Tench Tilghman served in the Revolutionary War as a top aide to George Washington, who praised the Talbot County, Md. native generously for his advice, loyalty, and trustworthiness. After the British surrendered at Yorktown, Washington assigned to Tilghman the task of making a mad dash to the nation’s capital in Philadelphia to deliver official word of the triumph.
(1) That Weird First Name
The tench is a carp-like fish native to freshwater lakes and rivers in parts of Europe and Asia. Its scientific name is almost musical, Tinca tinca. One plausible theory offered up by the late historian Gary Crawford of Tilghman Island, Md. is that Tench became a human name in the same way as Baker, Miller, and Cook—that is, as a description of a family whose occupation was fishing for tench.
Its use as a surname in England dates back to at least the 1100s. In 1675, a woman with the maiden name of Ann Tench turned Tench into a first name for one of her children, presumably to honor her family roots. Two of Ann’s descendants, including that Tench, would emigrate to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “Tench” actually became quite a popular name for baby boys in the colonies through the 1700s.
(2) Family, Politics, & Keeping the Peace
The most famous of these little Tenches arrived in the world on Christmas Day, 1744, the eldest son of James and Ann Tilghman. The couple lived at that point on a plantation called Fausely, perched along Glebe Creek near the modern-day town of Easton, Md.
Tench’s parents sent him to Philadelphia at age 14 to get a proper education. The parents, too, would soon move to Philly. When he finished studying at an early incarnation of the University of Pennsylvania, Tench went into the shipping business with an uncle. They did quite well, sending tobacco, wheat, and other goods across the Atlantic while also importing products from Europe.
Then came the winds of war, which soon led Tench to shut his business down so as to devote himself fully to the revolutionary cause.
“Upon the breaking out of the troubles I came to a determination to share the fate of my country; and that I might not be merely a spectator, I made as hasty a close as I possibly could, of my commercial affairs.”
There is no hint in his words here, but picking sides in the conflict must have been a challenge. Tench had 11 siblings, many of whom stayed loyal to the British crown. One brother would go so far as to join the British navy. His father publicly denounced the Boston Tea Party. During the war years, James Tilghman would be held under house arrest over his Tory tendencies.
But Tench went his own way, volunteering with a revolutionary military unit and soon rising to the rank of captain. Political differences complicated his family relations, but only briefly. James Tilghman lobbied hard to get his eldest son to give up his revolutionary foolishness. Those entreaties grew so annoying that Tench felt a need to institute a rule: He and his father were never, ever allowed to discuss politics.
The let’s-just-not-talk-about-it approach helped calm things down quite a bit, judging by a biographical sketch of Tench that appeared in the Baltimore Sun in 1911.
“[This difference of opinion on the war was] a circumstance, however, which did not in any way come between the father and son, to judge from the tender letters which the younger man took every opportunity to send the senior, advising him of his welfare and safety.”
Ironically, it was through his British loyalist father that Tench found his way to the assignment that would bring him historical fame. James Tilghman and George Washington were society acquaintances before the war. Apparently, they quite liked each other. When it came time to outfit his personal staff, Washington trusted that connection and invited Tench Tilghman into his inner circle.
The word used in history books to describe his post is aide de camp. In the corporate world today, we might call it “executive assistant” to the CEO. He was a secretary on steroids, working often as a stenographer and gofer but also deeply involved in every nook, cranny, secret, and big decision of the operation.
Tilghman stayed at Washington’s side from 1776 to 1883. He declined to accept any payment for his military service. He saw it all, up close—the near catastrophe in New York City, the desperate winter in Valley Forge, the high stakes crossing of the Delaware, and, finally, victory at Yorktown. Later in life, Washington would sing Tilghman’s praises as a “zealous servant and slave to the public, and faithful assistant to me.”
(3) Another Weird Name: Teahokalonde
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Before joining Washington’s staff, Tilghman was assigned to a Revolutionary delegation that paid a visit to the Mohawk Indians, hoping to convince that tribe to side with the patriots over the Brits when war broke out.
A chief of the Odandago tribe took a liking to Tench during these negotiations. The Mohawk bigwig adopted the Talbot County native as his “son” and christened him with a new name, Teahokalonde. Literally, this is a powerful deer with big antlers. Figuratively, it evokes qualities of strength, virtue, and courage. After the naming ceremony, Tilghman received what seems to have been a rather bawdy invitation:
“They told me that in order to settle myself among them they must choose me a wife and promised that she would be one of the handsomest they could find.”
What follows this offer in Tilghman’s journal is accounts of various good-natured ribbing and joking on the topic by his European compatriots. That historian Gary Crawford handles the obvious question in diplomatic fashion, concluding only that “there is no evidence” that such a relationship was consummated during the Mohawk negotiations.
In many ways Tilghman was deeply impressed by the “Savages” he met during his encounter with the Mohawks. When I came across this particular passage in his journals, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was written with thoughts of talking politics with his father and siblings in mind:
“The Behaviour of the poor Savages at a public Meeting ought to put us civilized people to the Blush. The most profound silence is observed, no interruption of a speaker. When any one speaks all the rest are attentive. … It is amazing with what exactness these people recollect all that has been said to them.”
In other ways, Tench was not so impressed with Mohawk life. He scoffed at the way the European ladies who had accompanied his delegation went wild over a dance performance by warriors showing off “the most savage Contortions of Body & limbs.” Nor did he much like a singing performance by Mohawk women—“they always strained their voices too high,” he complained.
(4) The Terrible, Horrible, Not-So-Good Ride
Tench Tilghman is most famous for that mad dash from Yorktown to Philadelphia in 1781. Think of it as a bookend to the more famous ride of Paul Revere. While the former served as a dramatic call to arms at the start of the war, Tilghman’s ride delivered the message that the tide had turned and the war was won.
By all accounts, the army of the good guys was utterly exhausted in the wake of their triumph at Yorktown. Many were deathly sick, too, as Tidewater Virginia was quite the malaria hotbed in those days.
After Cornwallis’s surrender, Washington summoned his right-hand man and told him to deliver that news to the Continental Congress. Fake news was a big issue during the Revolutionary War, too, it seems. Congress had learned by painful experience not to trust the rumors about battle outcomes and other matters that rolled into town after spreading through various colonies. The only war news they acted on at this point came straight from Washington’s inner circle.
Tilghman’s famous ride tends to be celebrated in history books as a rousing success. At least two poets have recounted it in verse, though neither work enjoyed the fame of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous ode to Paul Revere. What gets glossed in these accounts is a simple fact: Tench’s ride was a #@$&@#%! NIGHTMARE of the first order.
Pretty much everything that could go wrong did, from the moment Tench boarded a boat at Yorktown on Oct. 21, 1781. He was suffering from chills and running a fever, perhaps in throes of a bout with malaria. With winds on the Chesapeake Bay coming out of the northeast that first night, the captain of the schooner Tilghman was aboard needed to “tack” in zig-zag fashion this way and that across the Bay in order to make headway toward Annapolis.
Alas, the skipper zigged too zealously. The thud of the boat coming aground on “Tangier shoals” woke Tilghman from a sleep he desperately needed.
“I lost one whole night’s run by the stupidity of the skipper.”
When the vessel finally arrived in Annapolis, Tilghman delivered his news to the Revolutionary bigwigs of that town, then rushed to the docks to catch a boat across the Bay. The sail from Annapolis to Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a popular travel route in those years. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the sail was a routine affair.
Not for Tench. The wind died completely en route, leaving the boat he was aboard bobbing motionless on the Bay—”becalmed,” to borrow a sailing term—as the seconds and minutes and hours of another lost day ticked by.
In Rock Hall at long last, Tench didn’t have to rely anymore on fickle winds and stupid captains. He was atop a horse, in command of his own destiny. The only thing he would need is an occasional fresh mount when the one under him got tired. For that, he counted on the kindness and patriotism of the people of his native Eastern Shore.
“When his horse began to fail he … [he would ride] up to a lonely farmhouse in old Kent [County and] shout, ‘Cornwallis is taken; a fresh horse for the Congress!’ In a minute he would be remounted and pushing on in a free gallop.”
He rode through Edesville (then called Forktown) and into Chestertown. He didn’t stick around for the party that broke out when Chestertown heard the news. That civic affair involved much “roaring of cannon” and “exhibition of bonfires,” along with a fancy ball highlighted by a hard-drinking run of 12 happy civic toasts.
Tench crossed the Sassafras River at Georgetown, then made his way through Delaware to Wilmington and finally on to Philly. He arrived in the wee hours of Wed., Oct. 24 riding through empty streets until he at last commenced pounding on the door of Thomas McKean, the president of the Continental Congress. According to historian Dickson Preston, he suffered one last indignity to cap off his mad dash:
“Watchmen thought he was drunk and almost arrested him before he convinced them who he was and why he was there.”
Tench had ridden 175 miles in 22 hours. This works out to 7.95 miles an hour, a rate that reflects top-speed travel in colonial times. By comparison, Paul Revere is a lightweight, as his ride was a brief sprint by comparison. Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia:
“Soon watchmen throughout the city were proclaiming the hour and shouting ‘All is well and Cornwallis taken.’ Within minutes most of the citizens were awake and in the streets, celebrating the happy news. The State House bell rang out ‘Liberty’ for the new American nation.”
The next day, Tench sat before Congress to deliver a formal report and take questions. Then he found a bed. By all reports, he stayed in it for a whole week.
(5) The Afterlife of Tench Tilghman
Tench went back into the shipping business after the war and once again did quite well for himself. In 1783, he married a cousin, Anna Maria Tilghman. She was the daughter of Tench’s Uncle Matthew Tilghman, an Eastern Shoreman who had also chosen the winning side, serving as a bigwig in various Revolutionary councils and committees.
Tench and Anna Maria lived in Baltimore, mostly. They had a place on Lombard Street. Alas, their time together was short. Tench was in Chestertown, where his father had moved, when he died on April 18, 1786—less than five years after his famous ride, at age 41.
He fell victim to a complex liver problem called hepatic abscess. Physicians nowadays still struggle to treat this somewhat rare but potentially deadly condition. Speculation abounds in history books on the question of whether Tench’s fever-ridden ride to Philadelphia helped bring on his early death. Supposedly, he was often in ill health from the end of his wartime service right up to his death. Did the ordeal—and/or that possible case of malaria—leave him with a compromised immune system?
He was buried at St. Paul’s cemetery in Baltimore, though as we shall see he is now resting back on his native Eastern Shore. Here are a few ways that Tench is connected with later events on Delmarva.
• Tench and Anna Maria had two daughters, one of whom was born after Tench’s death. Anna Maria’s father, Matthew Tilghman, cared for his daughter and granddaughters in generous fashion, setting them up on a plantation named Plimhimmon just outside of Oxford, Md. Anna Maria lived there as a widow for more than half a century, dying at the age of 88. She was buried in a family plot near the plantation.
• One of Tilghman’s descendants was another Tench Tilghman. A West Point graduate, General Tench Tilghman was the grandson of revolutionary Tench. General Tench worked very hard throughout his life to promote the town of Oxford and bring it to greater prominence and prosperity, with some success. He, too, lived at Plimhimmon. He was a passionate supporter of slavery and the Confederacy.
• This General Tench’s daughter, Rosalie Tilghman Shreve, ended up playing a big role in the transformation of Ocean City, Md. into the big tourism destination we know today. You can read her story here—it’s an inspiring affair.
• Back in Baltimore Old St. Paul’s cemetery fell on hard times during the 1900s. One history lover in those days dubbed it “the most vandalized cemetery in America.” One such group of vandals broke up Tench’s gravestone in the late 1960s. Mortified, Tench’s descendants began a campaign to have his remains removed to the family plot at Oxford Cemetery. The move happened in 1971, reuniting Tench and Anna Marie in a postcard-pretty waterfront spot just outside town, and just across a creek from historic Plimhimmon. The plantation property is in private hands and not open to visitors, but you can visit Tench and Anna Maria at the cemetery if you like.
• Last not least: Thank you so much for spending a little time with this story. Please feel free to wander the site in search of more stories of interest. While here, please visit the Shore Store, where we offer fun greeting cards, interesting books, fabulous photos, and other Delmarva-themed products.
–posted and written by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC on Oct. 24, 2020. All rights reserved.
• The image up top here is from a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It shows Tench Tilghman delivering “The News of Yorktown” to residents of an unnamed Eastern Shore town. It is in the collection of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.
• The other painting here is “Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown” by Charles Willson Peale. The 1784 work is in the Maryland State Art Collection.