Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath Of Treason

One day in the winter of 1782-83, an exiled American neutralist, Peter Van Schaack by name, was browsing through London’s Westminster Abbey when he was startled to see a familiar figure standing before a newly erected monument to Major John André, the young British officer who had collaborated with Benedict Arnold in the unsuccessful scheme to betray West Point. The thickset, hulking-shouldered man who was reading the tribute to the fallen soldier’s “Zeal for his KING and COUNTRY” on the marble face of the cenotaph was Benedict Arnold himself.

“What a spectacle!” Van Schaack’s son and biographer wrote later. “The traitor Arnold, in Westminster Abbey, at the tomb of André, deliberately perusing the monumental inscription, which will transmit to future ages the tale of his own infamy!”

Arnold was not alone. At his side was a young woman. Van Schaack had never met the former Margaret Shippen, the golden-haired Philadelphia aristocrat who a few years before had become the second Mrs. Benedict Arnold; but her appealing features had been described to him. He recognized her at once, and even as he turned from the scene “in disgust,” he must have found himself wondering what it was like to be the wife of the most despised man of his generation. What did life hold, after treason, for the exiled Benedict Arnolds?

Biographers have found partial answers in many scattered sources—in the London press, for example, which occasionally mentioned the Arnolds; or in the voluminous correspondence Peggy Arnold carried on with her family and friends in America. The picture that emerges is bittersweet. It is marked on the General’s part by a scramble for money and position, on his wife’s by much inner turmoil. Historically Peggy stands in Arnold’s shadow, but if their English autumn says anything to us at all, it says she was the stronger. 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. He could not cope with failure and disgrace. She could—and did.

Peggy Shippen had barely turned eighteen when in June of 1778, following the evacuation of Philadelphia by a British army, Major General Benedict Arnold, then a widower of thirty-seven, entered the city in an appropriately elaborate procession to assume his new command as military governor. Few Philadelphians had ever before laid eyes on the famous “Hannibal of the Revolution.” But few were ignorant of his contributions to the American cause—of his bravery on the battlefields of Quebec and Danbury and Bemis Heights. From the open carriage bearing him up Walnut Street he acknowledged the cheers of the crowd with blunt nods of his big head, his twice-wounded left leg resting on a pillow, his blue eyes startlingly pale in a swarthy, thrusting, truculently handsome face.

It is doubtful that Peggy Shippen was on hand, more likely that she was behind the doors of her family’s tall brick house on fashionable South Fourth Street. Although he regarded himself as a neutralist, her father, Judge Edward Shippen, was a Loyalist in the eyes of the Pennsylvania authorities. She was the youngest of his five children, a willowy creature with a small, spoiled, eager mouth, fetchingly plump cheeks, and wide, solemn eyes somewhere between hazel and gray. She had enjoyed the British occupation. For nine dizzying months life had been a round of hops and routs, of candlelit suppers and evenings at the theatre, of gorgeously accoutered young officers coming to pay their respects.

We do not know when or where she and Arnold met; possibly it was at one of the parties the commandant of Philadelphia gave at his elegant headquarters on Market Street. We do know that in spite of the nineteen years’ difference in their ages the attraction was mutual. Benedict Arnold saw in Peggy Shippen the same desire for the good things of this world that burned at the core of his own restless being. She in turn sensed in the ruthless force that seemed to emanate from him the promise of a glittering fulfillment. They were married on April 8, 1779. Before the honeymoon was over, Arnold had offered his services to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief in America, thus initiating the conspiracy that a year and a half later would take him and Peggy to West Point and catastrophe.

It is clear from Sir Henry Clinton’s papers, opened to scholars some forty years ago, that Peggy was aware of her husband’s treasonous negotiations from the beginning and to some extent was involved in them. Only hearsay supports the story of her confession to an acquaintance that it was she who had persuaded her husband to betray his country, but such an action would have been in keeping with her character and background. Unlike her moderate father, Peggy was an ardent Tory, and she was ambitious. She realized that if the General aided the British substantially, he would be well rewarded. A grateful king might even give him a title. Then some day, after years of gracious living in England, she could return to Philadelphia to be deferred to by her friends as “Lady Arnold.”