Recalling the 1967 re-enactment of Tilghman's historic dash from Yorktown to Philadelphia

Walter Volker reenacting Tench Tilghman's dash from Yorktown to Philadelphia.
Walter Volker reenacting Tench Tilghman's dash from Yorktown to Philadelphia. (Baltimore Sun)

In a recent column, I wrote about Gen. George Washington's aide-de-camp, Tench Tilghman, Maryland's version of Paul Revere, whose historic ride in October 1781 from Virginia to Philadelphia brought news to the Continental Congress of the British surrender at Yorktown and the end of the Revolutionary War.

An email arrived several days later from an old friend and colleague, Mary Corddry, who had been The Baltimore Sun's Eastern Shore correspondent, recalling the events that led to the 1967 re-enactment of Tilghman's ride.

"In the late 1960s, before my Sun years, I was a writer for the Delmarva Advisory Council, a group supported by three states that share the peninsula, charged with developing a regional identity that would attract desirable development," wrote Corddry. "Tourism, a concept barely heard of down there then, and not a very welcome one, quickly dominated the council's efforts, largely because of a hyper native of Chincoteague, Roy Tolbert, who headed that effort.

"When he learned that a group in Chestertown was organizing a Chestertown Tea Party to recognize an event that preceded Boston's, he suggested that it be publicized by re-enacting Tench Tilghman's ride from Yorktown to Philadelphia."

Corddry recalled a "big, fun-loving guy" who volunteered to reprise the role of Tilghman and his fateful ride.

That person was none other than Walter Volker, 43, a Chestertown insurance agent, who stepped out of the crowd thinking it would be an adventure retracing Tilghman's route to Philadelphia by boat and horse.

"The problem was that he had seldom if ever been on a horse," wrote Corddry. "He had a crash course in horsemanship, or at least staying on one, from a Kent County horsewoman, Matey Grieb."

"All the people who knew how to ride wouldn't go," Volker told The Sun at the time. "So, I'm learning, and my wife is making sure all the insurance premiums are paid up."

Volker told reporters that he shed 10 pounds during his riding lessons and expected to lose another 10 pounds by journey's end.

Volker, who was well aware that he'd possibly be exposed to seasickness and saddle sores as a consequence of his equine journey, did some preliminary planning by car. He drove to Philadelphia three times and inspected a route somewhat different from the great patriot's 186 years earlier.

On the second trip, he arranged accommodations for man and horse, and on the third, gained assurances from local police that he would not be viewed as an escapee from a mental hospital and locked up.

Volker dressed appropriately for his journey in an authentic blue-and-tan summer-weight uniform and tricorn hat.

He initially carried a brace of pistols, a sword and a saddlebag, in which was placed Washington's dispatch. He also had two small casks of rum and some fruit.

He later ditched the sword, pistols and fruit, but held on to the rum. Also in his saddlebag were several items not around in the 18th century — credit cards and a ballpoint pen.

The odds were running against Volker, and newspaper accounts said the "odds were 7 to 2" that he wouldn't get as far as Georgetown, Del.

At 2 p.m. May 14, 1967, Volker rode by horse from Yorktown to the city dock, where he boarded a 32-foot ketch for the 175-mile journey by water to Rock Hall via Tangier Island and Annapolis.

"The party sailed up the bay from Yorktown, and all went well until they reached Tangier Island when I, being involved with the venture, got a desperate call that they were out of whiskey," Corddry wrote. "I was dispatched with a supply from Crisfield."

Upon his arriving in Annapolis, a crowd of the curious, reporters and photographers greeted Volker.

"When Tench dismounted, his legs gave way and he landed on his bottom. The pictures were marvelous," Corddry wrote.

And then it was on to Rock Hall the next day aboard the ketch, where, after docking, he climbed aboard his horse to begin the 110-mile ride to Philadelphia.

At Rock Hall, he was joined by Howard A. "Buster" Brown, a Chestertown horseman, who was dressed as a Revolutionary War sergeant, and they rode through Chestertown, completing another leg of the trip.

As they made their way northward, people cheered them along or offered glasses of iced tea.

One woman hanging her wash took a look at the two riders and said, "I knew I got up too early today. Who the hell are you?"

When the re-enactors explained their mission, the woman retreated to her home and slammed the door.

When Volker stopped at a cafe one morning and walked in to order two cups of coffee, the young woman behind the counter said, "If it isn't George Washington himself. Who's the other cup for, hon? You got Martha with you?"

They clopped along at four to five miles an hour, beginning their day at 8 a.m. and climbing out of the saddle at 5 p.m. Their horses, exposed to honking cars, trucks, buses and other 20th-century mechanical noises, were spooked just three times — when an agitated and animated white chicken ran in front of them, when a sheet of newspaper blew past and finally by a Philadelphia streetcar that lumbered by.

Volker told The Sunday Sun Magazine that it was "enjoyable except for the last hour of every day. I got awfully sore in the — of all places — in the knees."

They made it through Georgetown, Del., then on to Clifton Mills and Chadds Ford, Pa., and stopped in Media on May 20 for the night. The next morning they made their triumphal entry into Philadelphia, where a crowd of more than 200 greeted them at Independence Hall.

Seizing the drama of the moment, Volker bellowed, "Cornwallis is taken! Liberty is won! Peace is come!

"Once again husbands, fathers, sons, lovers shall return to their hearths that gave them to the cause! Once again shall joy set on every hearth and happiness shine over every rooftree!"

Corddry reported that the Chestertown Tea Party was a "great success" and it has continued, even though Tilghman's ride has not been repeated.

Volker made the trip in eight days, putting on 2 pounds during his trip, while Tilghman did it in four.

Volker, now 89 and retired, lives in Salisbury.

"Well, I'll tell you what, it was a whole new experience for me," he said in a recent telephone interview. "However, it was a nice one."

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