The painful crucible of the Revolution transformed George Washington from an land-grabbing, status-obssessed Virginia planter into a charismatic, measured leader of men. Although a mediocre military strategist, Washington’s strength was his ability to keep his rag-tag army together. He wore down the enemy not by dazzling displays of generalship, but by attrition (The Battle of White Plains) and occasional surprise (The Battle of Trenton).
Like many great leaders, Washington surrounded himself with men of greater abilities than his own, tapping their resources while struggling to maintain their loyalty. General Nathaniel Greene, who led Cornwallis’s army on a wild goose chase around the American South before cornering it on the Yorktown peninsula, was a brilliant military tactician who remained loyal to Washington through thick and thin.
General Benedict Arnold, a self-made merchant from Connecticut, was another trusted subordinate. In addition to organizing a heroic but unsuccessful raid on Quebec at the start of the war, Arnold led a fierce charge at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, suffering a bullet wound to the leg which left him crippled for life. The victory at Saratoga was pivotal in convincing France to pledge her financial and military support to the American colonies.
Yet despite Washington’s praises, Arnold was prickly and embittered after Saratoga, feeling that a lesser military strategist, his superior General Horatio Gates, received all the public glory. Arnold, like Washington, relished living the high life, and the war ravaged his financial interests. “Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood and become a cripple in the service of my country,” he snarled to Washington, “I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.”*
Tragically, Arnold, unlike Washington, never gained control of his darker, selfish side.
After the American victory at Saratoga, Congress finally granted Arnold a promotion to Major General. Washington then appointed Arnold to the plum position of Military Governor of Philadelphia, which had just been evacuated by the British Army. As soon as he assumed office in 1778, the convalescing general was assiduously courted by the city’s social and political elite. Many, of course, remained loyal to the British Crown. The battle-soured Arnold must have welcomed such diversions: as social historians Harold Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott wrote of the era: “Society was gayer, more polished, and wealthier in Philadelphia than anywhere else this side of the Atlantic…”**
One frequent social caller was 18 year old Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, the daughter of jurist Edward Shippen IV and his wife Margaret Tench Francis. Young Peggy was not only highly-intelligent and charming, but ravishingly beautiful. She was also a die-hard Loyalist, and embittered by her father’s refusal to let her attend the infamous “Mischianza” ball organized by fun-maker Major John Andre in honor of British General Sir William Howe. Following Howe’s departure, Arnold’s house on Market Street became the center of power in Philadelphia, and Peggy had no intention of remaining on the political sidelines.
Arnold and Shippen were married in April 1779. The 37-year-old widower was head-over-heels in love with his beautiful young bride. She also had everything the deeply-indebted Arnold craved: position in society, beauty, brains, and a big bank account. By then, the one-time hero of Saratoga felt that independence was a lost cause, and was looking for a way to save his skin in the event of British victory.
Shortly after the wedding, Arnold purchased a new home for Peggy: Mount Pleasant, a grand Palladian mansion overlooking the Schuylkill River. It was built in the early 1760s by Scottish-born sea captain John McPherson, who spared no expense in decoration and furnishings. Mount Pleasant bore a striking resemblance to Chief Justice Benjamin Chew’s famous Cliveden in Germantown: a symmetrical Georgian composition (most likely based on British pattern books of the era) with two flanking outbuildings. John Adams, who had mixed feelings about Philadelphians and the finer things in life, described Mount Pleasant as the “most elegant country seat in Pennsylvania.”**
The Arnolds lived at Mount Pleasant for a year, entertaining lavishly. But the restless Benedict Arnold was still short of cash, and in 1780, Washington offered him command of the strategically-vital fortress at West Point, New York. Anyone who controlled West Point controlled the colonies: its guns made it impossible for British ships to sail unimpeded up and down the Hudson River.
General Henry Clinton, commander of British armed forces in America, reasoned that if he could get his hands on West Point, he could cut the colonies in half and end this stubborn rebellion once and for all. In an arrangement brokered by Major John Andre and Peggy Arnold, Benedict Arnold would receive a handsome bribe of 20,000 pounds sterling and a commission in the British army in exchange for turning over West Point. Not only would this sum save Arnold from his financial woes, but would allow him to escape the hangman’s noose waiting for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Greene.
The rest, as everyone knows, is history. Benedict Arnold’s plot failed when American militiamen captured Major John Andre on September 23, 1780, the plans of West Point’s fortifications in his boot.
Upon finding out that the jig was up, Arnold hightailed it across enemy lines, leaving his wife and young child behind. When General Washington showed up at West Point, Peggy Arnold feigned ignorance and madness so successfully that he allowed her to slip away. When he found out that Peggy had used to her guile to hoodwink him, Washington’s rage knew no bounds. He assumed (quite naively) that a woman of Peggy Shippen Arnold’s breeding could only be a victim of her husband’s treachery, not a willing accomplice in espionage.
Savvy Peggy was well aware of this weakness, and exploited it to the hilt.
For the rest of the war, Washington was obsessed with getting his hands on his former confidante. After British troops under Arnold’s command sacked Richmond, Virginia, an enraged Washington ordered the Marquis de Lafayette to capture and “execute [him] in the most summary way” to “make a public example of him.”***
The next best thing Washington could do was make an example of Major John Andre. Obsessed with chivalry, Andre pleaded to be executed by firing squad, as befitting an officer. Washington was unmoved. The man who masterminded the Philadelphia “Mischianza” ball (which Peggy sulked at not being able to attend) was hanged as a spy.
The wily Benedict Arnold evaded Washington’s wrath, and reunited with Peggy in New York. Following General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, the couple fled to England for their lives. In London, Arnold never received the warm welcome he expected, and ended up a social outcast.
The exiled former hero of Saratoga and squire of Mount Pleasant died in 1801, a broken and impoverished man.
As for Peggy Arnold, she may have been a Loyalist femme fatale of sorts. Yet to her credit, she remained “loyal” to her husband to the end. She died in 1804.
*As quoted in Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life (New York: NY: Penguin Press, 2010), p.380.
**Horace Mather Lippincott and Harold Donaldson Eberlein, The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighborhood (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1912), p.113.
***Edward Teitelman and Richard W. Longstreth, Architecture in Philadelphia: A Guide (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1974), p. 121., http://www.quondam.com/17/1761.htm
****As quoted in Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life (New York: NY: Penguin Press, 2010), p.387.