WRITER . DIRECTOR . DESIGNER
MRS. BENEDICT ARNOLD
The true story of how society belle Peggy Shippen becomes the partner of America’s most notorious traitor in a conspiracy to change the course of the American Revolution.
What began as a lockdown project to illustrate a few key frames turned into a visual summary of the entire film. Pen & ink and water color on card stock, then photographed.
Had there not been a revolution, Peggy Shippen might have married an appropriate Philadelphia gentleman and led a comfortable, uneventful, and socially acceptable life. Had she not been born a girl, she may have followed in her father’s footsteps and practiced law, or in her grandfather’s and practiced medicine.
But she was born a girl. And there was a revolution.
In 1775, war broke out between Great Britain and her American colonies. In 1776, thirteen colonies declared their independence. In 1777, the British Army captured the capital city of Philadelphia. While many patriots fled (along with Congress), many neutral and loyalist civilians stayed and enjoyed a social season with the redcoats unlike anything the city has ever seen. But in 1778, the British evacuated to New York and the patriots returned.
Peggy hated the redcoats for deserting the city almost as much as she hated the patriots for starting the war. Gone were the dances and dinners and drama. Gone were secret kisses and stolen moments. Gone was a sense of stability and security and hierarchy. Gone. Without so much as a “By your leave.”
Benedict Arnold’s fine coach received a hero’s welcome at Valley Forge. They called him the Hannibal of America. Saratoga, Lake Champlain, Ridgefield and Quebec all claimed drops of his blood. But it was not his twice-wounded leg that hurt him most—it was the lack of recognition, the lack of promotion, the lack of pay—the overall lack of gratitude from Congress. At least here he wasn’t meeting with another lying politician; he was meeting with a friend—General George Washington.
“Thank you, Your Excellency, for the epaulettes. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I believe I earned something... more.”
“As I said, merely a token of my esteem. I do have for you a post of honor, your next command—Philadelphia.”
The radicals paraded a man in drag down the street, mocking fashionable dress of Peggy and her class. It was the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the new commander was hosting a celebration that evening. It was a warning to neutral and loyalist civilians that this day was for patriots only, that true patriots eschewed luxury for homespun… or else.
“Aren't you going to ask me to dance, General Arnold?"
"I'm afraid my wound won't permit it. May I have the honor of knowing your name, Miss?"
"Of course not. We haven't been formally introduced," she replied with snicker.
Peggy was bored. Benedict was intrigued.
They accepted the gifts he showered on the family, but Peggy could see her parents’ barely hidden disdain for this Connecticut interloper. She decided to have some fun and asked, “How many men have you killed, General Arnold?”
Her parents nearly spat out their tea.
“Personally? Do you mean in duels or on the battlefield?”
Benedict gave Peggy a copy of the new drill manual and she delighted in ordering about the city militia like toy soldiers.
“Make ready! Take aim!” She savored the anticipation... “FIRE!!!”
“Dear Madam, twenty times have I taken up my pen to write to you, and just as often my trembling hand refused to obey the dictates of my heart—a heart which has remained calm and serene amidst the clashing of arms and all the din and horrors of war. Suffer me to hope for your approbation…”
Peggy never laughed so hard. He was nothing if not amusing.
“Mount Pleasant estate. One hundred acres on the river. I just bought it as a gift for my wife, sort of a dowry in reverse.”
“I hope she will be happy with it, General Arnold.”
“I was hoping she would be you, Miss Shippen.”
Transferring regiments and staff officer duty has lead young John André to acquire quite a uniform collection. But only since Philadelphia has his career truly soared—he was now the Adjutant General and Chief of Intelligence of His Majesty’s Army in North America—with the brevet rank of Major.
Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton was always amused by Major André’s ideas and plans for military glory, but he was skeptical that a battlefield victory could end the war. After all, “We beat Mr. Washington time and time again, yet he has ungentlemanly refused to surrender. Instead, we must break their spirit. Perhaps one of their heroes could be turned? Of all the prominent rebels, who’s most unhappy?”
When Benedict met with the Finance Committee (on the second floor), he learned they were not there to discuss the thousands he was owed in back pay, or the thousands he spent out of his own pocket to feed and equip his men. No, they were there to discuss the money he was issued in 1775 and did not have all the receipts for. Congress did not owe Benedict Arnold as they saw it—he owed them!
A civilian man refused to give way as Peggy tried to pass by. He had the effrontery to address her directly, saying something about all men being equal. When she threaten to have him horsewhipped, he said something about being free and having rights, and that if she wanted to pass by she’d have to walk in the gutter like the rest of them. She did not dignify that with a response. She stepped out into the muck and immediately lost her balance. How they laughed...
By evening, the story was all over the city. “They’re court-martialing me!? After all the blood and treasure I have sacrificed for these ungrateful people? Congress is no way to run a country. I used to fear what would happen if we lost the war. Now I fear what would happen if we win.”
“We may have been better off with the British. But that's treason.”
“Is it?” asked Peggy in all sincerity. “Is it treason to betray those who have betrayed you first? Who themselves betrayed their oaths of allegiance to the King? All I know is I think you’d look good in red. Very good.”
They were married in April. They couldn’t move into Mount Pleasant—not right away. Benedict had a large mortgage to pay off and rented it out to the Spanish Ambassador. In the meantime they decided to live modestly and move into Benedict’s headquarters at the old Penn Mansion on Market Street.
Well, modestly as compared to the style they felt those of their station and accomplishments were entitled to.
“We should name our first son George,” suggested Peggy.
“After George Washington?”
“After General George Monck, who helped restore the King to the throne after the English Civil War. He brought back peace and stability and saved a nation. And was rewarded with a Dukedom.”
“What would I even do, jump on a horse and ride to the British lines? Besides, Washington is my friend. I couldn’t do that to him.”
“Some friend! He doesn’t defend you. With friends like Washington, who needs enemies? And with enemies like the British…”
“Why is a carriage stopping? What’s that rabble doing blocking the road?”
“Fellow Americans, what is the cause of this disturbance?”
“I know him, he’s one of them! Profiteer! Speculator! How is it I can’t afford bread yet you live like a lord?”
Benedict tried to explain when a rock hit him in the head, knocking him down. It was only by producing a pistol that the mob was stopped in its tracks. As he made his way back to the carriage, he damned them as “ungrateful scum.”
Benedict’s aide-de-camp returned—Congress would not be sending the troops he requested for protection. And, as he was an officer awaiting court martial and no longer military commander of Philadelphia, they wanted him to start paying rent on his headquarters here.
“Dear John, so much has changed since we last saw each other in Philadelphia. I am no longer Miss Peggy Shippen—I have since married…”
He nearly stopped reading.
“...I am now Mrs. Benedict Arnold. And my husband is rather unhappy with his current employment situation...”
The British welcomed him with open arms! Not literally, exactly—they preferred he stay with the rebels and gather intelligence or obtain a command that he could turn over—like the fortress at West Point. But they were happy to have him!
Peggy was excited—what fun! Benedict was not—in his mind he offered his services as a soldier, he offered his name and prestige, and was in effect turned down.
Besides, until his court martial, he wasn’t allowed to command.
“This could do it, Sir Henry! Strike the blow that breaks their spirits! The American Achilles! The rebels will feel his wrath! This could win us the war!”
“He is a bit of a cripple and in sort of a disgrace with his fellow rebels. What can he really offer us?”
Intelligence and correspondence passed back and forth for months, but the negotiations stalled over compensation. Peggy knew that if she could just get John and Benedict in the same room, they could clear everything up in five minutes. They were so close... as was Peggy’s due date...
As Peggy shut her eyes, Benedict entered holding something he found in back of her dressing table —
“Yours forever, John.” And a lock of hair. He threw them into the bath.
“You kept his hair? His hair?!”
“I can explain!”
“It was only a flirtation! He kissed me. Once.”
“Kissed you! You term that a mere flirtation? Did you kiss him back? Did he use his tongue?”
“Yes. Yes, he did.”
Which was true. Peggy just neglected to mention where exactly.
Flames consumed John André’s face as she tossed his portrait into the fire.
“This means nothing. He means nothing. There is only us. Ben...”
Benedict said nothing as he walked away. He soon left for his court martial.
Peggy was not about to give up. There had to be a way to still make this work—a post Benedict could command (and turn over) that was close enough to New York that he could meet with John and straighten everything out. John mentioned a place once, what was it again? She think she found it... just as her water broke...
“Considering the delicacy attending the high station in which you acted, General Arnold, we are of the opinion that your actions, while not illegal, were imprudent and improper. This court, in consequence, sentences you to a public reprimand from His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief.”
“You have no idea what I’ve been through. Washington suggested I take up a command out west or some remote fort where I could ‘regain the esteem of my countrymen.’ His exact words. I am undone. Rather he had me shot. No one will lend us money. No one will look me in the eye. We’ve nothing to offer the British if we even wanted to. Well done with the boy. Edward, after your father. Good name... Out west? What’s the point?”
“If I point out a plan of cooperation by which Sir Henry shall possess himself of West Point, the garrison, etc., then twenty thousand pounds Sterling I think will be a cheap purchase for an object of so much importance. A personal interview with an officer that you can confide in is absolutely necessary to plan matters.”
“Welcome to West Point, Mrs. Arnold! Your husband has been keeping us very busy this past month. We have a confiscated Loyalist house downriver for you to stay in so you don’t have to be quartered here with the men.”
Before leaving, she barked at the soldiers, “Order your firelocks! Take your ease!”
Which, to their own surprise, they did before realizing just who gave that order.
When they were finally alone, Benedict revealed that they will no longer be selling out West Point to the British...
They will be selling out West Point and George Washington!
He will be arriving in the few days with a small entourage. Benedict will meet with André under cover of darkness to go over the battle plan. In a single day, the war could be over.
“I’m so proud of you,” said Peggy.
“Before we begin, General Arnold, I just wanted to say, about your wife...”
“It’s fine, I know about it.”
“To be fair, sir, she wasn’t your wife when I knew her.”
“I said it’s fine.”
The meeting lasted until dawn, by which time André’s ship, H.M.S. Vulture, was a sitting duck. Especially to the American gunners eager to impress the commander with their initiative. After a brief firefight, the Vulture sailed out of range. And with that, John André’ was trapped on land...
“But it’s fine! John hid the plans in his boot and, disguised in civilian clothing, will return by land. If he is stopped by any soldiers, all he has to do is show the pass signed by me. If it’s patriot militia, they will honor the pass and let him go. If it’s loyalist militia, they will take him prisoner and bring him to the British lines. If he just shuts up and shows the pass, everything’s fine! We’ve done it!”
“I see by your uniform that you must be loyalist militia. What a relief! I’m really a British officer on a secret mission. Take me to your commanding officer straight away and I’ll see that you’re all handsomely rewarded!”
“Actually, sir, we’re Patriots. Please dismount for a search.”
“Ah... But you’re wearing that uniform, that’s rather unfair. I do have a pass...”
“Please dismount, sir. Just a little search. Just to be sure”
“André was caught! They found the plans on him! And the pass that I signed! And Washington is arriving! Now! All is lost!”
“What are we going to do?”
General Washington did not like what he saw when he entered the fort. Where was the reception? Why did the cannons not fire the salute? Why were the soldiers’ hair not powdered? Where was General Arnold? His boat was seen leaving the dock—if he did not come here, then where?
She heard their boots climb the stairs. She held baby Eddy in her arm and cocked the pistol. What is she doing? How could this possibly work? She needed a change in tactics. She needed it fast.
She hid the pistol, took a deep breath and let out the most blood-curdling scream that anyone in that house had ever heard.
“No, that is not General Washington! That is the man who was going to assist you in killing my child! General Arnold will never return! He is gone! He is gone forever! There, there, there! The spirits have carried him up there! They have put hot irons in his head!”
She burst into tears as the Washington and his aides slowly exited the room.
Washington seemed paralyzed with shock. Finally he muttered, “If Arnold could betray us, whom can we trust now?”
That evening a prisoner was brought to the house and placed in the room below Peggy—it was John! They could whisper in the gap between between the floorboards.
“Peggy! It does me so good to hear your voice again! My dear, how could you have married that man?”
“It’s not as if you ever asked. Besides, John, he accomplished things. You only ever dreamed of doing things.”
“Fair enough, Peggy darling, but…”
“If we make it out this alive, do me the favor of not speaking to me again. I have a husband and child now. I can’t have any... awkwardness.”
There was a knock at Peggy’s door. She was again prepared to put on the act as Colonel Hamilton and General Lafayette entered...
“For your sake alone, Madam, I can be pleased to announce that your husband rowed and escaped to New York on the British ship Vulture (one vulture delivering another). His Excellency General Washington has given you the choice of joining him in there or returning to your parents in Philadelphia...”
It is safe to say that Benedict did not receive the adoring reception he once might have hoped for when he was presented at to Sir Henry at British Headquarters.
“Major John André, you are considered as a spy from the enemy and that, agreeable to the law and usage of nations, you are to suffer death by hanging. If you have any last words speak them now for you have but a short time to live.”
“I pray you all bear witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.”
Paraded through the streets of Philadelphia was a two-faced effigy of Benedict being driven to Hell by the Devil himself.
“Mothers shall still their children and say—Arnold! Arnold shall be the bugbear of their years. Arnold! Vile! Treacherous! And leagued with Satan!“
“Mrs. Arnold, you expect the good citizens of this state to believe that you hadn’t any knowledge of your husband’s treason? That he planned it right under your nose with a British officer who just happened to be an intimate acquaintance of yours? Just what kind of fool do you take me for?”
“I was the one who married him. A man who... wasn’t satisfied. Who didn’t accept how he was treated and what he was told his place in this world should be. Who didn’t accept limits. Who thought he could change things... and very nearly did. And a man who still thinks, at this very moment, that he has nothing to apologize for. You weren’t the fool, sir. I was.”
“All the traitor’s property, including the carriage and the Mount Pleasant estate, is hereby confiscated. For the public safety of the citizens of Pennsylvania, you are hereby banished and ordered to rejoin your husband. If you are still here in fourteen days, we will march you out with fifes and drums beating The Rogue’s March. It will be the highlight of the social season.”
“You don’t have to go back to that man. Unthinkable! You can hide out on the family farm in New Jersey until all this settles down. I hear the council is considering a bill to legalize divorce."
"I refuse to move to a farm in New Jersey."
"You don’t mean to return to him, surely? What kind of future would you have?”
“An uncertain one to be sure. But with him I do have one. The same can’t be said for living in New Jersey.”
It was not the reception that Peggy was expecting. Benedict assured her that they would soon have more appropriate accommodations and if Sir Henry listened to him they could still win the war.
As he turned to leave, she finally said, “You do look good in red. Very good.”
Peggy died in London from cancer, aged forty-four. Amongst her personal effects was found a lock of John André’s hair.
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