During the American Revolution, the young wife of Benedict Arnold, who became the Republic’s synonym for traitor, was never thought to be possibly part of her husband’s treason. How could a delicate and beautiful woman be part of something as villainous as committing treason? Except, as it turned out, all the allegations were right, and the general’s wife, in fact, played a huge role in Arnold’s treachery.
Born Into The Revolution Era
Margaret “Peggy” Shippen was born into a life surrounded by the turmoil of wars and revolution on July 11, 1760, in Philadelphia, just weeks before the French surrendered all of Canada. Her prominent family was politically divided, with her father, Judge Edward Shippen, holding a staggering array of colonial offices in the town of Philadelphia. At age five, she had already witnessed how people rioted in the streets just outside her father’s brick townhouse when resistance to British revenue measures heightened in the 1760s.
At 15, she was already used to listening to her parents’ dinner table arguments about politics with their guests like George Washington, John Adams, Silas Deane, and Benedict Arnold. There were also British officials and officers like General Thomas Gage and John Andre.
When Peggy turned 17, the British army occupied Philadelphia. At the same time, John Andre began expressing his romance for her through poetry.
In June 1778, the British withdrew from the city after France entered into the war. Andre had to leave Philadelphia with his fellow troops, although he and Peggy kept in touch. The Americans occupied the city and Benedict Arnold, who was an American hero, became Philadelphia’s military governor. When he met Peggy in the late summer of 1778, he couldn’t help but fall in love with her beauty and courted her despite the ongoing conflict between the Americans and the British. Arnold sent a letter to Judge Shippen to ask for her hand, who understandably didn’t agree with the idea at first. In the end, the wedding was permitted, and Shippen married Arnold by the spring of 1779. Thus, the be beginning of their journey to espionage.
Beginning of Espionage
As military governor of Philadelphia, Arnold was not without controversies of profiteering allegations. He turned to General George Washington for support, but the general chose to stay silent. On May 5, 1779, Arnold could not take the humiliation anymore, so he wrote a letter to Washington saying, “If Your Excellency thinks me criminal, for heaven’s sake let me be immediately tried and, if found guilty, executed.”
Arnold decided to turn to his wife with all the burdens he was carrying. Peggy then showed Arnold how to contact the British, which was through Andre.
With his wife’s help, he began to write to the British using invisible ink. She also taught him the code she was using— page number, column number, and line from Bailey’s Dictionary to write any ciphered word that was almost impossible to decode.
Through the coded messages, Shippen negotiated with Andre on behalf of her husband to reveal plans of West Point. The couple sold the American secrets to the British for over a year. For instance, they once told the British when was the perfect timing to attack Washington’s base. Another one exposed how they could seize Charleston effortlessly.
In 1779, Shippen met and negotiated with her contact about the possibility of her husband switching sides. She demanded a minimum of £10,000 for them to join the British side formally. By 1880, they had offers on both sides— the British promised that they would pay him £20,000 while General Washington guaranteed he would make Arnold his second in command. After carefully weighing the options, the couple decided to betray the Americans.
Believed To Be Innocent
On September 21, 1780, Arnold was to meet Andre and turn over West Point when the Americans captured Andre. They seized from him the evidence of the plot that had Arnold’s handwriting. Upon knowing that he was exposed, Arnold immediately fled before Washington captured him, leaving behind his wife and their infant. Shippen didn’t waste time and burned all the evidence she could find, then put on her best drama and pretended she didn’t have a single clue on her husband’s doing. It was an act that convinced everyone. As Alexander Hamilton expressed, “I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender.”
General Washington, who was more than convinced of Shippen’s innocence, helped her rejoin her husband in New York. On the other hand, Andre was executed by the Americans.