Margaret Peggy Shippen is best known as the second wife of traitor Benedict Arnold, but she is so much more. During the American Revolution, she was infamous for being the highest-paid spy. Peggy, like her family, was a supporter of the British during the Revolution. She and her husband were traitors who plotted against the American colonists’ struggle for independence from Great Britain. The duo not only relayed critical information about the American defense system to the British, but also briefed them on when the American defense would be at its most vulnerable. Her husband, Benedict Arnold, was the commander of West Point, a critical American defense post in the Hudson River’s highlands, and purposefully did not make improvements to strengthen the American troops’ defenses against the British. Arnold is believed to have passed confidential information to British officer and Peggy’s friend, John Andre, via invisible ink on Peggy’s hands. When Andre was apprehended in 1780, Peggy played the victim card and sobbed incoherently in front of the American General, buying time for Arnold’s safe escapade. Her hoax was eventually exposed, and she was barred from entering Philadelphia. Peggy lived in London with her children and husband in her later years.
Childhood & Adolescence
Peggy Shippen was born Margaret Shippen in colonial Philadelphia on July 11, 1760. She was the fourth daughter of Edward Shippen IV and Margaret Francis and was given the nickname Peggy. She was the younger sister of three older sisters and the elder brother of one.
Peggy was a member of a prominent Philadelphia family. While her father was a judge and a member of the Pennsylvania Provincial Council, her ancestors included two Philadelphia mayors and the founder of Shippensburg.
Peggy enjoyed music, needlework, and drawing as a child. She took an interest in politics. She was primarily educated at home by her father, who educated her on politics, finance, and national security. He also educated her on the factors that contributed to the American Revolution.
Peggy’s family’s prominence enabled her to be at the center of events during the American Revolution. She encountered extremists—both loyalists who backed British rule and rebels seeking American independence. Though her family attempted to maintain an unbiased stance, their preferences leaned toward the British.
Later Years of Peggy
When the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, the Shippen family hosted a social gathering. Peggy first met John Andre at one of these gatherings. Andre was a General William Howe’s commanding officer. When France declared war on the United States in June 1778, André and his fellow troops left Philadelphia. However, the two maintained contact.
Peggy took up residence in Arnold’s military headquarters, the Masters-Penn mansion, following her marriage to Benedict Arnold in 1779. Peggy rekindled her friendship with Major John Andre, who was then General Clinton’s spy chief, while she was stationed at military headquarters. Her friendship with Andre laid the groundwork for their future treacherous work together.
Peggy’s transformation into a spy is unknown, but it occurred sometime after her marriage and when she reconnected with Andre. Peggy is said to have initiated correspondence between Benedict Arnold and John André and to have communicated military secrets to the British prior to her marriage.
Arnold hired Joseph Stansbury to establish communications in May 1779 and offered his services to the British.
Later, when General Clinton directed Major André to investigate the possibility of rendering Arnold’s service, André and Arnold began communicating. Arnold demanded a large sum of money in exchange for information that would aid the British in winning the war. A deal was struck.
Peggy was instrumental in securing the deal between Arnold and Andre. Historians believe she crafted the link between the two. She was a friend of Andre’s long before Arnold met him, and it was she who convinced Arnold to make a deal with Andre immediately following their wedding.
Apart from establishing a connection between Andre and Arnold, Peggy also served as a conduit for information exchange. Arnold encoded data in her hand with invisible ink, which she easily transmitted to Andre. Additionally, she transmitted information via coded actions.
Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold assumed command of West Point, a critical American defense post in the Hudson River highlands, after resigning from his post in Philadelphia in March 1779.
Arnold used his critical position to gradually weaken the American defense system by sending vital information to the British, such as the number of troops stationed at the fort and when defenses might be at their weakest.
Benedict Arnold also harmed the Americans’ hold on the fort by obstructing necessary improvements, depleting supplies, and dispatching troops on pointless missions.
On September 20, 1780, Arnold handed over top-secret information to Andre, including detailed documents and maps about the fortifications at West Point and the planned surrender of the critical Continental Army base at West Point, on the assumption that the British government would soon seek to seize the site. The plan, however, backfired.
Three days after receiving the top secret information, Andre was apprehended on his way back to British territory.
Not only did the papers and maps he was carrying expose the plot, but they also jeopardized and trapped Arnold.
Arnold received word of Andre’s capture two days later, on the same morning that General George Washington was scheduled to visit Arnold’s house for breakfast.
Arnold rushed to Peggy after learning of Andre’s capture to brief her on the situation, and then to the HMS Vulture on the Hudson River.
Peggy, who was intelligent enough, convinced General George Washington and his staff of her ignorance regarding the entire situation. All of this, however, was a ruse to buy time for Arnold to reach the River safely.
Peggy returned to Philadelphia with Arnold underground. Though she was well aware of Arnold’s whereabouts, she always pretended innocence and was completely unaware when questioned.
Meanwhile, while officials searched for Benedict Arnold, authorities in Philadelphia discovered the’millinery letter’ exchanged between Andre and Peggy. The letter, written by Andre from British-occupied New York, established Peggy’s involvement as a spy and her connection to the treason.
Peggy was expelled from Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council. Peggy moved to the Hudson River shores in November 1780, escorted by her father, and boarded a boat to New York City, thus joining Arnold.
Meanwhile, Major André was branded a common spy and sentenced to death following a protracted military trial. He was hanged in Tappan, New York, and his body was later repatriated to Westminster Abbey in London.
The Arnolds arrived in London on December 15, 1781, and were greeted by Queen Charlotte. Peggy was compensated for her service with a 100 pound sterling annuity for the support of her children.
Peggy returned to Philadelphia briefly in 1789 to visit her parents and family. Despite her family’s prominence, she was regarded as a traitor and treated coldly by the citizens. As a result, she relocated to New Brunswick, where Benedict Arnold was stationed temporarily. The pair then sailed to England in 1791 and lived in the capital for the remainder of their lives.
Personal History and Legacies
Peggy met her future husband Benedict Arnold, a Continental military commander based in Philadelphia, for the first time in 1778. Benedict Arnold, who was twenty years her senior and a widower with three children, was twenty years her senior.
Arnold was also charged with eight counts of corruption and mismanagement of federal and state government funds. He was found guilty of two misdemeanor offenses. Despite their profound differences, the two courted one another. Peggy and Benedict Arnold married on April 8, 1779.
On March 19, 1780, the couple welcomed their first child, Edward Shippen Arnold. James Robertson, their second son, was born in August 1781. Peggy gave birth to their third surviving child Sophia Matilda Arnold after the deaths of two additional children in infancy. She later gave birth to two additional sons, George in 1787 and William Fitch in 1794.
Benedict Arnold died in 1801. Peggy died of cancer three years later, in 1804, at her home. She was buried alongside her husband in Battersea’s St Mary’s Church.
Estimated Net Worth
The net worth of Peggy is $17million.