Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath Of Treason

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It was the collapse of these dreams that sent her into apparent hysterics on September 25, 1780, when word reached West Point that the treason conspiracy had been discovered, and her frantic husband made his last-minute escape, leaving Peggy and her six-month-old son to the kind mercies of George Washington and his aides. Washington gave her a choice. She could join her husband in British-held New York or her family in Philadelphia. She chose Philadelphia, but the local authorities refused to let her stay. By November she and her baby were in New York, living with Arnold in a fine house he had leased next door to British headquarters at Broadway and Wall Street.

No blaring trumpets had welcomed the fleeing traitor to Great Britain’s American stronghold. Not that he had cause to complain. Sir Henry Clinton and his generals punctiliously bestowed on him all the consideration due a competent military man who in their opinion, of course, was merely a rebel who had seen the light and had returned to his proper allegiance. Treason had deprived Arnold of his American rank of major general; but Sir Henry assigned to him the highest British military rating ever given an American colonial, that of colonel of a regiment, with the rank of brigadier general of provincials and the authority to raise a Loyalist legion.

Below the upper echelons at headquarters, however, Arnold’s presence was resented. A local newspaper noted that the “General … is a very unpopular character in the British army, nor can all the patronage he meets with from the commander-in-chief procure him respectability.” To a man, the English subalterns refused to join his unit, the American Legion Refugees. He was compelled to officer it from the Loyal American Corps, commanded by the elderly New York Tory Colonel Beverly Robinson. His efforts to fill the ranks were time-consuming and only partly successful. Even after his Legion had achieved respectable proportions, Sir Henry Clinton showed great reluctance in making use of it. The cautious English commander was aware that beyond the ramparts of New York the traitor would be the object of fierce enemy action. Even within the city Arnold was unsafe: an elaborate scheme by the Americans to kidnap him from the garden of his home one evening came within a hairbreadth of succeeding.

Only twice did Sir Henry permit the traitor to take to the field against his countrymen. Both were diversionary forays of no strategic importance. The first took Arnold to the James River in Virginia, where, in response to Governor Thomas Jefferson’s refusal to turn over the tobacco stores at Richmond, he ordered his soldiers to burn the warehouses and gave them carte blanche to plunder the city. His second expedition took him to New London and Groton, Connecticut, only a few miles down the Thames River from his native Norwich. There his reduction of two small American forts ended in scenes of horror as his rampaging soldiers—contrary to Arnold’s intentions, according to Sir Henry Clinton—massacred the garrison of one of the surrendered forts, murdered its commandant in cold blood, and set fire to New London.

Of Peggy’s life in Manhattan we catch only infrequent glimpses, most of them from Mrs. Samuel Shoemaker, a Philadelphia Loyalist who had come north to be with her husband. “P[eggy] A,” Mrs. Shoemaker was writing her daughter in Philadelphia in November of 1780, “is not so much admired here for her Beauty as one might have expected. All allow she has great Sweetness in her Countenance, but wants Animation”—a statement which suggests that the young wife was still profoundly shaken by the miscarriage of her husband’s treason and the blow to her once high hopes. In a later letter Mrs. Shoemaker announced that at a headquarters ball Peggy had “appeared a star of the first magnitude, and had every attention paid her as if she had been Lady Clinton. Is not this fine encouragement for generals to follow A[rnold]’s example?”

On December 15, 1781, the Arnolds sailed for England. Peggy and her children, including a second son born in Manhattan, took passage on a private vessel. Arnold travelled on the warship Robuste, where one of his companions was his good friend Charles, Earl Cornwallis, free on parole following the defeat of his army at Yorktown.

Halfway across the Atlantic, a storm struck the 150-ship fleet to which both vessels were attached. The Robuste (despite her name) sprang a leak. Arnold moved to the transport Edward; Peggy’s ship wallowed through. On Tuesday, January 22, 1782, according to next day’s London Daily Advertiser, both of the Arnolds “arrived in the Metropolis.” Typical English weather greeted them: a brisk wind and a “small rain” that drenched the winding streets, the wooded parks, and the 750,000 inhabitants of busy, mellow, dirty eighteenth-century London.

The political winds were just as brisk. Since Yorktown, the leaders of the out-of-government party in England had been clamoring for an end to the “American war.” King George III and his government insisted that it go on. Sir Henry Clinton had given Arnold a letter of introduction to Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, who treated him with respect.