Washington's Aide-de-Camps: Tench Tilghman


Dey Mansion Washington’s Headquarters is fortunate to have had so many of George Washington’s committed aide-de-camps occupy the site during the American Revolution. Tench Tilghman was one of the staff’s core members. “[He] was one of Washington’s principal aides-de-camp and he was probably the general’s best all-round wartime assistant.”[1] Tilghman was the longest serving aide-de-camp, and yet despite being an ardent patriot and one of Washington’s closest confidants, he came from a family of loyalists.


Tilghman was born December 25, 1744 in Fausley Maryland. His father, James Sr., was a prominent lawyer, and his mother Ann came from one of the many influential families in Philadelphia. Being the first son and coming from a distinguished line of doctors, lawyers, and politicians, Tilghman’s upbringing was somewhat privileged.[2] In 1758 he attended the College of Philadelphia where his teaching was supervised by his grandfather. Upon graduation in 1761, he went into business with his uncle and the two prospered during the interwar years. At the start of the revolution, Tilghman became immediately involved in the Patriotic cause. He accepted a position as a secretary to a committee of congress and joined a Philadelphia militia unit called the Ladies Light Infantry. The unit was comprised of men from the best “social positions” in Philadelphian society. Tories labeled it “The Silk Stockings” for their low estimation of their predicted combat efficiency. Despite the perception of the unit, Tilghman was made a Lieutenant and in early 1776, was transferred and promoted to Captain.[3]


During the summer of 1776, Tilghman was moved to New York City in preparation for the upcoming British invasion. His presence was noted by Washington who had connections to the Tilghman family before the war. Tilghman’s father had hosted Washington several times in Philadelphia. The general also knew Tilghman’s, brother James Jr., who was a lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia. Furthermore, his uncle Matthew had been with Washington as a delegate of Maryland to the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775. Since his appointment as Commander-in-Chief, Washington was always on the lookout for educated men who could draft letters, organize office tasks, and translate French. All these things Tilghman did well. As a result, he was offered a volunteer position as aide-de-camp in August of 1776. Forgoing military rank and pay, Tilghman accepted.[4]


Tilghman was immediately thrust into the machinations of managing the army. He proved himself capable during the Long Island Campaign, playing a pivotal role in helping the army evacuate Brooklyn.[5] But becoming Washington’s aide-de-camp also came with it the pain of damaging his familial relationships. In 1777, Tilghman penned a letter to his younger sister Anna Maria. In it, she recalls:


“He talks of never seeing us (his family) ever again and says if he should fall it will be in such a way and in such a Cause that we shall never blush when we hear his name mentioned.”[6]

While further details of his private life remain obscure, we can piece together the fractured Tilghman family of the American Revolution. Tilghman’s father James Sr. and his brother William were both suspected of being loyalists and were summarily placed under arrest in 1776. Both were paroled in 1778, but because of their imprisonment, Philemon, a younger brother of Tilghman’s ran away from home and joined the British Royal Navy. To further complicate matters, the second oldest brother Richard, had joined the East India Company and upon learning of Tilghman’s new allegiance, expressed shock to his father.


“I must confess it contain’d a particular Matter, which both astonish’d & griev’d Me: - You will easily guess what I mean: - It is what you yourself mention’d with Concern. In Circumstances however like the present, it is a Consolation to think that those who differ from Us act upon Principle; & We know that the Person I speak of can be influenc’d by none but the most honourable Motives.”[7]

Despite the dismay, Tilghman was not alone in his patriotic sentiments. His uncle, Matthew Tilghman, is considered the “Father of the Revolution” in Maryland. The efforts of organizing the colony into a state is largely associated to him.[8]

As aide, Tilghman assisted Washington through some of the most harrowing experiences of the war. At Valley Forge, Tilghman was repeatedly asked to find forage for the army. Thanks to his efforts, the army abated starvation.[9] At the battle of Monmouth, Tilghman made Washington aware of an officer who knew the local terrain. The Continental army used this intelligence to redeploy and fight the British to a standstill.[10] Washington and Tilghman grew close over the war and Washington made it a point in June of 1780, just weeks before coming to Dey Mansion, to formally appoint Tilghman as an official aide-de-camp, thus annulling his volunteer status. While the monetary benefits of this were not immediate, Washington and Robert Hanson Harrison (another one of the aide-de-camps) worked towards this end so that Tilghman could fully enjoy the position he held within the small military family.

Over a year after visiting the Dey Mansion, the Americans with their French allies, met the British at Yorktown. Tilghman kept a detailed journal describing the events of the siege. At its end, Washington bestowed him with the honor of delivering the news of Cornwallis’ surrender to Congress. Despite being ill, he made his journey to Philadelphia, shouting to all that he passed that Cornwallis had surrendered. Tilghman would stay on for another year as aide-de-camp. The war at this point began to wind down with peace talks soon taking place. Biding his time, Washington still had to keep the semblance of an army together, poised at any moment to take military action. By mid to late December of 1782, Tilghman would take a leave of absence which he would not return from. The war ended less than a year later.

Tilghman did not live long after the wars conclusion. Upon arriving home, he married his cousin Anna Maria Tilghman in June and subsequently reopened his former import export business. He prospered in his personal and professional life and even kept in close contact with his former Commander in Chief. Yet despite this welfare, Tilghman experienced poor health ever since the Battle of Yorktown. On April 18th, 1786, Tench Tilghman passed away due to complications with Hepatitis.[11] His passing was hard felt by his relatives and that of Washington and his military family. Tilghman’s supposed loyalist father even penned Washington and the two reminisced about the aide-de-camp’s many great traits in life. Thankfully we here at Dey Mansion Washington’s Headquarters can remember this great patriot of the American Revolution.



Kelly McManus

Museum Attendant, Dey Mansion Washington's Headquarters


[1]Arthur Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and the Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence, (Lanham: Stackpole Books, 2003), 66 [2]Samuel Alexander Harrison and Oswald Tilghman, Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman, Secretary and Aid to Washington, (Albany: J. Munsell, 1876), 9. [3] Ibid., 14 – 15. [4]Lefkowitz, 202. [5]Ibid., 67 [6] Jessica J. Sheets, “Scattered across the Globe and the Political Spectrum: The Tilghman Family in the Revolutionary War,” accessed November 19, 2021, https://www.mdhistory.org/scattered-across-the-globe-and-the-political-spectrum-the-tilghman-family-in-the-revolutionary-war/. [7] Ibid. [8] “Matthew Tilghman (1717/18-1790),” Maryland State Archives, last modified October 11, 2002, accessed November 19, 2021, https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/001200/001267/html/1267bio.html. [9] Lefkowitz, 149-150. [10] Ibid., 170 – 171. [11] Jess Dacus, “Colonel Tench Tilghman: George Washington’s Eyes and Ears,” Journal of the American Revolution, last modified January 27, 2016, accessed November 19, 2021, https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/colonel-tench-tilghman-george-washington-eyes-ears/.



 


Bibliography


Dacus, Jess “Colonel Tench Tilghman: George Washington’s Eyes and Ears,” Journal of the American Revolution. Last modified January 27, 2016. Accessed November 19,2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/colonel-tench-tilghman-george-washington-eyes-ears/.

Harrison, Samuel Alexander and Oswald Tilghman. Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman, Secretary and Aid to Washington. Albany: J. Munsell, 1876.

Lefkowitz, Arthur. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and the Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Lanham: Stackpole Books, 2003.

“Matthew Tilghman (1717/18-1790).” Maryland State Archives. Last modified October 11, 2002. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/001200/001267/html/1267bio.html.

Sheets, Jessica J. “Scattered across the Globe and the Political Spectrum: The Tilghman Family in the Revolutionary War.” Accessed November 19, 2021. https://www.mdhistory.org/scattered-across-the-globe-and-the-political-spectrum-the-tilghman-family-in-the-revolutionary-war/.


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