The true story of a love triangle involving one woman, a British spy and an American general. One is captured and hung, another forced to leave the country in disgrace, and a woman whose fate hinged on which man survived. It makes for fascinating reading and left me hungering for even more.
Last week, I mentioned how addicted I am to AMC's TURN, based on Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose. It's in its third season and it's excruciating to wait a full week between episodes. If you haven't seen the series, start with Season 1, which is available on Netflix and possibly Hulu and amazon.
One of the more fascinating parts of the show involves a love triangle between Peggy Shippen, British Major John Andre and General Benedict Arnold.
AMC's TURN as Major John Andre and Peggy Shippen.)
John Andre was 10 years older. The son of a Swiss father and a French mother, he was in British uniform and was in charge of British spies during the Revolutionary War. He was very handsome, spoke several languages fluently, and loved to sketch. At dinner parties, he often sketched the women and cut silhouettes of them, and he also painted. He was, by all accounts, a gentleman. When he was captured by the Americans in 1775, he gave his word not to attempt escape and spent a year traveling throughout American society in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before being traded in a prisoner exchange.
Peggy and John began a love affair. In AMC's TURN, they are both portrayed as people who deeply love the other. In reality, I wonder if Peggy, being only 18 years old and naive, fell head over heels for the dashing Major, and Andre, being a spymaster, saw an opportunity to use her connections. Whatever their feelings for one another, when Philadelphia fell to the Americans and Andre fled to New York, Peggy remained behind - and met General Benedict Arnold.
He fell in love with Peggy and they were quickly married. (Shown here: actors Owain Yeoman and Ksenia Solo from AMC's TURN as Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen.)
And somewhere along the way, Peggy began a role as a liaison between Arnold and Andre. Andre had taught her how to use invisible ink - ink that, when dried became invisible and had to be moistened again to become readable. He taught her how to hide notes in hidden compartments and how to use a network of spies to get her correspondence between the lines to him in New York. It was Peggy who was instrumental in convincing her new husband that he would fare better with the British.
When Arnold was placed in charge of West Point, Andre arranged to meet him in rural New York. During the meeting, Arnold gave him six pieces of paper that detailed the plan for Arnold to surrender West Point to the British during a battle that the two men planned. Arnold provided him with civilian clothing and a fake passport to get him back through the lines.
But during his return, Andre was captured. Taken into custody, the papers were quickly found and Benedict Arnold's name forever became synonymous with a traitor. When word reached George Washington, he personally left for West Point, presumably to take Arnold into custody himself. Arnold got advance word of Washington's advance and Andre's capture and fled for the British side, leaving Peggy at home to pretend she knew nothing about the plot.
At this time, spies were considered lower than military and civilians. Andre was quickly given the sentence of death by hanging. He was so well thought of in both the American and British circles that George Washington supposedly said that "he was not a criminal, only unfortunate."
Peggy eventually joined Arnold and the two set sail for England. They lived most of their lives in London, where Peggy gave birth to five children. Arnold died in 1801 at the age of 61 and Peggy sold most of their possessions to pay off his debts. She died in 1804 at the age of 44.
One has to wonder what would have happened had Andre not been captured; would the British have been successful at taking West Point? Would Arnold have remained in the Continental Army, only to betray it time and again? Would Peggy and Andre ever have been reunited, or was Andre's interest in her merely part of the act of espionage?
It's a fascinating love triangle, one that poses more questions than it answers.
p.m.terrell is the author of River Passage, the award-winning true story of the ill-fated Donelson river voyage to Fort Nashborough during the height of the Chickamauga Indian Wars; and her most popular book, Songbirds are Free, the true story of the capture of 19-year-old Mary Neely by Shawnee warriors in 1780. Check out her website for more information at www.pmterrell.com.