We last left Philadelphia in Episode 201, where I talked about Benedict Arnold taking command as military governor of the region and setting himself up in the Governor’s mansion, recently vacated by British General William Howe.
Arnold had shut down all exports and trade within Philadelphia in order to prevent property of the British Army from being removed, or the property of local Tories that the revolutionary government might want to seize.
Arnold profited from his position by making deals that allowed favored parties to purchase and sell goods that the government had locked down. This, of course, led local merchants to see the lock down as a way for a few top military officials to profit at the expense of the merchants.
Much of the lockdowns were ordered by Congress and Washington to protect against the loss of British property that could be seized. However, when Arnold allowed a Tory ship, the Charming Nancy to leave port anyway, and it was discovered that he had received a financial interest in the ship, locals saw the shutdown as a way for Arnold to shakedown locals for a cut of profits. If you wanted to move goods in Philadelphia, you had to pay to play.
James Mease Partnership
Shortly after Arnold had taken command of the city in the summer of 1778, two men met with him to form an agreement. The men were James Mease, Clothier General of the Continental Army, Mease’s deputy William West, Jr.
Both men had been Philadelphia merchants before the war. We don’t know much about Mease’s politics before the war. He seems to have been focused more on his business. In January 1776, Congress had tapped Mease to serve as a commissary for the Pennsylvania regiments that Congress was raising to send to Boston. Mease also served as a paymaster general for the army.
|Pennsylvania State House, 1778|
Mease’s efforts proved less than effective. Over the following year, the army continued to suffer from unacceptable shortages of just about everything they needed. Mease seems to have done little to succeed in his role. Washington had asked him to be present with the army, but Mease remained in Philadelphia, sending assistants to follow around the army. Congress had told Mease to appoint local purchasing agents in each state, but Mease does not appear to have done that either.
It would be unfair to blame Mease or his assistants entirely for the complete failure to provide the soldiers with adequate clothing. Congress refused to come up with adequate funds to buy the clothes. When an agent in Massachusetts purchased some materials at market prices, and taking into account that he had to buy it with depreciated Continental Dollars, Congress put a halt to his efforts because he was spending way too much money. Congress also would not provide funds for wagons to get the supplies from the warehouses to the army.
Mease’s leadership, however, was not impressing anyone, including Mease himself. In December of 1777, when Washington was at Valley Forge, Mease submitted his letter of resignation, citing poor health. He agreed to stay on until a replacement could be found. Neither Congress nor Washington found a replacement. More than six months later, as the army was leaving Valley Forge and the British were evacuating Philadelphia, Mease was still serving as Clothier General.
Washington had written to Congress calling for his replacement and noting that he was unfit for his office. Congress formed a committee to investigate, but did not take any action. A frustrated Mease sent a copy of his original letter of resignation, arguing that he agreed he should no longer hold the office. Even so, Congress did not act to replace him. So, in the fall of 1778, with Arnold in command at Philadelphia, Mease still served as Clothier General of the Continental Army.
Part of Mease’s job was to go through all the stores left in Philadelphia. If the goods were found to be the property of the British Army, or of a Tory merchant, he had authority to seize the goods. If they were owned by a patriot merchant, he had authority to take the goods and to compensate the merchant with Continental dollars, which would be paid at the amounts valued by Congress. Merchants had no choice not to sell. They had to take what they were given, even if their goods would be worth many more times that amount on the private market.
By all accounts, Mease did his job with regard to acquiring whatever goods might be of use to the army. There were also, however, a great deal of goods that were not of use to the army. Mease and his assistant formed a partnership with Arnold. The three men agreed to purchase these goods not needed by the army, at cost, then turn around and sell them on the private market for a huge profit, which the three men would divide among themselves.
Mease and his assistant would do all the work of strong-arming merchants into selling their goods at below market cost. Arnold would continue to keep the shops closed and continue the ban on any exports from the city in order to give his partnership a monopoly on all sales.
To the modern ear, all of this sounds rather shady. And to many people at the time, it sounded pretty shady as well. But it was all being done under the authority of the Continental Congress, and there were no specific laws barring the practices being employed.
Arnold had seen more senior generals, particularly Philip Schuyler, mix military assets with private business in order to make a profit. To Arnold, this just seemed like his turn at the trough had finally come. He could receive his financial reward for all of the sacrifice and suffering that he had made in the early years of the war.
Of course, to the merchants of Philadelphia who were being exploited, this just looked like corruption and abuse of power. Local officials began to complain loudly. Arnold, as the man in charge, became the target of their wrath.
Living like a Tory
Arnold did not seem to pay attention to the criticism. He viewed the complaints as the buzzing of insects, annoying but to be ignored.
In addition to his profiteering, Arnold rather quickly took other actions which incurred the wrath of local patriots. One, was his ostentatious display of wealth. The military governor began riding around town in a fancy coach with livery servants, and furnishing his residence in the Penn Mansion with some of the finest furniture and decor that could be found, much of which was acquired through his partnership with Mease.
Arnold’s other offensive behavior involved his close association with the local Philadelphia loyalists. Many of the wealthiest people in town, who had remained in Philadelphia during the British occupation, had worked with the British in order to maintain their property and keep their businesses going. As I mentioned in an earlier episode, many local patriots wanted them to pay for their collaboration. In the fall of 1778, local courts convicted and hanged several collaborators. Others wanted these wealthy families who collaborated with the enemy, at least, to lose their property and possibly be expelled from the state.
Arnold, instead, seemed to spend most of his time socializing with these very same people. After all, they were the upper class of the town. With his new-found wealth, powerful position, and prestigious title, Arnold had entrée into the top of Philadelphia society. He wanted to take full advantage of that.
Arnold made clear his position as a moderate early in his administration. Joseph Galloway had been the civilian leader under British-occupied Philadelphia and was probably considered the top collaborator who had not been arrested prior to British occupation. He had not been arrested before the occupation because he had fled to British-occupied New York where he assisted General Howe with the Philadelphia campaign.
Galloway had wisely fled the city with the British Army and had returned to New York. Galloway and his daughter Betsy would take a ship to London, never to return. However, his wife, Grace Galloway, remained in her family mansion just north of town. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council seized her home as the property of a loyalist. Mrs. Galloway refused to leave, and locked herself in the mansion.
The Supreme Executive Council ordered Arnold to remove her from the property and throw her in the street. Arnold had sent guards to protect Mrs. Galloway from violence, but had to comply with civilian orders, but sent an officer to convince Galloway to leave voluntarily, and gave her access to a coach to take her to relatives. This relatively kind eviction upset the radicals. After Galloway’s eviction. Joseph Reed moved into the mansion for use as his personal residence.
As much as the radicals despised Arnold’s behavior, much of Arnold’s behavior was in line with what he thought Congress and Washington wanted him to do. Arnold had received orders to heal the city and to encourage the locals who had worked under British rule to get back to work and start being productive in a way that would help the American cause. Congress wanted a productive city that would show a return to normal, and which would provide more goods and services to benefit the war effort. Engaging in acts of petty revenge would not serve that end.
Arnold’s display of wealth was not necessarily out of line either. The people of his generation had not fully adopted the egalitarian values that later generations would display to the public. Flashy exhibitions of wealth were expected from leaders. Washington did much the same thing. Arnold’s attempts to live extravagantly were expected by someone in his position.
Even so, Arnold’s high living only highlighted the fact that he was raking in tens of thousands of pounds from his private commercial dealings. Those were only possible because of his position as military governor, and which were directly contributing to the suffering of many locals. His socializing with loyalist families only increased local anger as his actions seemed to benefit rich loyalists at the expense of hard-working patriots.
Courting Peggy Shippen
Rather than focus on the optics of what he was doing, Arnold’s attention was also focused on love. As I mentioned already, he began dating Peggy Shippen, the 18 year old daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who many suspected of loyalist tendencies.
Arnold’s first wife had died in 1775. For a time, Arnold focused on the war, leaving his sister to raise his children. A little over a year later, Arnold fell in love with a 15 year old Boston girl, the daughter of a loyalist, named Betsy Dublois. He wooed her for about two years, but the parents would not allow the relationship.
In Philadelphia, Arnold had moved on to an older woman, the then 17 year old Peggy Shippen. Again, the loyalist father Edward Shippen was reluctant about the relationship, but allowed it to continue. Arnold and Peggy were seen riding around town in his carriage and walking together at Bartram’s Garden. Within a few months, and after Peggy’s 18th birthday, Arnold proposed marriage. Her father reluctantly agreed, but asked the couple to wait until the following spring. So much of Arnold’ attention was focused on his upcoming wedding and how to support his new wife in style.
Arnold vs. Reed
Meanwhile, radicals focused on Arnold’s activities and made him a target. Joseph Reed was elected President of Pennsylvania in December 1778 and made ending Arnold’s military rule one of his top priorities.
One of the first changes that Reed and the Executive Council made was to get the Continental Congress to take away Arnold’s power to issue passes to civilians. This was in response to passes Arnold had issued to move some of his personal property through the city at a time when no one else could do so.
Of course, an issue arose where a woman named Hannah Levey was trying to get a pass to get out of town. Levey was a relative of Major David Franks, who was Arnold’s top aide. Major Franks’ uncle was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who had thrown parties for General Howe and other top officers during the occupation and was considered a collaborator.
Arnold requested a pass for Miss Levey, but the Council denied it. She was related to a suspected loyalist and the Council was in no mood to do any favors for General Arnold. Instead, Arnold gave Levey a personal note instructing soldiers to allow her to pass. When Reed found out and confronted Arnold about this effort to ignore the council’s rules, Arnold told Reed that Levey was on a military mission for him. The matter was secret and he would not disclose its purpose to Reed or the Council.
On another occasion, Major Franks ordered the sentry at his home to go fetch a barber. The sentry, Pennsylvania Militia Sergeant William Matlack, was not happy about leaving his post to run personal errands for the officer and asked if this was the way soldiers were treated. He told Franks that he would go if directly ordered to do so by the officer, but would also lodge a complaint. Franks cursed out the soldier and slammed the door in his face. The sergeant did go to Arnold with the complaint. Arnold said he would look into it, but did nothing.
Sergeant Matlack, the man who made the complaint, also happened to be the son of Timothy Matlack who served on the Supreme Executive Council and was friends with Joseph Reed. Soon newspaper editorials were complaining about the use of soldiers as servants. This also played into attitudes that Arnold and his fellow officers were acting more like loyalists and refusing to respect the rights of patriotic Americans.
Another issue that caused Arnold and Reed to butt heads was the case of the Active, a British sloop. In the summer of 1778, the ship had captured several Connecticut fishermen, including a man named Gideon Olmstead, who were out at sea, and impressed them into service. The ship sailed to Jamaica and then was headed back to New York. While still at sea, Olmestead and his fellow captives managed to lock the crew below decks and take control of the ship. After considerable struggle, they managed to bring the ship into Egg Harbor, New Jersey. As they approached the harbor, another ship, the Convention, owned by the State of Pennsylvania boarded the ship and claimed it as a prize.
Olmstead and his men said they were already in control of the ship and that the prize was theirs. The case went to the Supreme Executive Council which ruled in favor of the State and kept the money. Olmestead then turned to Arnold for justice. Arnold agreed to front some money to Olmstead and his shipmates and also provide some legal assistance in exchange for a share of the winnings.
Reed was outraged that the military governor was involving himself in this state matter involving property rights. The Continental Congress set up an investigative committee and ruled in favor of Olmstead. Despite the ruling, Reed and the Pennsylvania courts refused to turn over the proceeds from the sale of the ship. The two sides would continue the legal battle for decades, long after Arnold had died. The US Supreme Court finally resolved the matter in Olmstead’s favor more than 30 years later in 1809.
In February 1779 all of the fighting between Arnold and his officers with Reed and the local politicians went to the next level. Arnold made plans in January to visit General Philip Schuyler in New York. Schuyler was working on a land scheme to take possession of thousands of acres of land confiscated from loyalists in upstate New York. Arnold was to get a chance to buy in and become a partial owner of land that would certainly be sold at a huge profit.
Arnold left Philadelphia in early February, headed for upstate New York. Along the way, he stopped in Middlebrook, New Jersey to spend a few days with General Washington, bringing him up to date on events in Philadelphia and discussing future plans. Washington welcomed his old friend and invited Arnold to stay with him. The two generals spent several days catching up.
While with Washington, a courier came looking for Arnold to inform him that the Supreme Executive Council had brought eight criminal charges against Arnold. The charges were 1) granting an unauthorized pass to a Tory ship leaving port, 2) closing down all shops while making purchases for his personal benefit, 3) imposing menial services on militia (the Matlack incident), 4) taking a financial interest in the legal dispute over the ship Active 5) Using state wagons to transport Tory property for private gain, 6) granting passes to civilians after Congress assigned that power to the state, 7) treating the Council with disrespect after it inquired about the use of the wagons, and finally a more general charge 8) “cold and neglectful treatment of Patriot authorities, both civil and military, with an entirely different line of conduct toward adherents of the King” by which they meant local Tories.
Not only had Reed and the council brought these charges against Arnold while he was away from the city, they also published them in the local newspapers. Arnold discussed the matter with Washington, who seemed to support Arnold in this matter. At least that is what Arnold wrote in a letter to Peggy Shippen at the time. Washington suggested that Arnold seek a military court martial to clear his name.
Arnold cancelled his travel plans and returned to Philadelphia, demanding an immediate hearing on the charges. The Council refused to hold a hearing right away, while Reed was seeking to have The Continental Congress suspend Arnold from his command until the matter was resolved.
Congress formed a committee to look into the matter. Arnold defended himself on the charges at a hearing in March. Congress threw out six of the eight charges, allowing only two to proceed: granting an unauthorized pass for the Tory ship, the Charming Nancy, to leave port, and for closing down the shops while benefiting from personal purchases of goods
Arnold seemed happy with the outcome and was confident that the remaining charges would also be dismissed after the hearing. On March 19, he resigned his position as military governor of Philadelphia. He was still a major general, but did not have any command. He and Peggy continued their plans for a wedding in April. As a wedding present, Arnold purchased a large estate known as Mount Pleasant.
This, of course, only outraged Reed and the radicals even further. They questioned how Arnold could afford such a purchase, other than through his corruption. Of course, Arnold had heavily mortgaged his purchase, based on the expectation that Congress would repay the debts they still owed to him for personal outlays while in the field.
We will have to pick up that story in a future episode. But we will end on the happy note that Arnold and Peggy were married on April 6, 1779 and looked forward to a lifetime of happiness together.
Next week, we head out west as the Americans attack the British at Fort Vincennes in what is today Indiana.
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Next Episode 210 Fort Vincennes (Available July 25, 2021)
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Organization of the Clothing Department: www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/revwar/risch/chpt-9.htm (for the full book see Supplying Washington’s Army, listed below under “free ebooks”).
Werther, Richard J. "Grace Galloway - Abandoned Loyalist Wife" Journal of the American Revolution, March 12, 2018: https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/03/grace-galloway-abandoned-loyalist-wife
Betsy DeBlois, The Girl Who Got Away From Benedict Arnold: https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/betsy-deblois-girl-got-away-benedict-arnold
“To George Washington from James Mease, 16 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0563
“From George Washington to Joseph Reed, 9 February 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0160.
Mount Pleasant Mansion: https://househistree.com/houses/mount-pleasant-mansion
(from archive.org unless noted)
Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858.
Risch, Erna Supplying Washington’s Army, Center for Military History, 1981 (from US Army Center for Military History).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.
Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Thompson, Ray Benedict Arnold in Philadelphia, Bicentennial Press, 1975.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.