Peggy Shippen Arnold, The Real Traitor?
Peggy Shippen Arnold, played by Julia Manning, pleads with two officers in a 1971 play about Benedict Arnold. Source: (Denver Post via Getty Images)
Benedict Arnold’s name is forever synonymous with being a traitor and with good reason. Arnold, history tells us, handed over the plans to West Point to Major John Andre, the head of British intelligence, during the Revolutionary War and then famously switched sides to fight for the British. But a more recent theory claims that Benedict Arnold may have just been a pawn and that the real mastermind behind America’s most famous act of treason was Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold.
Who was Benedict Arnold?
The Connecticut-born Benedict Arnold was a merchant sailor until the Revolutionary War started. He joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of Major General. General George Washington tasked him with fortifying and protecting West Point in 1780. Arnold had other plans. He took measures to weaken the fort’s defenses and supplied the enemy with the blueprints for the fort. Arnold’s plan was uncovered in September of 1780 and Arnold immediately fled to the British for protection. He joined the British Army and was given the rank of Brigadier General.
Who was Peggy Shippen Arnold?
The daughter of a well-to-do Philadelphia family, Peggy Shippen was young, beautiful, bubbly, and very much a Tory. She was interested in politics and staunchly supported the British. Her parents often hosted lavish parties in their home and invited many of the British officers stationed in Philadelphia.
Were Peggy and Major John Andre Romantically Involved?
One of the British officers that frequented the Shippen house was Major John Andre. Andre was the Benedict Arnold’s contact point for the British and the man to whom he gave American military secrets, including the defense plans for West Point. Prior to her marriage to Arnold, Peggy Shippen, and John Andre seemed to be courting. At parties, the two danced and flirted. Even after she married Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen stayed in close contact with Andre.
Benedict Arnold was Almost Twenty Years Older Than Peggy Shippen
Benedict Arnold was new to Philadelphia in 1778, having just been named the military governor of the city. Peggy, then just 18, met the 37-year-old widowed Arnold at a social gathering. Soon, Arnold, too, was a regular at the Shippen parties and had taken a keen interest in young Peggy. As unlikely as their relationship seemed, the two married on April 8, 1779. Was it true love? Or, as historians now wonder, did John Andre encourage the beautiful and politically-minded young Tory to get close to Arnold for nefarious reasons?
Benedict Arnold was in Trouble with the Military Before He Turned Traitor
Benedict Arnold was accused of corruption and misappropriation of government money in 1779 and he asked for a court-martial in an attempt to clear his name. Although he was eventually cleared of the charges, Arnold seemed disillusioned by the American military. He complained that he was passed over for promotions and assignments and that others were taking credit for his accomplishments. His dutiful wife, it seems, encouraged this attitude.
Turning Traitor Made the Arnolds Hated
Major Andre, still a close friend of Peggy’s, was discovered carrying Benedict Arnold’s secret documents, exposing the plot. Andre was arrested and hanged for being a spy. When Arnold’s treasonous acts were discovered and he fled to the British side, both he and his wife became the subject of hate from the Americans. Peggy Shippen Arnold once tried to visit her parents’ home in Philadelphia but was run out of town. The Arnolds moved to Canada and England and Benedict Arnold enjoyed success in the British military.
Was Peggy the Mastermind?
Years later, historians have found letters written by Peggy…some including code and invisible ink…that showed she was much more involved in her husband’s treason than originally thought. This has led many historians to wonder if Peggy and John Andre were more than just friends and if the two targeted Arnold and groomed him to be a spy for the British. If so, Arnold wouldn't be the first man to fall victim to a young, beautiful, politically-motivated temptress.