Revolutionary War Historical Article

Tench Tilghman - Aide-de-Camp to General Washington

By John T. Marck

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the January 2007 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter. Our special thanks to Compatriot David C. Lasher for arranging for us to publish this article.

Tench Tilghman was born on Christmas day 1744 at "Fausley", the plantation owned by his father, James Tilghman, located on Fausley Creek, a branch of the St. Michaels River, in Talbot County, a few miles from the town of Easton.

TENCH TILGHMAN’S FAMILY

Tench's grandfather was Richard Tilghman, a surgeon who was born in the County of Kent, England. In 1662, he moved his family to Talbot County, Maryland, settling in an area along the Third Haven River. Within a short time, Richard moved to the "Hermitage", located on the Chester River, then in Kent County, but today in Queen Anne's County.

Richard's son, James Tilghman, was a distinguished gentleman lawyer, who lived in Talbot County but moved to Chestertown in Kent County. From here he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he held many positions of respect and trust. Among his positions were: secretary to the Pennsylvania Proprietary Land Office; a member of the governor's council; and one of the commissioners for the province of Pennsylvania, who was appointed by Governor Penn. In this position he was responsible for settling the boundary lines between the colonies and Indian territory, held at Fort Stanwix, between October and November, 1768. During the disputes between the colonies and England, he defended the colonies. Upon resigning from public office he returned to his home in Chestertown, Kent County, Maryland, where he died. His wife, Tench's mother, was the daughter of Tench Francis, a lawyer, who was born in Ireland, but resettled in Talbot County as a young boy. Tench Francis married the daughter of Foster Turbutt, of Ottwell, also of Talbot County Maryland, and went on to become the clerk of the court and deputy commissioner for Talbot County. He later moved to Philadelphia where he would become the attorney general of the province of Pennsylvania, and became quite legendary as a lawyer.

TENCH TILGHMAN'S BROTHERS

Tench Tilghman was born into a family of twelve children, of whom six were brothers who all became distinguished in their own right. In birth order by age, Tench was the eldest, followed by Richard, James, William, Philemon, and Thomas Ringgold Tilghman.

Richard Tilghman received his education in London, becoming a distinguished lawyer, and obtained employment in civil service with the East India Company under Warren Hastings. During this employment, Richard died at sea. James Tilghman, the third brother, was also a lawyer, and became one of the associate justices of Talbot County.

William Tilghman was the most distinguished of the brothers as a lawyer. He was born in Talbot County on August 12, 1756, and following his family's move to Philadelphia he studied law under Benjamin Chew. After receiving his law degree, he moved back to Maryland where he was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1783. In 1788 he became a member of the Maryland Legislature, and served for several years. In 1793, he moved to Philadelphia and began his practice there. When the United States Circuit Courts was established, William was appointed a judge of the Pennsylvania Circuit. When the law that established the United States Circuit Courts was repealed, he returned to his private practice and in 1805 was appointed president of the Court of Common Pleas in the first district. One year later in February 1806 he was the chief justice of the State Superior Court. In 1824 he served as president of the Pennsylvania Society and in 1809, prepared for the legislature a report on the English statutes in force in Pennsylvania. William Tilghman died in Philadelphia on April 30, 1827.

The fifth brother, Philemon, traveled to England at the age of fifteen, and entered the British Navy. After receiving his commission, he married the daughter of Admiral Millbanke. The youngest of the brothers, William Ringgold, became a distinguished merchant in Alexandria, Virginia, then in Baltimore, but unfortunately, he died at a very young age. All six of their sisters married celebrated gentlemen from the Eastern Shore in Maryland.

LT. COL. TENCH TILGHMAN

At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, when hostilities began between Great Britain and the colonies, Tench was one of the first men determined to insure victory for the colonies. He joined the famous "Silk Stockings", a light infantry unit in Philadelphia. This unit was commanded by Captain Sharpe Dulaney, a descendent of one of Maryland's more prominent families, and made up of men holding the best social positions in Philadelphia. Tilghman soon was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and with the "Silk Stockings" joining George Washington's army, Tench was promoted to Captain. Just prior to going into active service in July 1775, he was appointed secretary and treasurer of a commission that was comprised of Major General Philip Schuyler, Major Joseph Hawley, Oliver Wolcott, Volkert P. Douw and Turbutt Francis, his maternal uncle. This commission's function was to secure the impartiality of the Indians located on the frontiers from Florida to Canada. They left New York on August 5, 1775, and returned to New York on September 4, after being successful in securing a treaty of peace with the Six Indian Nations.

In the early months of 1776, Tench joined George Washington's army along with his Silk Stockings unit, and became known as the "Flying Camp." Through his own drive and personal merits, combined with his high social position and education, he attracted the attention of his superior officers, and with the help of his persuasive friends, was invited to take a position on Washington's staff.

TENCH TILGHMAN: AIDE-DE-CAMP

By August 1776, Tench became aide-de-camp, holding the rank of Lieutenant General on the staff of George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief. At this time, Washington's close military "family" consisted of Colonel Robert Harrison of Maryland, and Colonels Meade and Webb. A short time later, Colonel Webb was promoted, bringing in Colonel Alexander Hamilton to fill his vacancy in 1777.

At this time in the army, there were no regulations regarding the order of promotions. Consequently, George Washington, in an attempt to reconcile the many disagreements that existed among the military personnel on this issue, wrote to the Honorable John Sullivan, a member of Congress, in the hope that he would be able to have Congress adopt rules addressing this matter. Washington, in this letter of May 11, 1781, wrote the following concerning Tench Tilghman: "I also wish, though it is more a private than of public consideration, that the business could be taken up on account of Mr. Tilghman, whose appointment seems to depend on it; for if there are men in the army deserving of the commission proposed for him, he is one of them. This gentleman came out a captain of one of the light infantry companies of Philadelphia, and served in the Flying Camp in 1776. In August, of the same year, he joined my family, and has been in every action in which the main army was concerned. He has been a zealous servant and slave to the public, and a faithful assistant to me for nearly five years, a great part of which time he refused to receive pay. Honor and gratitude interest me in his favor, and make me solicitous to obtain his commission. His modesty and love of concord placed the date of his expected commission at the first of April, 1777, because he would not take rank of Hamilton and Meade, who are declared aids in order (which he did not chose to be), before that period, although he had joined my family and done all the duties of one from the first September preceding."

Consequently, as a result of this letter Tilghman’s commission was issued in accordance with his own wishes on May 30th, 1781, effective April 1st, 1777. He held this rank to the close of the war, without seeking or desiring promotion. As well, he continued as Washington's assistant and confidential secretary serving with great distinction throughout the war.

Additionally, it was Tench Tilghman who brought the news of the surrender of General Cornwallis and the British on October 19th, 1781 following their defeat at Yorktown, to Congress. Tilghman, in his journey to notify Congress in Philadelphia, first stopped in Annapolis, Maryland and informed Maryland Governor Thomas Sim Lee of the surrender. However, Governor Lee had already been informed of the news, and as a result, sent the State House messenger, Jonathan Parker, to Philadelphia with the news. But, since those in Philadelphia were used to hearing information in the past that turned out to be rumors, and afraid to celebrate too soon, they waited anxiously for the official word; those dispatches that Tilghman carried. From Annapolis, Tilghman boarded a ferry at Rock Hall, Maryland, and after stopping to rest and see his family, continued on his journey to Philadelphia, arriving on October 24th, 1781. He first delivered the news to the President of Congress, Thomas McKean, then later that afternoon, attired in his full uniform and dress sword, Tench delivered the news to the members of Congress, as well as answered the numerous questions about the Battle of Yorktown. In appreciation for his faithful service, Congress awarded Tilghman a horse and another dress sword. That evening, a celebration by torchlight was held in Philadelphia in honor of Colonel Tilghman and the victory at Yorktown. In preparation for this celebration, the following was written and distributed to those in Philadelphia, saying, "those citizens who chose to illuminate on the Glorious Occasion, will do it this evening at Six, and extinguish their lights at Nine o’clock , and decorum and harmony are earnestly recommended to every Citizen, and a general discountenance to the least appearance of a riot."

TILGHMAN'S FAMOUS SWORDS

Tench Tilghman's sword that he wore at Valley Forge, Yorktown, and when delivering the news to Congress, as well as the sword presented in his honor by Congress, are today on display in the State House in Annapolis. They were generously donated by Mrs. Judith Oates, a direct descendant of Tench Tilghman, upon her death on December 26th, 1997. It should also be noted that one of the swords worn by Tilghman is also depicted in the life sized painting by Charles Willson Peale showing Washington, Lafayette and Tilghman at Yorktown, also on display in the State House.

TENCH TILGHMAN'S PERSONAL LIFE AND DEATH

On June 9th, 1783, Tench Tilghman married Anna Maria Tilghman, the daughter of his uncle, the Honorable Matthew Tilghman. Following the war on January 1st, 1784, Tilghman formed a business partnership with Robert Morris in Baltimore. Morris was the financier of the Revolutionary War, that also improved the economic well being of the state of Maryland. Their business, called Tench Tilghman & Company, was quite a success and continued until the death of Tench Tilghman on April 18th, 1786.

Initially, Tench Tilghman's remains were buried at St. Paul's Cemetery located at Fremont and Lombard Streets in Baltimore. In 1973, his remains were moved from St. Paul's to Oxford Cemetery in Oxford, Maryland. Located at his grave is the Tench Tilghman Monument. Across the cove from the cemetery is Plimhimmon, the former home of Tilghman's widow, Anna Marie. She too is buried in Oxford cemetery. On Old Villa Road near Easton is a carved stone marking the birthplace of Tench Tilghman.

Upon the death of Tilghman, many who knew him expressed their sorrow as well as their words of tribute to him. Robert Morris said, "You have lost in him a most faithful and valuable friend. He was to me the same. I esteemed him very much, and I lament his loss exceedingly." General Knox, in a letter to Anna Marie said, “Death has deprived you of a most tender and virtuous companion, and the United States of America an able and upright patriot. When time shall have smoothed the severities of your grief, you will derive consolation from the reflection that Colonel Tilghman acted well his part in the theatre of human life, and that the supreme authority of the United States have expressly given their sanction to his merit.”

George Washington, upon learning of the death of Tilghman, later wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated August 1st, 1786, saying, " Colonel Tilghman, who was formerly of my family, died lately, and left as fair a reputation as ever belonged to a human character.” In a letter to Tench's father on June 5th, 1786, Washington said “Of all the numerous acquaintances of your lately deceased son, and amidst all the sorrowings that are mingled on that melancholy occasion, I may venture to assert (that excepting those of his nearest relatives) none could have felt his death with more regret that I did, because no one entertained a higher opinion of his worth or had imbibed sentiments of greater friendship for him then I had done. That you, sir, should have felt the keenest anguish for this loss, I can readily conceive; the ties of parental affection, united with those of friendship, could not fail to have produced this effect. It is however, a dispensation, the wisdom of which is inscrutable; and amidst all your grief, there is this consolation to be drawn, that while living, no man could be more esteemed, and since dead, none more lamented than Colonel Tilghman."

 No one could have summed up the life and dedication of Tench Tilghman better than these individuals. Colonel Tench Tilghman was an outstanding American, who devoted his life, sacrificing himself to the cause of American Independence.

 

Inscription on Col. Tilghman’s Tombstone

 

IN MEMORY OF

COL. TENCH TIGHMAN

WHO DIED APRIL 18, 1786 IN THE 42ND

YEAR OF HIS AGE. VERY MUCH LAMENTED.

HE TOOK AN EARLY AND ACTIVE PART

IN THE GREAT CONTEST THAT SECURED

THE INDEPENDENCE OF

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

HE WAS AN AIDE-DE-CAMP TO

HiS EXCELLENCY GENERAL WASHINGTON

COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF THE AMERICAN

ARMIES AND WAS HONORED

WITH HIS FRIENDSHIP AND CONFIDENCE

AND HE WAS ONE OF THOSE WHOSE MERITS

WERE DISTINGUISHED AND HONORABLY

REWARDED BY CONGRESS. BUT STILL MORE

TO HIS PRAISE HE WAS A GOOD MAN.

 

On November 30th, 1971, his descendents had his grave relocated to the Oxford Cemetery and placed alongside the grave of his wife. A bronze plaque stating that fact was added to the bottom of his tombstone.

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