They say that behind every great man is a woman who supports him in some way. The infamous traitor Benedict Arnold had at least two women behind him at any given time during his adulthood. One of those women was his wife—at one time ill-fated Margaret Mansfield, and later on the notorious Peggy Shippen. The other was his sister Hannah.
I have mentioned Benedict Arnold before. To be short, I’ve had a weird obsession with him since eighth grade. He will be getting his own blog post eventually. But for Women’s History Month, I am writing a post about Arnold’s sister Hannah, a sister who saw him through thick and thin through his insane and epic career. While Peggy Shippen usually hogs the limelight as the female lead in Arnold’s story, Hannah deserves as much respect as Peggy if not more for her quiet role behind the scenes.
Most of my sources for this article come from Willard Sterne Randall’s book Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. To be upfront, I have read two other Arnold biographies but Randall’s actually gives the most detail about Hannah’s life (which is just one of many reasons it is A Really Great Book ™). I tried to find other sources online but they were not forthcoming. There is lots of internet content about Arnold and his second wife but not really anything about his sister. So if no one else is going to speak up for Hannah, then I guess it’s up to me.
Was Hannah on Liberty’s Kids? you ask. Actually, she was. We see her in the Sybil Ludington episode. She is in the scene where General Arnold announces his intention to resign from the Continental army. She also appears briefly in the background when he rides out to fight the British. She does not have a speaking part.
Her Mother’s Namesake
Before the twentieth century, women were very dependent on close male relatives for support: if not their husbands, then their brothers. Hannah never married, and her life and fortunes were closely tied to those of her brother. She was, in so many ways, her brother’s keeper.
Hannah Arnold was born in 1742, a year after her big brother, in Norwich, Connecticut. Their parents were also Benedict and Hannah, and the family observed a custom of naming the oldest children after their parents.
The younger Benedict, the future traitor, spent his childhood playing with the other neighborhood kids, attending boarding school, and even serving in the local militia during the French and Indian War. Meanwhile, Hannah stayed at home, learning domestic skills from her mother and helping to take care of three younger siblings.
The Norwich Arnolds were not super rich but they lived comfortably, and they were respected members of the community. Randall writes that Hannah had blonde hair and blue eyes, a contrast to her brother’s darker features. She was very pretty and popular with the young male neighbors into her teenage years.
Tragedy struck the family. While Benedict was at boarding school, the rest of the family was stricken with yellow fever, and all of his and Hannah’s younger siblings perished.
Benedict and Hannah’s father was a merchant. As tensions between the French and English increased leading up to the French and Indian War, his business fell on hard times, and he turned to frequently the local tavern for consolation. Their mother died in 1759, and by that point their father was a full-fledged alcoholic. Hannah, then age fifteen, took their father under her care until he died a year later, leaving his children penniless.
However, Benedict had an apprenticeship with a generous local businessman. His master was able to settle the family’s debts and business affairs, and he gave Benedict enough money and means for he and Hannah to make a new start.
I used to half-jokingly wonder if Hannah never got married because her brother was Benedict Arnold. When I read Randall’s biography of Arnold, I learned that it was no joke.
Hannah and Benedict were very close siblings. Young Hannah doted on her older brother to the point that she drove away potential suitors. Her big brother was very protective, and he had a violent temper to boot (which explains some of his personal issues).
Randall tells a story about a Frenchman who came into Norwich and began courting Hannah. Benedict was vehemently against this relationship—and it didn’t help that prejudice against French Catholics was at an all-time high after the French and Indian War. He gave the Frenchman repeated warnings to leave Hannah alone, and the warnings were ignored. He told Hannah to dismiss her suitor, and she refused. Hannah may have been as stubborn a person as her brother.
One night, Benedict and a friend of his arrived at his Norwich home and caught sight of Hannah and her French boyfriend through the parlor window. Benedict told his friend to knock on the door and went and hid. At the knock, the Frenchman opened the front window and climbed out to escape. Benedict fired his pistol (most likely a warning shot) from his hiding place. The Frenchman scampered, never to be seen or heard from again.
If Hannah was heartbroken, she got over it quickly or at least put it aside—she loved her big brother too much to hate him. But shortly after this incident, Benedict sold the family home in Norwich and headed for New Haven to start his own business, and he took his sister with him.
Partner in Business
As well as being trained as a druggist (apothecary), Benedict Arnold was a merchant and a sailor. Arnold frequently traveled abroad, mainly to the Carribean, to buy goods to sell in Connecticut (and smuggle in some rum on the side). Arnold left his shop in New Haven in the charge of his sister.
Hannah proved to be a capable assistant, and between the two of them the business flourished. In a modern setting, Benedict Arnold would be the owner of your neighborhood Walgreens store, and Hannah would be the manager (and have to deal with the Karens).
Randall points out that Arnold could have had Hannah married off or hired out as a servant, but instead he kept her on and made her his business partner. Arnold was not only attached to his sister, but part of his personal paradigm was to dote on the women in his life and spoil them with lavish goods.
With Hannah being at home, she must have been a witness to some of the early political unrest in response to British taxation of the American colonies. Arnold himself was at home enough between business trips to participate in local protest and become a leading Patriot in the community.
Having no husband, family, or household of her own, Hannah Arnold made her brother’s household her own. She liked being in charge, and unfortunately she was pushy and domineering towards Arnold’s timid first wife, Margaret Mansfield. Hannah was not a saint.
Constant in Wartime
The spring of 1775 marked the start of the Revolutionary War. Hannah and Margaret and Arnold’s three sons were present on New Haven’s town common when Arnold, already a militia captain, assembled the militiamen to march to Boston to assist the Patriot siege.
Arnold ended up going into the Vermont wilderness to Fort Ticonderoga. He assisted Ethan Allen in capturing the fort, and while Allen’s men were partying Arnold and a few others quietly kicked the British off of Lake Champlain.
He was on his way back to Connecticut in June when the unthinkable happened: his first wife Margaret passed away suddenly and without apparent cause. While Arnold himself was numb with grief, Hannah calmly and coolly kept the family business going. She also enrolled his two oldest sons in school. Arnold stayed home long enough to bury his wife, and then he headed back out to war, this time to spearhead a Colonial invasion of Canada.
This time, Benedict Arnold would be away from his sister and his sons for a year and a half, first leading an army through the Maine wilderness to attack Quebec, and then retreating down lake Champlain and camping through the summer and fall of 1776.
Hannah corresponded regularly with her brother through the entire Canadian and Lake Champlain campaign. Hannah had to keep her brother’s mercantile business going in the difficult economy. Arnold was very supportive of his sister: he not only gave her instruction on how to run the business but complete authority over his personal and business finances and property. Randall notes, “He seems to have trusted Hannah’s judgment more than anyone’s.”
Not only was Hannah in charge of Arnold’s business affairs, but Hannah was an important intelligence contact for a rising star in the Continental Army. Arnold’s military friends would visit Hannah in New Haven and she would pass messages to her brother for them through their personal letters. She also kept Arnold informed about other developments in the War, including giving him the news about George Washington’s campaign in New York City.
Hannah sent clothing to her brother along with her letters. Most touching, however, were her tidbits of news about his three sons. While the two older boys Benedict and Richard were at boarding school, the youngest, Henry, lived at home with his aunt.
“Little Hal sends a kiss to Pa and says, “Auntie tell my Papa he must come home, I want to kiss him”
From what I can tell, Hannah was as good as a mother to her brother’s sons. The Arnolds were one of our country’s first military families—except instead of a mom watching the kids, it was the dad’s sister.
(I also find it touching that Hannah took charge of raising the three boys for a personal reason: my maternal grandmother was also raised by an aunt after her mother died.)
Tension and Treason
Benedict Arnold returned to New Haven in triumph in late November of 1776, a Continental Army General, and Hannah was there on the town green with his three sons to greet him. One would guess that they were also present when Arnold made yet another triumphal entry on May 4, 1778, this time as the hero of the Saratoga campaign.
Later that same year, General Arnold was installed as the military governor of Pennsylvania, and Hannah moved down to Philadelphia to join him. The spinster sister of the hero of Saratoga was a pious small-town New England girl, and she despised the high society of the-so called City of Brotherly Love.
Through Arnold’s controversial term as military governor, Hannah shrewdly continued to manage his finances and run investments, conducting things in such a way that she saved him from utter financial ruin, at least at the time. She gave him support and sympathy as radical Patriots slandered Arnold in the press and as Arnold faced charges of military misconduct. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save his soul.
In April of 1779, the general married Peggy Shippen, a young lady barely eighteen years old and a leading socialite in Philadelphia’s Loyalist circles. Hannah and the boys were present at the marriage ceremony, which was conducted in the parlor of the Shippen house. From all accounts Hannah and Peggy did not get along–or at least Hannah didn’t like Peggy.
Arnold’s own relationship with Hannah was on the rocks at this period. Randall tells us that the tone of his letters to her had turned into unpleasant diatribe. This is one of Hannah’s retorts:
“Ill nature I leave to you, as you have discovered yourself to be a perfect master of it.”
I think Hannah was frustrated with him, and probably for more than just getting remarried. She most likely knew about Arnold’s abuses of authority as governor. Randall speculates that IF Hannah had known about the treason plot that she would never have approved of it.
Was Hannah suspicious of her brother for marrying a Tory Belle, beyond just jealousy? I can’t say for sure. Arnold had his two elder sons withdrawn from their New Haven boarding school and sent instead to a school in Maryland, oddly enough a school run by an Anglican minister that was a known Tory. He then made his first secret contact with the British while on his honeymoon with Peggy.
A “Distressful Step”
Hannah remained in Philadelphia with little Henry while Benedict and Peggy, with their new baby, moved up to West Point in 1780. It was in late September that Arnold’s plot to hand over West Point to the British was discovered and foiled, and Arnold fled to British protection in New York City.
While attempting to find some more information for this blog post, I came across a historical item at an online auction house. It is a draft of a letter that Hannah wrote and discarded, addressed to one Jacob Thompson.
My unfortunate brother wrote me some time since, that he had desired you to send for my bed from Majr. Atwater, and to forward it to him, if it was not done before the distressful step he has taken, I beg you would desire major Atwater to keep it untill I send for it as ’tis most probable, if my wretched life is continued, that I should one day quit this land of strangers – and return to that of my birth – be so good as to desire Mr. Shipman to keep the money for the china, unless he has paid it to you. If he has, you will be so good as to rescue (?) it in you hands. Let me ask the pity of all my friends, there never was a more proper object of it – do write. Forsake me not in my distress I conjure you, but let me have all opportunities – I am glad Capt. Sloan is fortunate, may you all be so. Prays the
The little unfortunate boys at Maryland are well, as is Harry who desires his love – I was so swallow’d up in my own distress – had forgot yours, in the loss of your little son – but mourn not for him my friend, he has escap’d the scars and miseries of a wretched deceitful and sorrowing vale of tears.
If it’s not much of a stretch, I think this may have been a low point in Hannah’s personal life. Here she is, homesick for Connecticut, stuck in a strange city, she misses her nephews and her nephews miss their dad. The brother that she’s loved and worked for her whole life, the brother that she supported while he fought for the American cause, just straight-up nearly destroyed their country and been proven to be the villain that all his critics said he was. She is heartbroken and miserable, perhaps even depressed.
In any event, in November of 1780 Hannah and her nephew Henry went back to New Haven, and she had the two other boys come to join them. Not even a year later, in August 1781, Arnold himself led a British and Loyalist attack on the Connecticut towns of New London and Groton. I can’t imagine that this would have been anything but upsetting to Hannah. Talk about your life being hell.
The war ended, Benedict and Peggy went to England, and after Arnold’s hopes for continuing the war against the former colonies were dashed he decided to start over again as a merchant. Arnold went to Canada and set up a new business in Saint Johns, New Brunswick, and he sent for Hannah and the three boys to come up and join the rest of the family (He and Peggy had five more kids, and all except for one were boys).
After this point, I don’t have much information to give you about Hannah’s life. Did she and Peggy Shippen ever mend their bridges? I’m not sure, but there is a chance. According to an article written for American Heritage, Peggy was “unfailingly kind” to Hannah in spite of Hannah’s resentment.
Did Hannah ever recover her relationship with her brother to any extent? Perhaps so. She would have had to make some kind of peace with him and with herself to go live with him in Canada. I have so many questions about how an individual reconciles with someone who does something so heinously evil, especially if they’re a family member. How would you learn to live with them again? Was it easy to leave her home for a strange new country and live on a cold and desolate frontier? Or were her feelings about leaving behind a place where her countrymen had rejected her mixed?
As I mentioned in my introduction, however, a woman was very subject to and dependent on the wills of the men in her life. Arnold wanted to be with his three oldest sons again, and maybe Hannah herself. Maybe Hannah didn’t have much of a choice.
In Canada, Hannah got to watch her nephews continue to grow up. Arnold’s second son, Richard, turned eighteen and he became a business partner with his father. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he may have learned about running a business from his aunt as well as his dad.
In 1788, one of Arnold’s warehouses in Saint Johns caught on fire while his sons Richard and Henry were sleeping in its office. According to biographer Randall, they barely escaped. That must have been terrifying for Hannah to almost lose two of the nephews she had loved and raised as sons.
For various reasons, including the scandal that erupted from the warehouse fire, Arnold made himself unpopular in Canada. He ended up moving with Peggy and the younger children back to England, there to live out the rest of their lives. Hannah did not go with them. As far as I know, Hannah never saw her brother again. He did, however, get Hannah a large Royal land grant of 1200 acres in Canada.
As part of his deal for joining the British, Benedict Arnold acquired British military commissions for his sons to provide an income for them. Whether or not those sons actually wanted to join the military was up to them, but they all ended up in the field sooner or later.
Arnold had not wanted his eldest son, also named Benedict, to join the military but, because stubbornness ran in the family, he took up his commission anyway. He ended up dying in Jamaica from an infected wound in 1796. The death was a devastating blow to his father. I can imagine that Hannah would have had been frustrated enough with one of her beloved nephews going into the military but him dying on top of that? Heartbreaking.
Hannah stayed with Richard and Henry and their families in Canada for the rest of her days. She died in 1803, two years after her brother and a year before Peggy Shippen Arnold. Hannah’s place of burial is unknown.
Hannah Arnold, sister of the traitor Benedict Arnold, remains one of the lesser-known and lesser-acknowledged women of her time period. Her life story, however, has an interesting message. A woman’s strength is not limited to military prowess or achieving political greatness, or even in taking part in political conspiracy, for that matter.
Being a strong woman can also mean just doing your part, being a steadfast supporter of the people close to you, applying your smarts in the everyday things, and keeping the business of family and life and money going. A woman does not need glory for what she does, but respect and recognition.
If you know a few things about Benedict Arnold already, I hope you learned something new from reading this blog post: he had a sister, her name was Hannah, and she was one of the most important women in his life.