Childhood & Early Life
Peggy Shippen was born as Margaret Shippen on July 11, 1760 in colonial Philadelphia. Nicknamed Peggy, she was the fourth daughter of Edward Shippen IV and Margaret Francis. She had three older sisters and an elder brother.
Peggy belonged to a renowned family of Philadelphia. While her father served as a judge and a member of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, her ancestral family included two Philadelphia mayors and founder of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.
As a child, Peggy enjoyed music, doing needlework, and drawing. She participated in the study of politics. She was mostly homeschooled by her father who briefed the young girl in politics, finance and national security. He also taught her about the forces that led to American Revolution.
The influential status of the family helped Peggy be in the thick of matters during the American Revolution. She met extremists—loyalists who supported British rule and rebel who sought for American independence. Though her family tried to be of neutral opinion, their preferences leaned towards British.
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In 1777, when British captured Philadelphia, Shippen family held social gathering. It was at these gatherings that Peggy first met John Andre. Andre was an officer in General William Howe's command. When France entered war in June 1778, André left Philadelphia with his fellow troops. The two, however, remained in touch.
Following her wedding to Benedict Arnold in 1779, Peggy took up residency in Arnold's military headquarters, the Masters-Penn mansion. While living in military headquarters, Peggy rekindled her friendship with Major John Andre, who was then General Clinton’s spy chief. Her friendship with Andre laid the foundation for future treacherous work carried out between the two.
When and how did Peggy turn into a spy is unknown but it happened sometime after her marriage and when she befriended Andre yet again. It is said that Peggy prompted the correspondence between Benedict Arnold and John André and sent military secrets to the British before her wedding.
In May 1779, Arnold hired Joseph Stansbury to initiate communications and offered his service to the British. Later, when General Clinton gave Major André orders to pursue the possibility of rendering Arnold’s service, communications began between André and Arnold. Arnold, in exchange of information that would help the British to win the war, wanted huge sum of money. A deal was made.
Peggy played a crucial role in the deal that was made between Arnold and Andre. Historians believe that it was she who tailored the connection between the two. She was a friend of Andre much prior to Arnold and it was she who instigated Arnold to make a deal with Andre right after their wedding.
Apart from building a connection between Andre and Arnold, Peggy also served as the medium for exchanging information. Arnold wrote coded information in her hand using invisible ink which she transmitted easily to Andre. She also transmitted information through coded actions.
Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold who had resigned from his post in Philadelphia in March 1779, took up command of West Point, a critical American defence post in the highlands of the Hudson River.
Taking advantage of the critical position that he had, Arnold systematically weakened the defence system of the Americans by sending vital information, such as how many troops were stationed at the fort and when defences might be weakest, to the British
Benedict Arnold also damaged the Americans’ hold on the fort by purposely not making the needed improvements, using up supplies and sending troops on unnecessary missions.
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On September 20, 1780, Arnold handed over top secret information that included detailed documents and maps about the fortification at West Point and of the planned surrender of the critical Continental Army base at West Point to Andre on the assumption that British government would soon want to capture the site. However, the plan backfired.
Three days after receiving the top secret information, while Andre was on his journey back to the British territory, he was caught. The papers and maps that he was carrying not just exposed the plot but also jeopardized and put Arnold in a fix. It was two days later that Arnold received the information of Andre’s capture, the same morning that General George Washington was coming over for breakfast at Arnold’s house.
Upon receiving the information of Andre’s capture, Arnold first rushed to Peggy to brief her about the event and later on moved to the HMS Vulture on the Hudson River.
Peggy, who was smart enough, managed to convince General George Washington and his staff, about her ignorance in the whole matter. However, all this was a hoax in order to buy time for Arnold to get safely to the River.
With Arnold underground, Peggy moved back to Philadelphia. Though she very well knew of Arnold’s whereabouts, when asked, she always pretended innocent and completely unaware.
In the meantime, while government officials were looking for Benedict Arnold, Philadelphia authorities found the ‘millinery letter’ exchanged between Andre and Peggy. Written by Andre who was then based at British-occupied New York, the letter was a proof of Peggy’s involvement as a spy and her connection in the treason.
The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania expatriated Peggy from Philadelphia. In November 1780, escorted by her father, Peggy moved to the shores of Hudson where she boarded a boat to New York City, thus joining Arnold.
Meanwhile, after a strenuous military trial, Major André was labelled as a common spy and was sentenced to death. He was hanged at Tappan, New York and later re-interred in London's Westminster Abbey.
The Arnolds left for London on December 15, 1781, where they were welcomed by the Queen Charlotte. For her service, Peggy was awarded an annuity of 100 pound sterling for the maintenance of her children.
In 1789, Peggy briefly returned to Philadelphia, to visit her parents and family. Despite the influential position of her family, she was looked down upon as a traitor and treated coldly by the citizens. As such, she moved to New Brunswick where Benedict Arnold was temporarily settled. The duo then set sail for England in 1791 and spent the rest of their lives in London.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1778, Peggy first met future husband Benedict Arnold, a continental military commander of Philadelphia. Benedict Arnold was twenty years older to her and a widower with three children. Arnold also had eight charges against corruption and malfeasance with the money of the federal and state governments against him. He was convicted of two minor offences. The two courted each other despite huge differences. Peggy and Benedict Arnold tied the nuptial knot on April 8, 1779.
The couple welcomed their first son, Edward Shippen Arnold, on March 19, 1780. Their second son James Robertson was born in August 1781. After the birth of two more children who died in infancy, Peggy gave birth to their third surviving child Sophia Matilda Arnold. Later on, she mothered two more sons, George in 1787 and William Fitch in 1794.
Benedict Arnold breathed his last in 1801. Three years later, in 1804, Peggy too died of cancer at her home. She was buried alongside her husband at St Mary’s Church in Battersea.