October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
The traitor was not destitute, but his family's life was not comfortable after the Revolutionary War.
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.”
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.
For a few weeks Arnold’s name figured prominently in the local press. He attended court at St. James’s Palace. Sir Walter Stirling, a London banker and a relative of Mrs. Arnold’s, introduced him to the king, and reporters spotted him strolling in the public gardens in intimate conversation with his Majesty and the Prince of Wales. From Paris, Benjamin Franklin wrote to America that “we hear much of audiences given to Arnold, and his being present at councils.” On the fourth of February the Daily Advertiser announced that Arnold was “shortly to return back to America, and to have the command of the Loyalists, a Prosecution of the War having been determined upon.” This report was singularly inaccurate, since the day was near when Parliament would compel King George to make peace with his “revolted colonies” and recognize their independence.
Peggy was not slighted. On Monday, February 10, Lady Amherst presented her at court: the king pronounced her “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” and the queen instructed her ladies “to pay much attention to her.”
But if a mild warmth suffused the reception of the Arnolds in some quarters, something closer to contempt was apparent in others. The March issue of London’s widely-read Gentleman’s Magazine quoted a peer of the realm who complained bitterly about “placing at the King’s elbow a man perhaps the most obnoxious to the feelings of the Americans of any in the King’s dominions at the moment the House was addressing his Majesty to put an end to the American war.” In the Commons, Edmund Burke expressed the hope that the government would not put the traitor “at the head of a part of a British army” lest “the sentiments of true honor, which every British officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted.”
Burke need not have worried. With the fall of the war ministry in March of 1782, what little prestige Arnold had enjoyed in London came to an end. He remained a general, which is to say he was so addressed; but England gave him no military post and his anxious and frequently repeated efforts to obtain one were fruitless. In 1784, restless and without occupation, he applied for a position with the East India Company. The answer to his application, written by George Johnstone, a director of the company, was a masterpiece of icy English honesty. The gist of it was that even successful traitors are “seldom greatly loved” by their beneficiaries. As a traitor who had failed, Arnold could never hope for employment with the powerful East India Company.
The Arnolds’ first home in London was on Portman Square. During the years to come they would occupy a succession of leased houses in this new and moderately fashionable neighborhood, a short distance northeast of what is now Marble Arch at the juncture of Oxford Street and Park Lane. Several American Loyalists lived in the area. Peggy established a lasting friendship with Ann and Sarah Fitch and their brother William, members of a once well known New England family. She visited regularly at the Fitches’ country home in Essex and frequently accompanied them to Bath and other watering spots.
As Arnold receded from prominence, so did Peggy, although in her case the shift was more a matter of choice than of necessity. As late as 1785 she was still highly esteemed in London. A visiting Philadelphian informed his wife that Mrs. Arnold “is an amiable lady, and was her husband dead would be much noticed.” According to her sympathetic but conscientious biographer and descendant, Lewis Burd Walker, however, Peggy made little or no effort to capitalize on her personal popularity. “We have no account,” Walker writes, “of her being present at any scene of gayety and pleasure.” Shock and suffering had left their mark. Those who had known the party-loving belle of Revolutionary Philadelphia would scarcely have recognized the devoted wife and mother of Portman Square. Repeatedly in her letters home she spoke of her “struggle to keep up an appearance” for the sake of her “children’s rising prospects.”
At the time of her arrival in England her American-born sons, Edward and James, were both under two years old. A boy and a girl, born in 1783 and 1784, died in infancy, but 1785 saw the birth of a daughter, Sophia, who though often ill lived to become a dear companion to her mother. Later came two more sons: George, born in 1787; and William, who, arriving in 1798, long after the others, was spoken of as Little William. Arnold already had three sons by his first wife, Benedict, Richard, and Henry, all of whom had remained in the United States. It tells us much about Peggy that she gave thoughtful love and attention to her stepsons. When, in his twenty-fourth year, Richard wrote that he had fallen in love, Peggy did not hesitate to express the hope, in a long, warm letter, that he would refrain from marrying the young woman “till you are enabled to support her in a comfortable style.”
She was unfailingly kind to the traitor’s only surviving sister, who had taken over the care of the three eldest sons after the death of their mother in 1775. Hannah Arnold openly resented her brother’s second marriage. She once wrote him a spinsterish letter, accusing his young wife of “frequent assignations” with “a certain chancellor,” meaning Robert R. Livingston of New York. The General displayed no jealousy, presumably because none was justified. No straying from matrimonial rectitude can be attributed to Peggy Arnold, whose letters reveal a strong religious bent, strangely Calvinistic for a woman brought up in the relative leniency of the Church of England. “These things,” she once observed of a shower of personal misfortunes, “are wisely ordained by the Almighty for some good purpose, and His justice and mercy we cannot doubt.”
In the early years of their exile the Arnolds were free of financial worry. Arnold’s “rewards” for treason were substantial. During the long negotiations with the British prior to his attempt to betray West Point, he had demanded £20,000 if he succeeded, £10,000 if he did not. Sir Henry Clinton agreed to the £20,000 for success, but would go no higher than £6,000 for failure. On October 18, 1780, only a few weeks after the collapse of the conspiracy, Arnold was paid this amount plus £315 for “expenses.” These sums were but the beginning. Although in 1780 Benedict, Jr., the eldest of the traitor’s sons by his earlier marriage, was only twelve, he was given a commission in the British Army carrying half pay for life; and in 1781 his younger brothers were commissioned on the same terms. Arnold himself, during his active service in the British Army, received a provincial brigadier’s pay, £650 a year. When the treaty of peace was signed in 1783, this fell to £225, the half pay of a cavalry colonel. The traitor also profited handsomely from his marauding expedition to Virginia, which seized American shipping on the James. Arnold’s share of the prize money appears to have been in excess of £2,000.
Shortly before the general left New York he dispatched £5,000 of his capital to London, where his broker then converted it into £7,000 worth of four per cent consolidated annuities. Subsequent to the Arnolds’ arrival in the British capital, the king added to their fortunes. On March 17, 1782, George informed his paymaster that it “is Our will and pleasure … that an annuity or yearly pension of five hundred pounds be … paid … unto Mrs. Arnold, wife of our trusty and well beloved Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.…” At about the same time, the British government provided for Peggy’s children, including those yet unborn, each of them getting a pension of eighty pounds net per year. Historians differ as to what dollar value can be placed on Arnold’s compensations for treason. One puts it as high as $120,000 in modern purchasing power; another as low as $55,000. Whatever the proper figure, the Arnolds could have lived on their income comfortably, indeed “genteelly,” for an indefinite period had the General been content. But to say that Benedict Arnold was never content is to epitomize his life.
In 1785 he submitted to the Commissioners on Loyalist Claims a “memorial” requesting £16,125 over and above the monies he had already received. He described this additional sum as a “moderate computation” of the losses he had incurred by coming over to the British.
One of his claims dealt with Mount Pleasant, the baronial country seat near Philadelphia that he had purchased in the spring of 1779 as a wedding present for Peggy. After exposure of his treason, the Pennsylvania authorities confiscated Mount Pleasant. Arnold said it was worth £5,000—£1,000 above a contemporary American appraisal; he did not add that his father-in-law had purchased the property from the Pennsylvania authorities and was holding it for his daughter. Another of Arnold’s claims was even emptier. Writing in the third person, he told the British commissioners that “in consequence of his loyalty and engagements with Sir Henry Clinton he [had] refused the command of the American Army in South Carolina, offered him … by Washington, which was afterwards given to [Major General Nathanael] Greene, who (the memorialist is informed) has been rewarded by the states of the Carolinas and Virginia with the sum of £20,000 sterling for his services, which would probably have been given to the memorialist had he accepted the command.” As a matter of fact Washington had never offered the South Carolina command to Arnold. Perhaps the hollow foundation of these claims eventually bothered the traitor himself. On April 26, 1786, he withdrew his memorial to the commissioners, explaining in a letter inscribed on gilt-edged paper that Clinton had compensated him for his losses, and that his wife had received her pension.
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.
During the Arnolds’ last year in St. John, 1791, the long-standing dislike of the General assumed violent form. In the spring a mob overran the front lawn of his home. The angrily shouting citizens were burning an effigy labeled “traitor” when the troops arrived to disperse them. A few weeks later the Arnolds signalled their imminent departure for England with an advertisement in the Royal Gazette offering their New Brunswick properties for sale. The household items listed in the newspaper included “a set of elegant cabriole chairs covered with blue damask, sopha to correspond,” a “desert set of Wedgewood Gilt Ware,” “a Terrestrial Globe,” and “a Lady’s elegant Saddle and Bridle.” They sailed on New Year’s day. On the following February 26 Arnold wrote his agent in St. John, Jonathan Bliss, that their reception in London had “been very pleasant … and I cannot help viewing your great city as a shipwreck from which I have escaped.”
Actually little in the way of better fortune awaited him in England. In the spring of 1792 the Earl of Lauderdale made a slighting remark about him in the House of Lords. Arnold challenged, and on June 26 Peggy wrote her father to ignore a “paragraph” in the “public Papers of a few days back … mentioning that Genl. A is killed in a Duel with the Earl of Lauderdale. This was for some time so generally believed, that our friends were flocking to the house, to condole. …” In fact, Peggy revealed, the duel was still in the offing and her “situation” remained “a very unhappy one, till the Affair is settled; but I call all my fortitude to my aid, to prevent my sinking under it, which would unman him [Arnold] and prevent his acting himself—I am perfectly silent on the subject; for weak Woman as I am, I would not wish to prevent what would be deemed necessary to preserve his honor.”
Fortunately, on July 6 Peggy could write her father that the duel had come and gone with nobody the worse. “The time appointed,” she reported, “was seven o’clock on Sunday morning last—Mr. Charles Fox, as second to Lord Lauderdale; Lord Hawke, the General’s. It was agreed that they should fire at the same time, upon a word given, which the General did without effect.” Then Lord Lauderdale “refused to fire,” and after a short parley apologized to Arnold’s satisfaction. Peggy added that it “has been highly gratifying to find the General’s conduct so much applauded.”
Encouraged by the favorable publicity arising from his encounter with Lauderdale, Arnold renewed his pleas for a government post, preferably military. A recommendation from Sir Henry Clinton, a string of letters from Arnold—nothing availed, and in 1794 he returned to his old trade on the high seas.
England and France were at war. French privateers were roaming the English Channel. While Arnold was waiting to embark in Falmouth, a storm-beaten ship heading for America came in to port. Among its passengers was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, later to win fame as Napoleon’s foreign minister, then a refugee from the Jacobin rulers of republican France. That night Talleyrand had an experience worth noting: it records Arnold’s only known mention in conversation, following his departure from America, of the country he had betrayed. Talleyrand wrote in his memoirs:
The innkeeper at whose place I had my meals informed me that one of his lodgers was an American general. Thereupon I expressed the desire of seeing that gentleman, and, shortly after, I was introduced to him. After the usual exchange of greetings … I ventured to request from him some letters of introduction to his friends in America. “No,” he replied, and after a few moments of silence, noticing my surprise, he added, “I am perhaps the only American who cannot give you letters for his own country … all the relations I had there are now broken … I must never return to the States.” He dared not tell me his name. It was General Arnold. I must confess that I felt much pity for him, for which political puritans will perhaps blame me, but with which I do not reproach myself, for I witnessed his agony.
Late June of 1794 found Arnold approaching Pointe-a-Pitre on the Guadeloupe island of GrandeTerre, unaware that this busy West Indian trading center, recently seized by the British, had been even more recently recovered by the French. Arnold assumed the ships in its narrow harbor to be British. Discovering his mistake too late to turn back, he landed boldly and identified himself as an American merchant named John Anderson—an interesting touch since “John Anderson” was the fictional name Major André had used in the treason negotiations.
His masquerade was unsuccessful. Suspecting him of being English, the French hustled him aboard a prison ship in the harbor, thus setting in train the sequence of adventures that gives a last thrilling glimpse of the old Arnold, the daring, resourceful, and valiant Arnold of Quebec and Bemis Heights.
He had managed to hold on to his money—some £5,000 which he had brought for trading—and he soon put small amounts of it to good use as bribes. He learned that a British fleet was now blockading the harbor; he also heard that he was slated for the gallows. Further bribes to his guards put him in touch with the British flagship Boyne and procured the equipment he needed. On June 29, 1794, as the sultry, tropical evening became night and the tide turned, Arnold placed his money and other valuables in a cask and dropped it overboard—a gamble that worked, for later the cask washed ashore below Pointe-à-Pitre, where a British landing force had encamped.
In the late dark hours, Arnold slid down a rope to a small raft that was waiting for him. On this he made his way to a rowboat that had been anchored in the harbor, and then pulled for the British fleet as fast—and as quietly—as he could. At one point he had to outrow a French cutter that hailed him: clever work with his own smaller, more maneuverable boat got him away in the darkness. At four o’clock in the morning the built-up shoe that Arnold wore on his shrunken wounded leg pounded the deck boards of the Boyne.
Off and on for the next two years he served as a volunteer officer under Sir Charles Grey, the general commanding the British land forces in the West Indies. He organized the supply service and acted as an agent for the British planters affected by the slow British retreat from Guadeloupe and other French West Indian possessions. Once more he tried to obtain a permanent and suitable post in the British Army. Once more his requests met with refusal; he told his wife that the British would not even let him seek a soldier’s death.
Still, his last military efforts did not go unrewarded. A committee of West Indian planters and merchants drew up a resolution, thanking him for “beneficial” services. As a former Loyalist officer on half pay, he was granted 13,400 acres of Crown land in Quebec. This, however, did not provide him with immediate financial returns.
Dwindling finances were not the traitor’s only problem. In 1795 Benedict, the eldest of his sons by his first wife, died in Jamaica of gangrene, after being wounded while fighting with the British. In May of 1800, Sophia, his and Peggy’s only daughter, had a paralytic stroke that left her a semi-invalid for life. A month later Edward, their favorite son, left for India as an officer in the British engineers. “His death,” Peggy told sister Betsy, “could scarcely be a more severe stroke.”
Even before Edward had completed the tedious five-months’ voyage to his post at Cawnpore, Peggy was penning him a long letter, outlining the doleful state into which her husband’s privateering ventures had fallen. Such “insignificant prizes” as Arnold’s captains had taken, she complained, had caused her husband “more trouble than profit” because of the legal formalities involved in their condemnation. She added that the petty officers on her husband’s ships were throwing out “some very broad hints that handsome fortunes have been made by ransoming Ships at sea, but as we have not proof we must sit down quietly with the loss. … [Arnold] is, at present, in the most harassed wretched state that I have ever seen him. Disappointed in his highly raised expectations, harassed by the Sailors who are loudly demanding their prize-money, when in fact their advances have greatly exceeded anything that is due to them, and wishing still to do something, without the health or power of acting, he knows not which way to turn himself.” Peggy herself tended to much of her husband’s business. Her own informed view was that Arnold’s skippers had “done” him out of “about £50,000.”
Most of this unhappy letter was written on January 14, 1801. A few weeks later Arnold’s already broken health took a turn for the worse, following the renewal of a chronic cough contracted in the tropics. Gout attacked his unwounded leg; the other ached constantly, and he walked only with a cane. Overwhelmed by accumulated frustrations, he failed rapidly. His face became deeply wrinkled; only the blue eyes reminded his friends of the old Arnold.
In the early summer Peggy took him to Galleywood, near Chelmsford, to spend a week with her friends Ann and Sarah Fitch. The General seemed to improve in the country air, but following their return to London, he was much worse. His doctors’ diagnosis was dropsy, and on June 10 he became delirious.
Legend has it that as death approached he called for his old American uniform and said he wished he had never removed it. Historians generally discredit this as inconsistent with his conviction that nothing he chose to do could be wrong. Quite possibly his only regrets were that he had failed to deliver West Point to the British, and that his lifelong struggle for fame and fortune had brought him only infamy and debts.
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:
… sincere thanks for your very acceptable present, which came most opportunely, having been obliged to incur a great many unavoidable expenses … [I am] constantly under the effects of opium, to relieve a pain which would otherwise be intolerable. … Mr. [Robert R.] Livingston, your Minister to Paris, called upon me several times during his stay in London, where he was not very well received. —He appears completely to have adopted French principles, and French ideas.—I have written this in great haste, and am always obliged to write while laying down, which is indeed almost wholly my position.—Pray remember me most tenderly to all the family, and believe me, my beloved Parent, most truly and affectionately
Death came on August 24, 1804. She was only forty-four, but she had lived long enough to have been able to write her stepsons during the preceding summer, “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.”
The note of quiet triumph was understandable. As a devoted wife and mother, faithful to her bargains and gallant under strain, the lovely Mrs. Benedict Arnold had made a good ending to an ill-starred life.