Saturday, November 12, 2016

Margaret Shippen Arnold, Collaborator or Dupe? - Part II

by Lauren Gilbert

Last week I introduced Peggy (Margaret Shippen) and the career of Benedict Arnold in a post, Margaret Shippen Arnold, Collaborator or Dupe (click here for the article).  Now we return to 18th century Philadelphia to pick up the story.

By the time of his appointment as Major General of Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold was chronically short of funds and had been writing to General Washington repeatedly about reimbursement for some time. He was also not happy about his rank, having been passed over for promotion while other (and younger) officers had received their promotions. He was finally promoted to brigadier general after the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777 without the fanfare he would have liked, and ultimately had his seniority restored after Saratoga later that year. He was not overly enthused about the position of Major General.

Benedict Arnold
Detail from mezzotint March 26, 1776

When the Americans took over the city of Philadelphia, the young ladies of the circle that enjoyed the attentions and entertainments of the British military were very disheartened, as it was known that the entertainments and social life they had enjoyed would not be continued. One of the first acts General Washington took was to declare a curfew for the night the British left. Once the army took possession of the city, Arnold sent the Massachusetts militia after the British to impede their progress to New York, and had workers clean the streets which were strewn with debris and (in places) garbage and waste left by the British. He also signed a Congressional resolve to close the shops. (This was in line with a policy of the Supreme Executive Council and was theoretically designed to make sure that the military could purchase needed goods fairly and to prevent abuse and profiteering.) Arnold also took residence in the Masters-Penn House, a stately and well-appointed mansion that was staffed by servants and included a coach. Shortly after the shops were closed, the clothier general of the army purchase goods at cost and sold them at top dollar. There was also a incident involving flour originally appropriated for the Army being sold in Havana at an extreme profit. These incidents caught the attention of Joseph Reed (who is said to have had designs on these goods himself), and were ultimately linked to Benedict Arnold.

Peggy Shippen with her daughter
At the same time, Arnold was courting friendships with wealthy and influential citizens, which tarnished his image as a neutral peace keeper and angered the revolutionary party. Although there were cries to try known Loyalists (or those who tried to stay neutral), cooler heads prevailed. However, known British sympathizers were ostracized from public celebrations. This situation, however, did not seem to slow down the activities of fashionable social butterflies like Peggy Shippen, who attended the social events in spite of snubs by patriots. Benedict hosted a ball, theoretically to improve public relations, inviting patriots as well as Tories and neutrals. This cannot have been a particularly happy mix, with the wealthy social set in high fashion, while others appeared in much more sober garb. It also gave Joseph Reed another opportunity to complain about Benedict Arnold’s behaviour. A subsequent ball on August 7 of 1778 in honour of a French minister exacerbated the situation, as the organizers felt the presence of the fashionable ladies of questionable loyalty was needed to suitably impress the French. Sometime during this social whirl, Arnold met Judge Shippen and ultimately his daughter Peggy. The exact where and when is not known, but he was her regular escort by late summer. Given the neutral (possibly Tory) sympathies of Judge Shippen and his family, this courtship was another point against Arnold in the eyes of Joseph Reed and others.
In September of 1778, Arnold asked Judge Shippen for Peggy’s hand by letter and wrote to Peggy, using the same letter he had sent to Betsey almost verbatim. There is no doubt that Arnold and Peggy were deeply in love. There were some issues that no doubt concerned Judge Shippen: Arnold’s lack of money and status, the fact he was a widower with three children, his age, and his physical limitation (his injured leg). While there was a possibility that Peggy’s marriage to Arnold could be an advantage, there were the rumours of Arnold’s speculations and other issues also to be considered. Arnold had had cargo that he owned at least in part moved from a ship, The Charming Nancy, to a warehouse using army wagons, which was illegal, although commonly done. He had also issued illegal passes allowing a loyalist to enter New York; when she was denied entry anyway, he tried to get her a legal pass unsuccessfully, which did not do him any good either. These activities had led to a formal complaint being lodged with the Supreme Executive Council.

By midwinter of 1778, Arnold’s reputation was at an all-time low, and his primary interest was marrying Peggy Shippen. He was also considering a return to civilian life. In love with Arnold, Peggy apparently finally accepted his proposal, contingent on her father’s approval, in January of 1779, which he finally gave. In February, Arnold left Philadelphia intending to go to General Washington for advice regarding his difficulties; after he left, the Supreme Executive Council accused him of military misconduct, filing eight separate charges, which were published. Although the Shippens and others were willing to believe that the accusations were examples of abuse of power by the Supreme Executive Council, it still left Arnold even deeper under a cloud than before. General Washington suggested that Arnold request a hearing with the Continental Congress; however, Arnold wanted a military court martial and a judgement of his peers. Data indicates that many in the army considered the charges against Arnold to be unfair. Ultimately, Arnold appealed to Congress. The matter was referred to a committee. Debate and protest by the Supreme Executive Council resulted in a decision that Arnold be judged on 4 of the accusations.

Mount Pleasant

On March 19, 1779, Arnold resigned as Major General of Philadelphia. He then bought Mount Pleasant, an elegant estate outside of Philadelphia, for over 16 thousand pounds, intending it to be an income-producing property to be held in trust for Peggy and their children. On April 3, 1779, General Washington announced that Benedict Arnold would face a court martial on the 4 charges. The wedding of Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen was celebrated on April 8, 1779, but the pending court martial clouded their honeymoon in spite of their being passionately in love. In fact, he contacted John Jay who was then president of the Second Continental Congress and a personal friend about the situation. Unfortunately, Mr. Jay was unable to assist. Arnold also appealed to General Washington for the earliest possible date for his court martial and asked that it be held in Philadelphia as access to records would be easier. Washington unfortunately was unable to accommodate the location request, and (although an early date had been set) had to delay the date at the request for more time by the Supreme Executive Committee. On May 5, 1779, Arnold responded to Washington in a furious letter protesting the delay. At this point, Arnold had been dissatisfied (to say the least) with his career in the Continental army, low in funds (and living beyond his means, since he and Peggy actually ended up living in Mount Pleasant and lived extremely well), and angry about the pending court martial. He had contacted Joseph Stansbury (an Englishman who was a Tory) on May 1, 1779 and told Mr. Stansbury he planned to defect to the British, in hopes of restoring British rule. He embroiled Mr. Stansbury in a plot, where Mr. Stansbury (in disguise) went to New York, met with Loyalist, Rev. Jonathon Odell, who knew Captain Andre’ (now one of General Sir Henry Clinton’s most trusted aides). Stansbury met with Captain Andre’ on May 10, 1779. Supposedly, along with Arnold’s defection plan, Stansbury also gave Captain Andre’ greetings from his old acquaintance Peggy Shippen. Captain Andre’ sent back detailed instructions for Arnold and (again supposedly) instructions for ciphered communication if Peggy decided to pursue further correspondence. Arnold was notified by Washington of the new court martial date of June 1, and accepted it. Andre’ also wrote to another old flame in Philadelphia, Peggy Chew, who was a friend of Peggy’s.

Arnold wrote to Captain Andre’ May 23, offering certain information and demanding money. This time, he offered salutations from his wife to Andre’. Subsequently, Arnold presented himself for his court martial at the appointed city, but got a note from Washington postponing it yet again; it was ultimately not held until December of 1779. Arnold continued his correspondence with Andre’, providing more information about troop movements and French reinforcements. It appears that during the summer of 1779, Andre’ was corresponding with Peggy Chew, and in August he wrote directly to Peggy Arnold, offering friendship and millinery supplies. It is important to note that there is no indication that Peggy Arnold had initiated any of the pleasantries extended to Andre’ in her name, nor that she had written to Andre’ herself at this time. It is also important to note that Peggy Shippen Arnold’s family destroyed all of her letters written prior to the Peace of Paris of September of 1783, which ended the American Revolution.

There was a great deal of unrest that summer, and Arnold had multiple unpleasant encounters. He asked Congress for protection for himself and his family (his sister and his sons now lived with him, and Peggy was pregnant). He was referred back to the Supreme Executive Committee, which was infuriating. After that episode, Peggy wrote to Andre’ (shortly to be Major John Andre’) October of 1799 in answer to his letter of August. It seems Peggy moved from providing sympathy for her husband’s trials, to providing active support for his endeavours at this point. Arnold’s court martial was rescheduled for a December date, and Arnold appeared for trial on December 23, 1779, pleading not guilty. Many expected him to be acquitted. Weather delayed things, as did the failure of the quartermaster to appear until January 19. On January 26, 1780, he was acquitted of all charges except that concerning an illegal pass, and he was sentenced to receive a reprimand from General Washington. This was a serious blow to Arnold, and it fell in a brutally hard winter, resulting in severe hardship for the soldiers especially. Arnold’s brightest spot was the birth of his and Peggy’s son Edward Shippen Arnold on March 19, 780.

This is not, however, the end of our story. Stay tuned for Part III on 18th November, 2016.


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.
Benedict Arnold: By Thomas Hart (File:Benedict Arnold 1color.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peggy Shippen and daughter: Daniel Gardner [Public domain], via 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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