Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath Of Treason

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Arnold died at six thirty in the morning of Sunday, June 14, 1801. With Napoleon scourging the continent, the London press had little space for the demise of an unpopular figure. The Post, violently at odds with the ministry headed by the younger Pitt, observed that “Poor General Arnold has departed this world without notice; a sorry reflection this for the Pitts and … other turncoats.” European Magazine dismissed him as “a person much noticed during the American War.” Although Gentleman’s Magazine later ran a two-column obituary, its original account was brief. “Died,” it read, “at his house in Gloucesterplace, Brigadier-General Arnold. His remains were interred on the 21st at Brompton. Seven mourning-coaches and four state-carriages formed the cavalcade.” Even this terse notice was in error. Arnold was not buried in Brompton. He rests today, as does Peggy, on the other side of the Thames in the crypt of the little copper-spired Church of St. Mary, Battersea.

Ann Fitch conveyed the details to Philadelphia. “My sister & myself were with Mrs. Arnold when her husband expired,” she informed Judge Shippen, “she evinces upon this occasion—as you know she has done upon many trying ones before—that fortitude & resignation, which a superior & well regulated mind only is capable of exerting.”

In truth Peggy’s mind was just barely equal to the ordeal. That deep down she was a woman of extraordinary fortitude, all the known facts of her life attest. But her nerves lay close to the surface. The slightest jar set them to thrumming. When she was able to write her father, she confessed that the General’s death had reduced her to a “despairing state.” At one period, convinced that her wretchedness was embittering the lives of her children, she had considered suicide. To her brother-in-law, Edward Burd, she confided that “my sufferings are not of the present moment only,—Years of unhappiness have past, I had cast my lot, complaints were unavailing, and you and my other friends, are ignorant of the many causes of uneasiness I have had.” Yet a year after Arnold’s death she was writing to her surviving stepsons in Canada, “Although I have suffered, in my choice of evils, almost beyond human endurance, I now repent not at having made it.”

During the little stretch of life left to Peggy she managed to pay off every one of her husband’s ascertainable debts. These, according to her own estimate, came to “upwards of £6,000.” Her father helped her with occasional remittances, but she did most of it herself by stringent economies. She sold her furniture, moving from the handsome home on Gloucester Place to a cheaper one on nearby Bryanston Street. The furniture for this “small but very neat house” she purchased from a servant who, as she observed in one of her letters, “is now a more independent woman than her mistress.”

Even as Peggy struggled with her late husband’s obligations, she contrived to put her younger children in good schools and to help her older ones get a good start in life. Letter after letter bespeaks the intensity of her affection and concern for her “uncommonly excellent” sons and her “dear, handsome Sophia.” In the dark months following Arnold’s death she wrote her father that she was counting “my blessings”—four sons and a daughter who had never given her “a moment’s uneasiness,” whose goodness was “a never-failing source of delight.”

All of them, as well as her stepsons in America, lived respectable and successful if not distinguished lives, unhindered by their father’s reputation.

For years Peggy’s health had been erratic. On July 3, 1803, she wrote her sister from Chambers Farm, Epping, a country home in Essex, that she had “been much of an invalid lately” and had “found it necessary to consult our two first medical men, in the female line, Doctors Denman & Clarke. They have ascertained it to be a complaint of the womb. … It is now several weeks since I have eaten animal food, or tasted wine, beer or any thing heating … and I am obliged to keep almost constantly in a recumbent posture.” On November 2, 1803, she informed her father simply and forthrightly that the doctors had given a name to her “long-standing” illness. It was “a cancer,” she told him in a short note written from London.

Suffering terribly, confined most of the time to a prone position, she continued to correspond with him. “I have been indeed very near death,” she wrote on May 14, 1804; ”… my complaints are such, as to give me little hope of long continuing an Inhabitant of this world. … I trust I bear this heavy affliction with great resignation; and I do not suffer my spirits to overcome me.” On July 15 she wrote what appears to have been her last letter to her father: