminent arrival was announced, Arnold left the house, leaving a message that he would return. Peggy was left in her room, where she was when Washington arrived and ate breakfast. After Washington left to go to West Point, Peggy threw a hysterical fit, convincing their staff and a doctor that she was mad. Washington returned to the house that afternoon, at which point he was given a packet of letters containing the news of Arnold’s treason, a severe blow to Washington who had no inkling of Arnold’s disloyalty. Meanwhile, Peggy continued her histrionics. Arnold sent Washington a letter, attributing his defection to the ingratitude of his country, and asking him to protect Peggy, accepting full blame for his actions. He included a letter for Peggy, telling her to go to her parents or to come to him as she chose. Her despair and prolonged hysterical condition convinced Washington and the others that she was completely innocent of complicity in Arnold’s treason. Arnold, in the meantime, evaded capture and succeeded in making it to British lines.

Major André was brought as prisoner to the Arnold residence, and expected to be treated as a prisoner of war. Unfortunately, being caught in disguise, with incriminating documents, on foot in American territory made this unlikely, if not impossible. Washington immediately strengthened security at West Point, and word was sent to other posts. On September 26, André wrote a letter to Washington, divulging the facts of his case, asking to be treated with honour. Washington was not moved to leniency for the prisoner, nor did he meet with him. Although he subsequently tried to negotiate with General Clinton for an exchange of André for Arnold, Clinton’s refusal resulted in André’s death by hanging on October 1 after being found guilty of violating the rules of war. To the relief of all, the investigation indicated no wide-spread disaffection or plot. Also on September 26 as well, after considering her options, Peggy took her son and returned to Philadelphia to her parents. This journey was more difficult as she was recognized and was frequently scorned and refused service. On September 29, she stopped again at the Hermitage and visited with Theodosia Prevost. Allegedly, during this stay, she told Theodosia that she had maintained a correspondence with Major André and convinced Arnold to betray his country by turning West Point over to the British. (As a widow, Theodosia married Aaron Burr in 1782; Burr was the source of this story. It was refuted by a Shippen descendant, who said Burr told it to revenge himself on Peggy for rejecting his attempt to seduce her in a carriage; Peggy had had an escort and arrived at her parents’ home in early October, so it appeared the carriage ride never happened. However, some find Burr’s story more believable, in part because he waited until after everyone involved was dead to publish it. )

Once Arnold’s treason was announced, the Supreme Executive Council (including Arnold’s old enemy Joseph Reed) ordered a search for Arnold’s papers. The papers were found and included the letter written to Peggy by André in August of 1779 regarding their old friendship and millinery supplies, and a note she wrote to Arnold making fun of other women who had attended a concert. Despite her family’s support and defense, Peggy was now considered to be a conspirator in her husband’s treason, before she arrived back home. She took refuge in another fit of hysterics. Despite the limbo of her existence, Peggy maintained her loyalty to Arnold. In spite of her family’s efforts, the Supreme Executive Council ultimately decided on October 27, of 1780 that Peggy was to be exiled from the state of Pennsylvania and barred from returning during the course of the war. On November 29, Judge Shippen took Peggy and her son to the British lines at Paulus Hook and put them on a ship to New York City to join Arnold. She was 20 years old.

This is the point at which we must consider the question: was Peggy a collaborator in Benedict Arnold’s treason, or was she his dupe? It must be said that the destruction of all of her correspondence prior to the end of the war (except for the letter from Major André and the note from her to Arnold found in his papers) is suspicious; her subsequent correspondence is intact, and wholesale destruction of her earlier letters argues a significant secret. However, I think it unlikely that she was complicit from the beginning. She was very young during their courtship and marriage to Benedict Arnold, and he was already angry and bitter about his finances and his career. There is no indication of messages via other people or letters from Peggy to André prior to the letter she wrote in October of 1799, and there is no indication that she provided information or solicited any activity. While she did help lobby for the West Point appointment desired by Arnold with her social contacts, that is a reasonable action by a wife. An indulged, spoiled young woman who was known to throw tantrums to get her way would not necessarily be the best person in whom to confide a secret as serious as a treason plot. While there are documents showing she was paid 350 pounds by the British in 1792 for handling some secret dispatches, I was unable to discover what they were or when she supposedly handled them or what happened to them, so it’s hard for me to consider this payment as solid evidence that she was a full conspirator.

By the same token, I don’t think it reasonable to assume that she knew nothing until Arnold received word of André’s capture and left, leaving her to hide behind sustained hysteria to protect herself and her child from suspicion. Based on the data I’ve seen, it seems reasonable that the turning point was in the summer of 1779 when the Continental Congress referred Arnold back to the Supreme Executive Council for protection for his family, knowing the situation concerning the council and Arnold would make such protection highly unlikely. It seems a likely point where Arnold would confide the full range of his dissatisfaction and disillusionment, and where the couple, as a couple, would consider the options open for their family. Since Arnold had already been in correspondence with the British by this time, some degree of disclosure would not be such an unrealistic step. Given her family’s neutral stance politically, I think it very possible that Peggy may not have had strong political loyalties to either the Loyalist or the American cause; certainly I read of no instances of patriotic fervour (either way) on her part. Having observed her father and other families do what was needed to maintain their own security as their city changed governing armies, it seems very possible that Arnold’s switching sides did not particularly shock her. I believe she was complicit to the extent she knew he was plotting, but it seems highly unlikely that she was an active collaborator in the plot. As far as her correspondence is concerned, many families destroyed letters that contained embarrassing or otherwise compromising information-who knows how many wives and daughters of patriot families wearing linsey-woolsey that Peggy may have insulted, or remarks she may have made about Arnold’s continuing ire over his finances and status in the army that might have caused people to question her involvement? There could just as easily have been remarks about her own or other Loyalist or neutral families’ activities that could have raised questions about their loyalty and affected their post war future. Speculation is futile; it is, however, clear that there are many possible reasons for the destruction of her earlier letters besides her conspiring to commit treason.

What happened to the Arnolds afterwards? Benedict Arnold did serve with the British in 1781, but did not receive a command (his quarrelsome tendencies did not help him). He did receive money, but at 6000 pounds it was much less than he had wanted and expected (neither West Point nor the 3000 troops fell into British hands as a result of his plot, after all). Although Peggy’s wit and charm won her a welcome, the conviction that Arnold was in it for the money when he changed sides and his tendency to quarrel prevented him from being respected. He and Peggy had another son while living in New York. They sailed for London December 15, 1781 and arrived January 22, 1782. The Arnolds were welcomed initially, living in London where Arnold built a business in trade. Peggy and their children received pensions from the British government. She remained a very loyal wife to him. Unfortunately, despite numerous endeavours, including an opportunity in New Brunswick Canada (Arnold went to Canada in 1784; Peggy joined him in 1787), Arnold’s difficulties in dealing with other people and apparent lack of business acumen resulted in deeper and deeper debt. In 1789, Peggy visited her family in Philadelphia but was coldly received socially. She returned to Canada in the spring of 1790. They went back to London in 1792, and their last child was born there in 1794. They moved to progressively smaller homes. In 1801, Benedict Arnold’s health deteriorated and he died June 14, 1801. Peggy paid off her husband’s debts and managed to leave an inheritance for their children. She died of cancer on August 24, 1804, a British citizen. Both of them were buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Battersea, London.

* Read Part I 
** Read Part II 

Sources include:

Flexner, James Thomas. WASHINGTON The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
Stuart, Nancy Rubin. DEFIANT BRIDES The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married. Boston: Beacon Presss, 2013.
Find A “Margaret ‘Peggy’ Shippen Arnold.” Posted by Peggy, Nov. 28, 2009. HERE ;
"Benedict Arnold." (No name or post date.) HERE
Scandalous Women blog. “Treacherous Beauty: The Life of Peggy Shippen Arnold.” Posted Nov. 1, 2012 by Elizabeth Kerry Mahon. HERE “Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor Against the American Revolution” by Nathan Philbrick. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2016. HERE “Margaret Arnold.” HERE (No name or post date)
Penn University Archives and Records Center on line. “Edward Shippen (1729-1806).” HERE (no name or post date) “Benedict Arnold.” HERE (No name or post date)
Wikipedia. “The Philadelphia Campaign.” HERE

Images from Wikimedia Commons.


Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A NOVEL, was published in 2011. Her second, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in process for release in 2017. Visit her website HERE


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