Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot

Khalid Elhassan - October 31, 2018

Peggy Shippen, the beautiful, vivacious, and charismatic wife of infamous American Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold, was long thought to have been innocent of any wrongdoing – just another dupe taken in by her husband’s deceit. Much of that was driven by sexist assumptions, prevalent in her day and throughout much of subsequent history, about the passive role of women. Between that, and a reluctance to believe that women might be prime movers and key actors behind significant events, Peggy Shippen’s role in her husband’s treason has long been overlooked and minimized.

As it turns out, she was far more intelligent, and far more of a key player, than she was given credit for. As historians have discovered, Peggy Shippen had actually been up to her pretty eyelashes in her husband’s treachery. Not only did it turn out that she had been an active and hands-on participant in Benedict Arnold’s negotiations with the British to turncoat and sell out the Americans, but she might have actually initiated the whole treasonous plot.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
Peggy Shippen, as sketched by John Andre. Pinterest

The Treasonous Triangle: Peggy Shippen, Andre, and Arnold

Margaret “Peggy” Shippen (1760 – 1804) was the youngest surviving child of a prosperous Philadelphia family, whose ancestors included two mayors. Her father was a prominent lawyer, a member of Pennsylvania’s Provincial Council, and a judge, while her mother was a socialite and the daughter of a prominent lawyer. When the Revolutionary War broke out, her father adopted studied neutrality, but his leanings were pro-British. In September of 1777, the British captured Philadelphia and occupied the city for almost a year. During the British occupation, the Shippen family held social gatherings that were attended by British officers, and it was at one of these gatherings that Peggy first came into contact with British captain John Andre.

John Andre (1750 – 1780) joined the British Army in 1771, and was posted to Canada in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolutionary War. A likeable character, he was popular in colonial society in New York as well as Philadelphia, where he was posted for a time after its capture by the British. It was during this period that he met, befriended, and most likely had an affair with Peggy Shippen. After the British were forced out of Philadelphia, Andre and Peggy kept in touch, exchanging letters across enemy lines. Through that line of contact, and through Peggy herself, John Andre would reel Benedict Arnold into treason.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
John Andre. Wikimedia

The name of the final party in the treasonous trio, Patriot General Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801), has become an epithet, synonymous with betrayal. He was probably the most capable combat commander on the rebels’ side before a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to turn coat. Before that, Arnold had provided valuable service to the Patriots and played a leading role early in the war in capturing Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain to capture Quebec. It failed, but he demonstrated extraordinary leadership in getting his men to the outskirts of Quebec.

In 1776, Arnold constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain, with which he defeated a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, his successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against Arnold. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, he was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors. Only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented Arnold’s resignation.

He then repelled a British attack in Connecticut and was finally promoted to major general, but his seniority was not restored – another slight that ate at him. Arnold again sought to resign, but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in halting the British advance into upstate New York in 1777 and was instrumental in bringing about its defeat. It culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and was severely injured.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
Benedict Arnold. Wikimedia

The Treasonous Couple

Crippled by his wounds at Saratoga, Benedict Arnold was put in charge of Philadelphia, where he took to socializing with loyalist families, such as the Shippens, as well as to extravagant living, which he financed with questionable dealings. While in Philadelphia, he met, fell in love with, and married the much younger Peggy Shippen – she was 18, while he was 38. Her spendthrift habits soon put him deep in debt. Her Loyalist leanings soon put him deep in treason. Within a month of the marriage, Peggy put him in contact with her former lover, John Andre, by then, chief of British intelligence. Arnold began negotiating with the British the price of treason.

Peggy used her seemingly innocent correspondence across enemy lines as cover for her husband’s treasonous correspondence with the British. Arnold would write his correspondence with the enemy in invisible ink, then Peggy would pen innocent fluff on top of it in her own handwriting. Upon receipt, John Andre’s spy shop would apply chemicals to Peggy’s letter, which reacted with and revealed the invisible ink letter in Arnold’s hand beneath.

In 1779, Andre was promoted to the rank of major and placed in charge of gathering intelligence for the British. At the time, the war in the northern colonies had entered a stalemate, following the collapse of the British campaign of 1777, which had aimed to split New England from New York and Pennsylvania. The plan remained viable, however, provided the British could control the Hudson River. Were that to happen, the British could sail north from their base of operations in New York City, deep into upstate New York. From there, the British could interdict communications with New England, or even launch an invasion into that region. Aware of that threat, the Patriots built strong fortifications on bluffs overlooking the Hudson at West Point, upstream from New York City and choking off the river to enemy navigation. Capturing West Point became a Holy Grail for the British.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
A French map of West Point in 1780. Wikimedia

By 1780, Benedict Arnold had resigned his command of Philadelphia and got himself assigned to the command of West Point. That year, with Peggy Shippen as intermediary, and most likely at her prompting, Andre began communicating with Arnold to negotiate treason. Arnold agreed to deliver West Point to the British in exchange for £20,000 – about $3.7 million in 2018 US dollars. They met secretly in September of 1780, and Arnold gave Andre the plans for West Point, along with civilian clothes and a passport to get him through American lines. However, Andre was detained by an American patrol, and the incriminating documents were found on him.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
Self sketch of John Andre, on the eve of his execution. Wikimedia

Andre was sent back to the Continental Army headquarters, where he almost convinced his captors to send him to Benedict Arnold, whose treason had not yet been suspected. However, Patriot spies in New York had sent word that a high-ranking American officer had turned traitor, and that information stopped Andre, at the last minute, from getting sent to Arnold. Cross-checking the documents found on Andre with the intelligence gathered in New York undid the plot. During interrogation, Andre asked how he would be treated, and he was reminded of Nathan Hale, an American officer hanged by the British as a spy. When Andre asked if the situations were similar, the reply was: “Yes, precisely similar, and similar shall be your fate“. Andre was tried, convicted, and hanged as a spy on October 2nd, 1780.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
One of Peggy Shippen’s hand written letters, imposed over a secret letter by her husband, originally penned in invisible ink, negotiating treason with the British. Wikimedia

Unraveling and Aftermath

When Benedict Arnold received word on the morning of September 25th, 1780, that John Andre had been arrested, and that incriminating documents and maps of West Point had been found in his possession, he knew the jig was up. That same day, George Washington was scheduled to drop by to visit and inspect the fortifications. Arnold hurriedly told Peggy what had happened, and hoping that Washington would be too chivalrous to take it out on his wife, left her and their infant son behind, and made a dash for the safety of British lines.

Left to fend for herself, Peggy put on a stellar performance to convince everybody that she was just as shocked and surprised as they were by her husband’s treason. She went into histrionics, feigned a nervous breakdown, and started screaming incoherently, insisting that her husband was gone forever, and that somebody was trying to murder her baby. It worked, and Washington and the other Patriots believed that she was as much of a victim of Benedict Arnold’s deceit as they were themselves.

Fearing for her safety, she then traveled to Philadelphia to stay with her family. However, her innocent act began unraveling when authorities found a letter from John Andre to Peggy, written from British-occupied New York, that indicated her complicity in her husband’s treason. Sexism saved her: the authorities, assuming that she was an air-headed woman, incapable of independent thought or agency, reasoned that she simply did whatever her husband told her. That kept them from arresting, trying, and hanging her for treason – there was more than enough evidence for that, had they bothered. They did, however, banish her from Philadelphia, and sent her packing to join her husband in New York.

Peggy Shippen, Thought to Be Benedict Arnold’s Innocent Wife, Actually Initiated His Treasonous Plot
Peggy Shippen as played by Ksenia Solo in the AMC series TURN: Washington’s Spies. AMC Networks

As to Benedict Arnold, he was made a brigadier general in the British army and he led soldiers against the American side. However, the British never fully warmed to him, and after the war, he was unable to secure a regular commission in the British army. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before finally settling in London, where he died in 1801.

Peggy and her husband went to London in 1781. She was presented at court to the queen in February of 1782, and was awarded an annuity of 100 pounds – a handsome sum in those days. King George III also presented her with a handsome gift of £350 “for her services, which were meritorious“. The royal rewards made her the most highly compensated British spy during the American Revolution. She joined her husband in Canada, and made a brief visit to Philadelphia in 1789, but was given the cold shoulder by the locals. She and Arnold returned to Britain in 1791. After his death in 1801, she had to auction off their home and most of their possessions to pay off his debts. She died of cancer in 1804, and was buried with Benedict Arnold at Battersea.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Awesome Stories – Peggy Shippen, Wife of Benedict Arnold

Biography – Peggy Shippen (1760 – 1804)

History of American Women – Peggy Shippen Arnold

Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2016 – Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor Against the American Revolution

The Famous People – Peggy Shippen Biography

Wikipedia – Peggy Shippen

Slate – Was Benedict Arnold’s wife the real traitor?