Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Meeting Notes: May 22, 2013

Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America," Stephen Case

What did Peggy Shippen know and when did she know it?

 These and other questions about the life of Shippen (also known as Mrs. Benedict Arnold) were answered by Stephen H. Case at the May 22 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. Case and Mark Jacob are co-authors of the recently published book “Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America”.

Born on June 11, 1760 Shippen was the fourth child and youngest daughter of Edward Shippen, IV and Margaret Francis Shippen. They were a prominent Philadelphia family, and Edward Shippen served as a judge and member of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania.

At the age of 14 Peggy Shippen first met George Washington when her parents held a dinner in September 1774 to honor the members of the First Continental Congress. Washington was a member of the Virginia delegation.

When fighting broke out between Great Britain and its American colonies, Edward Shippen tried to steer a neutral course. Although some historians describe Shippen as a loyalist or loyalist sympathizer, Case told the Roundtable there is no evidence of this assertion, and noted how Shippen remained a judge in Philadelphia even after the War at a time when Philadelphia loyalists were routinely rounded up and deported, and sometimes hanged.

In November 1777 William Howe’s British army captured Philadelphia. During the one-year of British occupation the Shippens held frequent social gatherings at their home which British officers attended, including a young officer named John Andre who served on General Howe’s staff. Andre became good friends with 17-year-old Peggy Shippen, and once drew a pen-and-ink sketch of her in one of her party dresses. Contrary to assertions by some historians, Case said that Andre and Shippen were merely close friends and never lovers.

After the British evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778 the Continental army re-occupied the city. Washington named Benedict Arnold to the position of military governor of Philadelphia, believing that Arnold could serve in an administrative position while he continued to recover from the severe leg wound he received one year earlier at Saratoga. At this stage of the war Arnold was one of America’s great heroes. In fact Case said that Arnold was “the greatest field commander on either side”.

Peggy Shippen and Arnold first met approximately two weeks after he arrived in Philadelphia. It was basically love at first sight for Arnold, and Shippen enjoyed all of the attention she received from Philadelphia’s new military governor. The courtship was on, and they were married on April 8, 1779. Shippen was 18 years old while Arnold was age 38, a widower and the father of three sons.

During this time period Arnold ran into difficulties with the way he conducted his official duties. He was charged with eight counts of malfeasance of command by Pennsylvania authorities led by Joseph Reed, the president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council. While most of the charges were generally regarded as minor, a formal court-martial was conducted and Arnold was found guilty of the improper use of army wagons for personal business. His official punishment was a simple reprimand by his commanding officer, George Washington.

Shortly after his marriage to Shippen and his trial for malfeasance of command, Arnold contacted the British about the possibility of changing sides. One of the primary intermediaries between Arnold and Sir Henry Clinton was John Andre, Shippen’s old friend from two years earlier when the British occupied Philadelphia. After Arnold was named commander of the American defenses at West Point, Arnold and the British hatched a plan where Arnold would gradually weaken the defenses of West Point, making it easier for the British to capture it. They also hoped to capture (and maybe hang) George Washington during his upcoming visit to this American fort.

Unfortunately for Arnold and the British, John Andre was captured on September 23, 1780 with incriminating documents concerning the plot, which were forwarded up the chain of American command to Washington. In fact Washington had arrived that morning in West Point to meet with Arnold on routine business when word circulated about the plot between Arnold and the British. Arnold also received word about Andre’s capture and was able to escape to a British ship.

Shippen remained behind and acted shocked and hysterical in front of Washington’s entourage, pretending to know nothing about her husband’s treason and fearing for her life and that of her six-month-old infant. According to Case, she put on a performance “as if she’s in an opera”. Apparently Shippen’s performance was also worthy of an Oscar because Washington and his staff were convinced that she knew nothing about the plot and was merely another victim of Arnold’s treachery toward his country. Washington gave her the choice of going through the British lines to Arnold or returning to her parents’ house in Philadelphia. She chose her parents’ home.

However, she was soon banished from Philadelphia after further investigations revealed an old letter from John Andre to Shippen. She rejoined Arnold behind British lines in New York City where she remained until December 15, 1781 when she and Arnold sailed to London. Initially they were warmly welcomed in Great Britain. 

In 1785 Arnold turned to the shipping business and moved to New Brunswick, Canada. The business did poorly and Arnold returned to Britain in 1791. His business ventures continued to decline and his debts mounted until his death in June 1801 at the age of 61. Shippen lived only three years after his death, and at the age of 44 died from ovarian cancer in August 1804. She left behind five children and three stepchildren.

Did Peggy Shippen lead Arnold astray? Case said she did and pushed Arnold toward the British for the money. She was also the person who knew John Andre and several Philadelphia loyalists who served as intermediaries between Arnold and the British when Arnold first considered changing sides. Case also noted that the neutrality of the Shippen family regarding the war was a contributing factor toward Shippen’s willingness to support Arnold’s treachery since money was more important to her than politics.

Did Joseph Reed have a major impact on Arnold’s decision to join the British? Case said he did and characterized Reed by joking, “That stinker was a jerk!” Case said that the charges Reed brought against Arnold were very trivial and done mainly for political purposes. Reed felt his political power was threatened by the appointment of Arnold to govern Philadelphia, so Reed did what he could to undercut the Saratoga war hero.

Historians have speculated for many years as to why Benedict Arnold turned traitor. There are several theories and of course Arnold was ultimately the one responsible for his treachery. However, Case asserted that Arnold probably wouldn’t have changed sides if not for the strong encouragement and assistance he received from Shippen and the public attacks he received in the newspapers and in court hearings that were caused by Reed.  
-Bill Seward 

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