Saint John New Brunswick
Benedict Arnold

Treachery and Fidelity
The Love Letters of Benedict Arnold reveal a true heart

By Louis Quigley


Miss Peggy Shippen   In September, 1780, when Benedict Arnold renounced the Revolution and "returned his allegiance" to the British, his name was fated to become an eternal eponym for treachery, and his heroic exploits on the side of the Patriots' in their struggle for liberty were destined for oblivion.

   He was first and foremost a soldier - in battle courageous, bold, even foolhardy. He was admired by his troops and his leadership inspired them to fight and to survive. But throughout his life he needed and depended upon female support and companionship.

   His most enduring love affair was with Peggy Shippen. She was tenacious, tender and true, in those days a "soldier's girt," in the best sense of the term. They loved each other until death. And when he died., she wrote, "He was the best of husbands ... his affection for me was unbounded."

    Their union survived 22 turbulent years, years of revolution, treason, exile, financial ruin, horrific mental torture, public hostility and disgrace. When their courtship began, they seemed worlds apart. Peggy Shippen was 18, the "darling daughter" of a proud family of Philadelphia Loyalists. She was "lovely and blonde, young and graceful with a quick, keen, mischievous face," and she loved the social life of those early exciting revolutionary days.

    Benedict Arnold was 37. a weathered warrior whose war wounds caused him to walk with a cane. And he was a widower with three children. He had already attained the rank of Major General in the Continental army of America. He had successfully fought two duels, been wounded twice in battle, and was victorious over the British army in the Battle of Saratoga, described as the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

    In spite of her innocent and carefree upbringing, Peggy would prove to be a survivor. She needed all of her heroic qualities to endure the years as companion and wife of America's tragic traitor.

   Back in the days of his boyhood, Arnold had a mother who loved him dearly; an undated letter to him survives:

    "Your father is in a poor state of health but designs if able to set out for Newport and if I can, I shall journey with him; and if providence permit we shall be back by the middle of Sept.. when I shall send for you home. Please take what advise the Doctor offers to make you Lord your dwelling please and try to trust his care. We have a very uncertain stay in this world and it stands us all in hand to see that we have an interest in Christ without which we must be Eternally miserable ... pray, my dear whatever you neglect, don't neglect your precious soul which once lost can never be regained."

   And he had one sister, Hannah, who was to remain his devoted friend throughout her life. In one of her letters, sent while he was away in the military, she wrote:

    "Pity the fatigue you must unavoidably suffer in the wilderness, but as the cause is undoubtedly a just one, I hope you may have health, strength, fortitude, and valor, for what ever you may be called to. May the broad hand of the Almighty overshadow you, and if called to battle, may the God of Armies cover your head in the day of it. Tis to Him and Him only, my dear brother that we can look for safety or success . . and if we are to meet no more in time, may a wise preparation for eternity secure to us a happy meeting in the realms of bliss, where painful separations are forever excluded ... but in all its changes, of this I am certain that your health and prosperity are dear to me as my own."

Mrs. Benedict Arnold and Child, by Sir Thomas Lawerence    In 1767, when he was 25, Arnold fell in love with and married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of a prominent merchant. They had three children, in quick succession-, but while his love was deep and obvious, she doesn't seem to have reciprocated with equal passion. There is, for example, an undated letter from him to her, during one of his frequent absences from home:

    "Dearest one,

    I am now in the greatest anxiety and suspense not knowing whether I write to the living or the dead, not having heard the least syllable from you this four months. I have wrote you almost every post somehow. My dearest life, you cannot imagine the troubled fatigue I have gone through since here ... I shall be very unhappy if I have not the pleasure of hearing you and our dear ones are well ... My heart is anxious and aching."

    But he was not to suffer such anxiety for long.

    In June 1775, Margaret died suddenly. She was 34 years old. His sister Hannah took on the task of raising the children, and, in mourning, Arnold threw himself into the cause of the Revolution. He scored early military success, but was disappointed in the lack of recognition he thought he deserved from the Continental Congress.

    In 1776, during a lull in the campaign, he met the young and beautiful Betsy Deblois, described as "the belle of Boston." She was the daughter of a well-known Loyalist. One observer wrote of her, "She was much celebrated as a beauty ... sociable and agreeable, though not wholly destitute of that kind of vanity which is so naturally the companion of beauty. She puckers her mouth a little, and contracts her eyelids a little to look very pretty, and is not wholly unsuccessful."

    He tried unsuccessfully to win Betsy with a barrage of expensive presents. Then, in prose that even Jane Austen might have approved, he carefully chose his words in writing to Betsy:

    "My dear Miss Deblois:

   Twenty times have I taken my pen to write to you and as often has my trembling hand refused to obey the dictates of my heart. A heart which has often been calm and serene amidst the clashing of arms and all the din and horrors of war trembles with diffidence and fear at giving offence when it attempts to address you on a subject so important to its happiness. Long have I struggled to efface your heavenly image from it. Neither time, absence, misfortune or your cruel indifference have been able to efface the deep impressions your charms have made. And will you doom a heart so true, so faithful, to languish in despair? Shall I expect no returns to the most sincere, ardent, and disinterested passion? Dear Betsy, suffer that heavenly bosom (which surely cannot know itself the cause of misfortune without a sympathetic pang) to expand with friendship at last and let me know my fate. If a happy one, no man will strive more to deserve it; if on the contrary I am doomed to despair, my latest breath will be to implore the blessing of heaven on the idol and only wish of my soul."

   While she appreciated the attention, Betsy was not persuaded; she politely suggested that he "solicit no further," but she underestimated her suitor. He reviewed his strategy and decided on another line of attack. Rolling out the heavy artillery, he wrote to her once more:

    "You might as well wish me to exist without breathing as to cease to love you. A union of hearts, I acknowledge, is necessary to happiness; but give me leave to observe that true and permanent happiness is seldom the effect of an alliance formed on romantic passion where fancy governs more than judgment. Friendship and esteem, founded on the merit of the object, is the most certain basis to build a lasting happiness upon; and when there is a tender and ardent passion on one side and friendship and esteem on the other, the ear must be callous to every tender sentiment if the taper of love is not to light up at the flame. You have inspired in me a pure and exalted passion which cannot admit of an unworthy thought or action ... Let me beg of you to suffer your heart if possible to expand with a sensation more tender than friendship. Consider the consequences before you determine. Consult your own happiness, and if incompatible with mine, forget there is so unhappy a wretch; for let me perish if I would give you one moment's pain to procure the greatest felicity to myself. Whatever my fate may be, my most ardent wish is for your happiness."

    He sent her a ring of rose-coloured gold set with four irregular diamonds and bearing the inscription "E.D. from Benedict Arnold, 1778."

    She again declined, and he eventually withdrew from that campaign, economically tucking away a copy of his letters, to be used again in another courtship.

   Within the year he was appointed commander of Philadelphia, and there it was not long before his eye fell on another popular beauty of the day, Peggy Shippen. His courtship included a letter to Peggy which combined all of the elements of the two love letters he had sent to Betsy Deblois, with virtually the same wording. He did add a couple of new twists:

    "I am sensible to your prudence, and I know that the affection you bear your amiable and tender parents, forbids you giving encouragement to the addresses of any one without their approbation. Pardon me, Dear Madam, for disclosing a passion I could no longer confine in my tortured bosom. I have presumed to write to your Papa, and have requested his sanction to my addresses. Suffer me to hope for your approbation. Consider before you doom me to misery, which I have not deserved but by loving you too extravagantly. Consult your own happiness, and if incompatible, forget there is so unhappy a wretch; for may I perish if I would give you one moment's inquietude to purchase the greatest possible felicity for myself. Whatever my fate may be, my most ardent wish is for your happiness and my latest breath will be to implore the blessing of heaven on the idol and only wish of my soul. Adieu, dear Madame, and believe me unalterably, your sincere admirer and devoted humble servant, Sept. 25, 1778 B. Arnold Peggy was smitten, flattered to have won the attention of the famous and glamorous general. Her father was less than lukewarm about the relationship, eyeing with suspicion the middle-aged suitor who walked with a limp and who already had three children. But, as often happens with fathers, he couldn't resist her earnest pleas, and relented.

    On February 8, 1779, Arnold wrote to Peggy from Camp:

    "My Dearest Life: Never did I so ardently long to see or hear from you as at this instant. I am all impatience and anxiety I to know how you do; six days absence without hearing from my dear Peggy is intolerable. Heavens! what must I have suffered had I continued my journey the loss of happiness for a few dirty acres. I can almost bless the villainous roads, and the more villainous men, who oblige me to return. I daily discover so much baseness and ingratitude among mankind that I almost blush at being of the same species, and could quit the stage without regret was it not for some gentle, generous souls like my dear Peggy, who still retain the lively impression of their Maker's goodness; and who, with smiles of benignity and goodness, make all happy round them. Let me beg of you not to suffer the rude attacks on me to give you a moment's uneasiness. They can do me no injury. I am treated with the greatest politeness by General Washington and the officers of the army, who bitterly execrate ... the Council for their villainous attempts to injure me ... The day after tomorrow I leave this, and hope to be made happy by your smiles on Friday evening. Till them all nature smiles in vain; for you alone, heard, felt, seen, possess my every thought, fill every sense, and pant in every vein. Please to present my best respects to your Mama and family. My prayers and best wishes attend my dear Peggy. Adieu! and believe me, sincerely and affectionately thine, Benedict Arnold"

    In a short time they were engaged, and on April 8, 1779, they were married in the great Shippen mansion in Philadelphia.

    Peggy was to remain a supportive and faithful companion for the rest of Arnold's tumultuous life. Some of her letters convey the image of a woman on the verge of utter despair, but always protective of her husband and their children. Arnold proved to be a loving and caring partner and father (although there is evidence that he fathered a son out of wedlock in New Brunswick, while Peggy was visiting her parents in Philadelphia). Although there was a generation's difference in age, Peggy exerted a strong influence over him, and it seems likely that she was a willing accomplice in his plan to switch sides in the Revolution.