Shippen, Peggy (1760–1804)

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Shippen, Peggy (1760–1804)

Second wife of Benedict Arnold, who lived most of her life amid the enmity caused by his treason. Name variations: Margaret Shippen Arnold; Peggy Shippen Arnold; Mrs. Benedict Arnold; Margaret Shippen. Born Margaret Shippen in 1760 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on August 24, 1804, in Epping, Essex, England; youngest of five children of Edward Shippen (a judge); became second wife of Benedict Arnold (1741–1801, military governor of Pennsylvania who defected to the British in 1780), on April 8, 1779; children: Edward Shippen Arnold; James Robertson Arnold; Sophia Arnold ; George Arnold; William Fitch Arnold. Benedict Arnold was first married to Margaret Mansfield who died in 1775.

The second wife of Benedict Arnold, the most infamous traitor in American history, Peggy Shippen was aware of her husband's treasonous activities during the Revolutionary War and may have even aided the "villainous perfidy" which culminated in the delivery of West Point, America's most crucial fortification at the time, to the British. In the aftermath of her husband's transgressions, Shippen proved to be a strong, resourceful woman. "Arnold had the power to act, to defy the stresses of business and the dangers of the battlefield; but Peggy had the power to endure," wrote Milton Lomask. "He could not cope with failure and disgrace. She could—and did."

Shippen was a young, golden-haired Philadelphia socialite in June 1778, when Benedict Arnold, a 37-year-old widower and war hero, became the military governor of Pennsylvania and established his headquarters in the city. During the British occupation of the city, Shippen had enjoyed the attention of a number of handsome young officers, and she probably met Arnold at yet another social event. Although she was 19 years Arnold's junior, the two fell in love and married on April 8, 1779. They took up residence in his magnificent country house, "Mt. Pleasant," located on the banks of the Schuylkill, where they lived quite lavishly, far above their means. It may have been Arnold's accumulating debt that led him to take advantage of his authority.

In May 1779, shortly after the marriage, the radical Pennsylvania Council accused Arnold of having utilized his military office for private gain. While awaiting a court-martial that he had demanded in order to clear his name, Arnold began his treasonous correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief in America, in which he revealed crucial military secrets, including troop movement, disposition of supplies, and the route and strength of the French forces. In the summer of 1780, after being cleared by the court of most of the charges against him, Arnold, by his own request, was appointed by General George Washington to command West Point, where he continued his deceitful plot. Within four months, he had seriously weakened the garrison and depleted its provisions, all the while reassuring Washington that a

British attack could not succeed. On September 21, Arnold arranged to surrender West Point to Major John André, British adjutant-general and chief of spies. The plan was thwarted, however, when André was captured by American troops two days later while carrying incriminating papers in Arnold's own hand, which were subsequently turned over to General Washington. However, by the time Washington traveled to the Arnold home, Arnold had heard of André's capture and made an escape, leaving Shippen behind with the couple's infant son.

Other than her knowledge of her husband's subversive activities, it is difficult to determine Shippen's involvement in the plot. A story was circulated at the time that she confessed to a friend that she had persuaded her husband to betray his country, but there is nothing but hearsay to support that theory. Some believe, however, that her ambitions were such that she may indeed have influenced him, thinking he would be lavishly rewarded by the British. Whatever her degree of involvement, when Washington and his aides arrived at West Point, they found her seemingly in a state of madness, clutching her child to her and muttering incoherently. "General Arnold will never return: he is gone: he is gone forever; there, there, there," she said pointing to the ceiling, "the spirits have carried [him] up there." The next day, when Shippen appeared to have calmed down, Washington gave her the choice of joining her husband in British-held New York, or returning home to Philadelphia. She chose to go to Philadelphia, but the local authorities would not let her stay. In November, she joined her husband in New York, where he had received from Henry Clinton the British military rating of brigadier general and was commanding a Loyalist legion. The Arnolds resided there until December 1781, when they sailed for England, taking along their young family, which now included a second son born in New York. In England, Shippen was presented at court, the king pronouncing her "the most beautiful woman he had ever seen."

Over the next few years, during which time Shippen gave birth to several more children, the couple slowly slipped into obscurity. After 1782, Arnold had no military post and no job. The family lived in a series of leased houses in moderately fashionable neighborhoods, and Shippen devoted herself to her children. She also was attentive to Arnold's three sons by his first wife, and to his only surviving sister, Hannah Arnold . In 1785, Arnold left his wife and children in England and sailed to St. John in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. There he purchased property and started a merchandising enterprise. He also fathered an illegitimate son (John Sage), a transgression for which his wife apparently forgave him, for she joined him in New Brunswick in 1787. A year later, she attended a family reunion in Philadelphia, where some old friends and even some relatives snubbed her on the street. "How difficult it is," she wrote to her sister in the summer of 1790, shortly after returning to St. John, "to know what will contribute to our happiness in this life. I had hopes that by paying my beloved friends a last visit, I should insure to myself some portion of it, but I find it far otherwise."

Shippen also faced an increasingly difficult time in New Brunswick, where her husband was widely disliked. In 1791, the animosity toward him turned violent when a mob burned an effigy labeled "traitor" on the front lawn of their home. A few weeks later, the Arnolds sold their property and household goods and prepared to sail back to England. Arnold applied for a military post but nothing was forthcoming, so he returned to his old trade on the high seas. He later served for two years as a volunteer officer under General Charles Grey, who commanded the British land forces in the West Indies. At home, Shippen dealt with the couple's mounting financial problems and some serious crises involving the children. In the spring of 1800, their only daughter Sophia had a paralytic stroke that left her a semi-invalid. A month later, their son Edward died in India, where he was serving as an officer in the British engineers.

By January 1801, Arnold's health began to fail. His death on June 14 of that year left Shippen in a "despairing state," as she confessed in a letter to her father. Despite her grief, she moved into a smaller home and over the next few years attempted to pay off her husband's debts and to educate her children. Her own health took a turn for the worse in November 1803, when she was diagnosed with "a cancer." A year before her death, she wrote a letter to her stepsons: "To you I have rendered an essential service; I have rescued your Father's memory from disrespect, by paying all his just debts; and his Children will now never have the mortification of being reproached with his speculations having injured anybody beyond his own family…. I have not even a tea-spoon, a towel, or a bottle of wine that I have not paid for."

Peggy Shippen died on August 24, 1804, at the age of 44. Her children went on to lead respectable and successful lives, a tribute to her strength and fortitude. "As a devoted wife and mother," wrote Lomask, "faithful to her bargains and gallant under strains, the lovely Mrs. Benedict Arnold had made a good ending to an ill-starred life."


Flexner, James Thomas. "Benedict Arnold: How the Traitor Was Unmasked," in American Heritage. Vol. XVIII, no. 6. October 1967.

Lomask, Milton. "Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath of Treason," in American Heritage. Vol. XVIII, no. 6. October 1967.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts