Listen up my children and you shall hear…of quite another gallop than the ride of Paul Revere.
Quite another also than Jack Jouett’s similar nighttime outing in central Virginia with that familiar warning, “The British are coming, the British are coming!” (In Jouett’s case, more specifically, just in time to warn that Banastre “No Quarter” Tarleton was coming to seize Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly at Charlottesville, Va.)
No sir, quite a bit different was this also-crucial ride! On this particular occasion, 225 years ago in October, the lone rider coursing through the night, through the day, and then some, all 245 miles from Virginia to the temporary capital at Philadelphia, did not ride his steed after steed in warning, but in jubilation…in triumph!
The British no longer would be coming, he rode to say—to report officially, that is, to the Continental Congress seated at Philadelphia that the British had been defeated in the great battle at Yorktown, Va.
Tench Tilghman was his name, a fairly young man born on Christmas Day in 1744 on his family’s tobacco plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As a strictly “honorary” officer for most of the Revolutionary War period, he was George Washington’s aide for seven years, “the longest tenure of the 32 aides who served Washington,” according to Richard L. Blanco, editor of Garland Publishing’s two-volume encyclopedia The American Revolution 1775-1783.
After serving most of that time without pay, Tilghman finally was given his commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army by the Continental Congress in the spring of 1781. Before and after, however, he was Washington’s right-hand man in a myriad of ways. “Tilghman performed a variety of duties that an entire staff would perform in the twentieth century,” Blanco declared in his own encyclopedia entry on Tilghman. “He was discreet, exercised good judgment, and handled a mass of correspondence. Tilghman wrote dispatches for Washington, handled letters to Congress, translated letters in French, and he interrogated prisoners.”
As Washington’s faithful shadow, too, he was present for the disastrous Manhattan campaign early in the war, the retreat to Pennsylvania and the triumph of Trenton. He was at Monmouth, scene of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s insubordination and firing, and he testified at Lee’s subsequent court-martial.
As a 1761 graduate of the College and Academy of Philadelphia, precursor to the University of Pennsylvania, and then as a businessman with his uncle, Tench Francis Jr., in the same city, Tilghman had entered the revolutionary cause with a Pennsylvania militia unit that later was absorbed into the Continental Army. He also had served as secretary to a congressionally appointed commission negotiating treaties with the Iroquois Indians.
Having sought out his assignment with Washington, Tilghman often turned aside opportunities for a field command in order to stay by his chief’s side. Thus he was with the leader of the Continental Army that shocking morning when he discovered that Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold had betrayed the revolutionary cause and fled his quarters across the Hudson River from West Point to join the British. Indeed, Tilghman was with Washington and other officers when they were confronted by Arnold’s young and scantily clad wife, seemingly in hysterics.
And he still was by Washington’s side as the American revolutionaries and their French allies tightened the noose on Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown 225 years ago this fall. Such a key figure was Tilghman, albeit often forgotten today, he appears as one of the three principals in a Charles Wilson Peale painting hanging in the Old Senate Chamber Gallery at the Maryland State Capitol, titled Washington, Lafayette & Tilghman at Yorktown.
Thereby, too, hangs his story, for it was Tilghman whom Washington and company chose to carry the official news of the great victory to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, ending a siege begun on September 28. By October 20, Tilghman was on his way to the congressional seat in Philadelphia, a four-day odyssey that would leave him both exhausted and suffering from chills and fever.
He first sailed down the York River and into the Chesapeake Bay, then made his way up the bay until he reached the Eastern Shore late on October 22. From there he rode one horse after another, more or less grabbing a fresh steed wherever he could find one, until arriving in Philadelphia early on the morning of October 24. Unofficial word of Yorktown already had reached the anxious legislators, but they couldn’t really celebrate until Tilghman’s arrival made the great news official.
Even then the Revolutionary War was far from over; it would stretch on until 1783, largely in the South, but the defeat of Cornwallis nonetheless spelled an end to British hopes of containing the American determination to be free and independent. Thus both Tilghman and Washington would remain in uniform until 1783, with the faithful Marylander unfortunately soon falling into failing health. After a brief second career in business and marriage, Tench Tilghman died in 1786 at the age of 41.(One of C. Brian Kelly’s eight books is Best Little Stories from the American Revolution.)
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.