Peggy Shippen

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Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Daniel Gardner

Peggy Shippen, or Margaret Shippen (also Peggy Shippen Arnold or just Peggy Arnold, June 11, 1760 – August 24, 1804), was the second wife of General Benedict Arnold. Born into a prominent Philadelphia family with Loyalist tendencies, she met Arnold during his tenure as military commander of the city following the British withdrawal in 1778. They were married in the Shippen townhouse on Fourth Street on April 8, 1779. Not long after, Arnold began conspiring with the British to change sides. Peggy played a role in the conspiracy, which was exposed after British Major John André was arrested in September 1780 carrying documents concerning the planned surrender of the critical Continental Army base at West Point.

After Arnold's flight to New York City, Peggy Shippen Arnold followed. They traveled together to London at the end of 1781, where she established a splendid home as Arnold rebuilt a trading business. In 1787 she joined Arnold in Saint John, New Brunswick, where Arnold's difficulties with local businessmen eventually prompted their return to London in December 1791. Arnold died in 1801, after which she had to settle his business affairs and pay off his debts. Peggy Shippen Arnold died in 1804, having borne five children who survived infancy.


Margaret, nicknamed "Peggy", was the fourth and youngest daughter, of Edward Shippen, IV and Margaret Francis, the daughter of Tench Francis, Sr.. She was born into a prominent Philadelphia family which included two Philadelphia mayors and the founder of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Edward Shippen was a judge and member of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania; the Shippen family was politically divided and the judge considered either a "Neutralist" or a covert "Tory " with allegiance to the British crown. Peggy was the youngest child of the family, though there were two other boys born later who died in infancy. She grew up as the baby of the family and was the "family's darling."

Sources related that Peggy enjoyed music, doing needlework and drawing and participated in the study of politics. She looked up to her father and, under his tutelage, learned about politics, finance and the forces which led to the American Revolution.

Courtship and marriage to Benedict Arnold[edit]

In September 1777, the British captured Philadelphia. The Shippen family, in keeping with their political interests and stations, held social gatherings at their home. A frequent guest was John André, an officer in General William Howe's command. André paid particular attention to Peggy.[1] In June 1778, following France's entry into the war, the British withdrew from the city. André left Philadelphia with his fellow troops, but the two of them remained in contact.

By the time Philadelphia was occupied by the Continental Army under Benedict Arnold, Judge Shippen and his family had been entertaining British officers at their townhouse on Society Hill. During the earlier patriot rule, the Shippens lived temporarily on a New Jersey farm. In anticipation of the British invasion of Philadelphia in September 1777, the judge, fearing his townhouse would be used as barracks, promptly moved his family back to the city.

In late summer of 1778,[2] Shippen then met Arnold, the commandant, or Continental military commander of Philadelphia. Regardless of differences between Arnold and Judge Shippen, the general began courting Peggy. Shortly after Shippen's oldest sister, Elizabeth Shippen, became engaged to her first cousin Edward Burd (m. Dec 1778). Benedict Arnold sent Shippen's father a letter asking for her hand. Edward Shippen, however, was skeptical of Arnold due to the latter's legal problems. In 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania had brought eight formal charges against Arnold of corruption and malfeasance with the money of the federal and state governments, and Arnold was subsequently convicted on two relatively minor counts. Despite this, Edward Shippen eventually granted permission for Arnold and Peggy to marry. On April 8, 1779, Benedict Arnold (age 38) and Peggy Shippen (age 18) were married.

Arnold purchased Mount Pleasant, a manor home built in 1762 for Captain John Macpherson, on March 22, 1779 for his bride, and specifically deeded the property to Peggy and any future children.[3] The couple did not live at Mount Pleasant; instead Arnold rented it out for income property.

The couple honeymooned at family homes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They returned to Philadelphia, taking up residency in Arnold's military headquarters, the Masters-Penn mansion, the former home of Richard Penn at Fifth and Market Streets and later that of General Howe during the British occupation.

Espionage between the Arnolds and Major John André[edit]

As a newlywed, Peggy may have had contact with her "dear friend," Major André, who had become General Clinton's spy chief. She and Arnold also had close friends who were either actively Loyalist or sympathetic to that cause. Some historians believed Peggy Shippen instigated the correspondence between Arnold and André and sent military secrets to the British before her wedding. Other suspects in Arnold's subsequent espionage ring with André, were Loyalists Rev. Jonathan Odell and Joseph Stansbury.[4]

In May 1779, not long after Peggy and Benedict married, Arnold hired Joseph Stansbury to initiate communications offering his services to the British. General Clinton gave Major André orders to pursue the possibility, and secret communications began between André and Arnold. The messages they exchanged were sometimes transmitted through Peggy's actions; letters written in her hand also include coded communications written by Benedict Arnold in invisible ink.

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

Enraged by his treatment in Philadelphia, General Arnold resigned his command there in March 1779. Pursuant to the secret communications with the British, he sought and obtained the command of West Point, a critical American defense post in the highlands of the Hudson River. Peggy and their infant son, Edward Shippen Arnold (born 19 Mar 1780) joined him there in a home on the Hudson two miles south of West Point. General Arnold systematically weakened the defenses of West Point with the intent of making it easier for the British to capture.

On Thursday, September 21, 1780, General Arnold met with André on the shores of the Hudson River and gave him documents and maps about the fortifications at West Point in anticipation of the British capture of that site. On Saturday, September 23, as André rode towards British territory, he was arrested, the documents were discovered, and the plot was exposed. Two days later, on Monday, September 25, Arnold received a note announcing André's capture and possession of treasonous papers and maps. That same morning General George Washington was planning to meet Arnold at his home, two miles south of West Point. Arnold first dashed upstairs to Peggy, then fled, eventually reaching the HMS Vulture on the Hudson River.[5]

Peggy Shippen Arnold was then dressing in anticipation of hosting a breakfast for Washington and his party. Possibly based on a brief discussion with her husband, she pretended hysteria in order to falsely convince General Washington and his staff that she had nothing to do with her husband's betrayal. The delay caused by her histrionics may have allowed Arnold time to escape, leaving Peggy with their infant son. Fearing for her safety, she traveled to Philadelphia to stay with her family. She also played the innocent when asked about her husband, even though she knew his whereabouts. Philadelphia authorities soon found a letter from André to Peggy written from British-occupied New York—the so-called "millinery letter"—and seized upon it as proof that Arnold's wife had been complicitous in the treason. That led the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania to banish her from Philadelphia. In November 1780, her father escorted Peggy and her infant son to the shores of the Hudson where she boarded a boat to New York City to join Arnold.[6][7]

After a military trial, Major André was condemned to death as a common spy and was hanged at Tappan, New York. He was later re-interred in London's Westminster Abbey.[8]

After the Revolution[edit]

With hostilities in North America apparently winding down after Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, the Arnolds, now including their second child James Robertson (born in August), left for London on December 15, 1781, arriving January 22, 1782.[9]

Peggy was initially welcomed warmly in England, as was her husband; she was presented at court to the Queen on February 10, 1782 by Lady Amherst. Queen Charlotte awarded her an annuity of 100 pound sterling a year for the maintenance of her children including those not yet born. King George III also presented her with £350 "obtained for her services, which were meritorious."[10] A girl (Margaret) and a boy (George) born in 1783 and 1784 respectively, died in infancy in 1784 while the Arnolds lived in London.

Arnold left for a business opportunity in 1784, and sent to Connecticut for his three sons Benedict, Richard and Henry (by his first wife) to join him in Saint John, New Brunswick. During Arnold's stay in New Brunswick, Peggy Shippen Arnold gave birth to their third child, Sophia Matilda Arnold, while her husband may have fathered an illegitimate child (John Sage) in New Brunswick.[11] Shippen Arnold sailed to Saint John to join Arnold in 1787, leaving her two older sons with a private family in London; in New Brunswick, Peggy gave birth to son George in 1787; their last child, William Fitch, was born in 1794 after their return to London.

In 1789 she returned briefly to Philadelphia, accompanied by her infant son George and a maid to visit with her parents and family; she was treated coldly by Philadelphians in spite of her father's considerable influence.[9] Peggy sailed back to New Brunswick with young George in the spring of 1790, and from there returned to England with Arnold, leaving there in late December 1791. Their departure was unhappy, with mobs gathering on their property to protest against them and calling them "traitors."

After Arnold died in 1801, Peggy auctioned the contents of their home, the home itself and many of her personal possessions to pay off his debts. She died in London in 1804, reportedly of cancer, and was buried with her husband at St. Mary's Church in Battersea on August 25, 1804.

Allegations of role in conspiracy[edit]

In the 19th century, after all of the principal actors involved had died, James Parton, a biographer of Aaron Burr, published an account implying that Peggy Shippen Arnold had manipulated or persuaded Benedict to change sides. The basis for this claim was interviews he conducted with Theodosia Prevost, the widow of Jacques Marcus Prevost who later married Burr, and notes later made by Burr. While en route to Philadelphia from West Point in 1780, Shippen Arnold visited with Prevost at Paramus, New Jersey. According to Parton, Shippen Arnold unburdened herself to Prevost, claiming she "was heartily tired of all the theatricals she was exhibiting", referring to her histrionics at West Point.[12] According to Burr's notes, Shippen Arnold "was disgusted with the American cause" and "that through unceasing perseverance, she had ultimately brought the general into an arrangement to surrender West Point."[12]

When these allegations were first published, the Shippen family countered with allegations of improper behavior on Burr's part. They claimed that Burr rode with Shippen Arnold in the carriage to Philadelphia after her stay with Mrs. Prevost, and that he fabricated the allegation because she refused advances he made during the ride.[12] Arnold biographer Willard Sterne Randall opines that Burr's version has a more authentic ring to it: first, Burr waited until all were dead before it could be published, and second, Burr was not in the carriage on the ride to Philadelphia. Randall also notes that ample further evidence has since come to light showing that Shippen Arnold played an active role in the conspiracy.[13] British papers revealed in 1792 that Mrs. Arnold was paid £350 for handling some secret dispatches.[14]


Benedict Arnold had a total of nine children who survived to adulthood. Three were with his first wife Margaret Mansfield, and one, John Sage, may have been the product of an affair he had in Saint John. Peggy Shippen bore him seven children, of whom five survived to adulthood:

  • Edward Shippen Arnold (March 19, 1780 to December 13, 1813) Lieutenant. Died in Bengal, India; unmarried and childless.
  • James Robertson Arnold (August 28,1781 to December 27, 1854) Major-General. Died in London, England; married to Virginia Goodrich, no children.
  • Sophia Matilda Arnold (July 28, 1785 to June 10, 1828) Died in London, England. Married to Pownoll Phipps in India, two sons and three daughters.
  • George Arnold (second of that name) (September 5, 1787 to November 1, 1828) Lieutenant-Colonel. Died in Bengal, India; married to Ann Martin Brown, one son.
  • William Fitch Arnold (June 25, 1794 to November 17, 1846) Captain. Died in Buckinghamshire, England; married to Elizabeth Cecilia Ruddach, four daughters and two sons.

In popular culture[edit]

Peggy Shippen is portrayed by Erin McGathy and Winona Ryder in the Drunk History episode on Philadelphia.[15] She is also portrayed in the TV miniseries George Washington by Megan Gallagher, in the TV movie Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor by Flora Montgomery, and in the Revolutionary War drama Turn: Washington's Spies by Ksenia Solo.


  1. ^ Allen, Thomas B. (2010). Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War. City: HarperCollins. p. 241. ISBN 0-06-124180-6. A pretty, flirtatious teenager, sixteen-year-old Peggy Shippen, was overjoyed when a handsome British officer named John André called at her family’s Society Hill mansion, invited her to appear at the Mischianza. (an extravaganza in honor of General William Howe's departure for London) and sketched her in her turbaned costume as a member of the Turkish harem. 
  2. ^ Stuart 2013, p. 45.
  3. ^ New York Times, June 7, 1896
  4. ^ People of the Revolution
  5. ^ Stuart 2013, pp. 94–96.
  6. ^ Stuart 2013, p. 112.
  7. ^ Brandt, Clare (1994). The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold. New York: Random House. pp. 234–238. ISBN 0-679-40106-7. 
  8. ^ Randall 1990, pp. 566–569.
  9. ^ a b Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath of Treason, American Heritage Magazine, October 1967 Volume 18, Issue 6
  10. ^ Stuart 2013, p. 135, 112.
  11. ^ Randall 1990, p. 613 Although many historians suggest an Arnold liaison in New Brunswick, Canadian historian Barry Wilson notes the weakness of the traditional account that Sage is the product of such a liaison. Sage's gravestone indicates that he was born on April 14, 1786, a date roughly confirmed by Benedict Arnold's will, which stated Sage was 14 when Arnold wrote it in 1800. Because Arnold arrived in New Brunswick in December 1785, Sage's mother could not have been from there. Wilson believes the explanation most consistent with the available documentation is that Sage was either the result of a liaison before Arnold left England or that he was Arnold's grandson by one of his older children. Wilson, pp. 231–233
  12. ^ a b c Randall 1990, p. 571.
  13. ^ Randall 1990, p. 572.
  14. ^ Willard N. Wallace, Traitorous Hero: The Life and Fortunes of Benedict Arnold (New York, 1954), pp.252-255
  15. ^


  • Stuart, Nancy (2013). Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women And the Radical Men They Married. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-8070-0117-2. 
  • Brandt, Clare (1994). The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold. Random House. ISBN 0-679-40106-7. 
  • Flexner, James Thomas (1975). The Traitor and the Spy. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-8156-0263-7. 
  • Randall, Willard Sterne (1990). Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. William Morrow and Inc. ISBN 1-55710-034-9. 
  • Wilson, Barry K (2001). Benedict Arnold: A Traitor in Our Midst. McGill Queens Press. ISBN 0-7735-2150-X. 
  • Van Doren, Carl (1941). Secret History of the American Revolution. Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670-00232-0. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Mark Jacobs; Stephen Case (2012). Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press. ISBN 9780762773886. 
  • Ann Rinaldi. Finishing Becca, a historical novel based on the life of Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold.
  • Nancy Rubin Stuart. Defiant Brides : The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-era Women and the Radical Men They Married, Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. ISBN 9780807001172
  • Allison Pataki (2014). The Traitor's Wife: the woman behind Benedict Arnold and the plan to betray America. West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co. ISBN 9781476738604.

External links[edit]