In a period of heightened awareness surrounding liberties and democracy, stories from the age of America’s founding are particularly timely and poignant. Now, a newly published book presents an unusual and compelling aspect in the telling of America’s fight for independence. Defiant Brides takes readers through the lives of two women whose loyalist beginnings and soldier husbands were the only things similar about them, and would eventually divide them from their families and one, from her country.
Nancy Rubin Stuart, the author of eight books, five of which are biographies of women, has penned a unique perspective: that of the wives of two American generals who started out on the same side of the war and eventually, were separated by ideals, devotion and countries. Through Defiant Brides, readers come to know not only Peggy Shippen Arnold and Lucy Flucker Knox, but also their husbands, their fates and the American landscape during and after the war. Historical fact, narrative and storytelling blend to present the accounts of these women during and after the formative period of the United States in an approachable, entertaining and engaging read.
Peggy Shippen Arnold, wife of Gen. Benedict Arnold, and Lucy Flucker Knox, wife Gen. Henry Knox, are brought front and center as they fight battles on the domestic front while their husbands fought for their respective countries. Historical bookshelves of the American Revolution are populated with founding fathers, battles, and ideals, but precious few biographies exist about the many women who played key roles as wives, mothers and businesswomen during America’s formative period and beyond.
Defiant Brides begins to rectify that with the unusual approach of chronicling the lives of Knox and Arnold in a dual narrative. Although both women grew up in Loyalist households, they were as diametrically opposed physically and idealistically as their lives were parallel. They defied their families to marry the men they loved and eventually defied the odds to survive and forge new identities for themselves in their new countries.
Knox and Arnold’s beginnings were similar: attractive, vivacious young brides who disobeyed their Loyalist families by marrying Patriots, and whose support of their husbands and the lengths they would go to for them was unquestionable. However, in 1779, their paths diverged. Arnold helped to recapture Fort Ticonderoga from the British while it was Gen. Knox, whose monumental struggle in the dead of winter, lugging cannons to General Washington in Cambridge allowed the Patriots to force the British evacuation of Boston.
Stuart digs deep (more than five years of research and writing went into Defiant Brides) to reveal Knox and Arnold, and the allegiance to their spouses revealing almost as much about the men they were married to as it does about them. Unquantifiable until now have been their respective characters and the roles they assumed because of their marriages.
While the stunning Peggy was more infamous particularly with regard to her behavior and alleged role in her husband’s treasonous turn, Lucy was complimented for her personality, social accomplishments and as a friend of Martha Washington. However, Stuart strips away the superficial reputations of both women painting a more in-depth portrait that will surprise and absorb readers.
Separating fact from the gossip that has swirled around Arnold for more than two centuries, Stuart constructs a picture of a woman seemingly trapped in her husband’s misery yet unflagging in her commitment to him and determination to make a life for herself. What may be a revelation is the strength of character Shippen displays raising her children, crossing oceans as her husband’s duty demanded, enduring lengthy separations, then attempting to clear Arnold’s debts. Readers may sympathize with her struggles and apparent disillusionment even as they may be angered discovering she received a pension from the British government leaving one to deduce she was in fact, complicit in Arnold’s turncoat actions. While she was striking and charming, this belle of Philadelphia society was also known for her histrionics, which employed to great effect when General Washington arrived at her doorstep hot on the heels of the treacherous Arnold. Peggy’s hysteria lead the commander-in-chief to presume that his general’s wife was as much a victim as he.
Stuart’s seasoned hand at presenting her story with facts and setting it against the backdrop of pre and post-Revolution allows readers to better understand her choice to support her husband, and in the end, make good on her husband’s debts while raising their young children almost single-handedly. There is no doubt the 18th century was a difficult time to be a woman and many who threw their lot in with that of their husbands had to make the best of it. While 2½ centuries afford the luxury of looking back to judge, for Peggy, the choices and sacrifices must have been arduous. She came from a British family, believed herself to be its subject and that the American Revolution was inherently wrong. We’re often tempted to cast blame as the name Benedict Arnold inspires loathing. However, in Defiant Brides, we’re presented with a view that softens those edges. Shippen’s husband was an insecure, brilliant tactician who driven by his obsession, sought glory and acknowledgement. In his mind, the injustices wrought against him by the very cause he fought and suffered permanent disability for was justified.
Along this timeline, Stuart weaves the love story between Lucy Flucker and Henry Knox as one of utter devotion. From the time she marries the poor Boston bookseller, Lucy’s unflagging commitment to ‘her Harry’ and his for her, is enviable. Joining her husband in army camps whenever possible, Lucy perseveres through eight years of revolution and beyond despite periods of deprivation, separation and the loss of several children. Though obviously despondent over their deaths, Lucy never seemed unduly affected by Knox’s celebrity or eclipsed by his overall stature or personality. In fact, the two seem to balance one another, as noted in correspondence of the time. The general’s jovial, optimistic nature and loving indulgence of his wife helped balance the dark days and years of loss and war. A faithful companion in camps, Lucy’s amiable hostessing, sewing circles and Patriotic support was counter-balanced by her extravagance. Having married Knox for love not money, Lucy apparently never fully sheds her loyalist grandeur and entertains throughout her marriage to the detriment of family finances. The tribulations of war, deaths of her offspring and subsequent bouts of depression may have contributed to Lucy’s infamous card playing and spending and so the reader feels empathy as Knox apparently tries to replace her pain.
Following the death of their spouses, neither Peggy Shippen Arnold nor Lucy Flucker Knox remarried and both assumed the mantle of responsibility for their children’s futures carrying on despite great emotional pain, lingering financial concerns and foggy futures.
This deftly written book seamlessly weaves historical fact with narrative across years of pre and post Revolutionary America in which Stuart bridges the gap between the Founding Fathers and the women who stood by their sides, cared for or lost children, homes and family connections. Thanks to meticulous research that included letters, military doctrines, journals and numerous onsite research efforts, readers will enjoy a ride across time, war, marriage and choices. While there are large gaps in time, this is due to the lack of historical record or available correspondence and Stuart does quite an admirable job of bridging these to join the story together and keeps it flowing. A highly recommended book that is at once as readable and interesting, as it is historical and fascinating.