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Understanding the American Revolution and its People
Learn all about Tench Tilghman, through
this biographical sketch of the man from Maryland, his famous swords, and who
was the aide-de-camp to George Washington.
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
By John T. Marck
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
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; was a member of the governor’s council; and was 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
Tilghman received his education in London, became 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. Upon 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.
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 decedent 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 upon 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 commissions
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
By August 1776, Tench became
aid-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 in
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 30, 1781,
effective April 1, 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 19, 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 24, 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 to Tench Tilghman,
upon her death on December 26, 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.
Tilghman’s Personal Life and Death
On June 9, 1783, Tench
Tilghman married Anna Maria Tilghman, the daughter of his uncle, the Honorable
Matthew Tilghman. Following the war on January 1, 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 18, 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 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 1, 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 of June 5, 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 that 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. Tench
Tilghman was an outstanding American, who devoted his life, sacrificing himself
to the cause of American Independence.
Copyright © 1993-2022
by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.