Peggy Shippen grew up in an upper-middle class family in Philadelphia that didn’t support the American colonies’ complaints about Britain. Her father, Edward Shippen, believed that ordinary citizens could not govern without the upper classes telling them what to do. Her father found himself in a sticky situation when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss how the colonies should respond to Britain’s taxes on America. For a while, the Shippen family left their home for a place in the country. Peggy resented having to leave her fashionable lifestyle behind. By 1774 she was a teenage girl who was about to make her debut into Philadelphia society, but her father believed it was best to leave so he wouldn’t be forced to take sides in the debate.
The American Revolution
In 1777, the Shippens returned to their family home. The American Revolution had already started, and the British captured Philadelphia. Peggy and other young women flirted with the British officers and enjoyed dances and parties. One observer said, “all the young men are in love with Peggy.” Eventually the British left Philadelphia for New York, and American general Benedict Arnold was appointed as the city’s military governor. The ever-practical Edward Shippen welcomed him. Though he was twenty years older, Arnold soon fell in love with Peggy.
Before their marriage, Benedict Arnold had career problems. He was charged with crimes against the army, including treating minor officials with disrespect, using public wagons for private property, and showing favor to Loyalists who disapproved of the revolution. Arnold felt bitter that Americans did not appreciate his skills or the fact that he was lame as a result of fighting in battle. Though most of the charges were dropped and George Washington offered him a job as his number two general, it was too late. By then, Arnold and his wife were spying for the British.
Partners in Spying
No one knows whether Peggy suggested they hand over information about American troop positions and guns to the British, or whether Arnold was the first to bring it up. Regardless, Peggy and Arnold were complete partners once they committed to spying. In fact, one of Peggy’s former British acquaintances, Major Andre, became the recipient of Arnold’s letters in Britain. While Arnold supplied the military information, Peggy wrote and received the letters. She used a secret code and invisible ink to hide the contents of the letters. Major Andre held the letters up to a flame or poured lemon juice on them to read them. Using these methods, the Arnolds gave the British the information they needed to capture Charlestown, South Carolina.
Discovery of their Plans
As they gained success, Arnold negotiated a price the British were willing to pay for information about the New York fortress West Point. If the British had West Point, they could cut off communication between New England and the Congress at Philadelphia. Arnold asked to command West Point so he could tell the British when to strike. An unsuspecting George Washington gave him the job. In September 1780, a British warship was prepared to attack the fort. Unfortunately for the Arnolds, American soldiers ruined their plan with the capture of Major Andre. When the soldiers searched him, they found papers on him that revealed the plot, but did not mention Peggy’s involvement.
Arnold escaped on a British barge, leaving his wife behind to defend herself. She pretended to be shocked by her husband’s actions and acted hysterically. Luckily for Peggy, few men, including Washington, thought women were smart enough to be good spies. Washington and others also completely bought her act, and even felt sorry for her. Eventually, she rejoined Arnold in London, where she lived on money gained from her war activities.