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Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath Of Treason
The traitor was not destitute, but his family's life was not comfortable after the Revolutionary War.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
Prior to the Revolution Arnold had prospered as a maritime merchant, working out of New Haven, Connecticut, and sailing his own ships up and down the American coast, buying, selling—and smuggling—livestock and provisions. In 1785 he purchased a brig, moved Peggy and the children to a smaller house in the Portman Square area, and left England for the largely Loyalist-built seaport of St. John, on the Bay of Fundy, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. En route he put in at Halifax, greatly surprising the inhabitants there. “Will you believe General Arnold is here …?” one wrote to a friend in St. John. “He is bound for your city, which he will of course prefer to Halifax, and settle with you. Give you joy of the acquisition.”
In St. John, Arnold purchased property and started a merchandising enterprise in partnership with an American Loyalist. It was during his first winter in St. John that he became the father of an illegitimate son, John Sage, later mentioned in his will. The name of John’s mother remains a secret of history—and possibly of Peggy, to whom, according to Willard M. Wallace, one of Arnold’s best biographers, he confessed all and was forgiven, when in 1787 he returned to England long enough to place their younger sons with a private family and to move Peggy and their infant daughter to New Brunswick.
Back in St. John in July of that year, he bought a house big enough to accommodate his sister Hannah and the three sons of his former marriage, who came up from New England. Simultaneously he expanded his business, setting up trading stations on Campobello Island and at Fredericton, the wilderness-rimmed capital of the province.
Once on North American soil, Peggy began making preparations to visit her family in Philadelphia. Twice she had to defer the trip, first because of the birth of another child, then because Arnold was away on a long trading journey. Most of 1789 had passed before she boarded a packet for the States, carrying baby George in her arms and accompanied by a maid.
At home she was relieved to find her mother in good spirits in spite of a crippling illness. Her father too appeared to be content and happy in a new and elevated position. After the war, Philadelphians had found it easy to forgive capable, clear-thinking Judge Edward Shippen for his Loyalist sympathies and to to make use of his talents. He was now on the state’s highest bench. A decade hence he would become chief justice of Pennsylvania, the title by which posterity remembers him. Before Arnold entered her life, Peggy had centered her affections on the Judge, and unquestionably it was a pleasure for her to be with him again. She could also chat for hours with her eldest and favorite sister, Elizabeth. Her brother Edward and her sisters had married, so there were nephews and nieces to be met and fondled. Still, her visit was hardly the triumphant return to the home town that Peggy had conjured up in her lively mind.
Snobbish Philadelphians disapproved of her frequent references to “his Majesty.” Old friends, even some relatives, snubbed her on the streets. Knots of people gathered in front of her father’s house to stare coldly as the “traitor’s wife” came and went. “How difficult it is,” she wrote sister Betsy in the summer of 1790, a few weeks after her return to St. John, “to know what will contribute to our happiness in this life. I had hoped that by paying my beloved friends a last visit, I should insure to myself some portion of it, but I find it far otherwise.”
Peggy wrote that it was cold in New Brunswick that summer. Gloomy fogs were rolling in from the sea and an epidemic of influenza was raging. She could have mentioned other troubles. Her husband was widely disliked. When, shortly before Peggy’s trip south, the traitor’s waterfront warehouse burned to the ground, gossiping tongues said he had set the fire to collect the insurance, although one of his older sons was asleep in the building at the time and barely escaped with his life, and Arnold himself was thousands of miles away on a trading jaunt. Subsequently he and his partner, Munson Hayt, parted company under unpleasant circumstances. Hayt said the General and his wife had cheated him of £700. In a legal plea he admitted proclaiming “with a loud voice” that Arnold had burned his own warehouse. He contended it was not in his power to blacken Arnold’s character because it was already “as black as it can be.” The General countered with a suit for slander. He won, but the judge, a Loyalist from New Jersey, awarded him only two shillings and sixpence instead of the £5,000 damages he had asked.