Another Tilghman involved in a historic moment

Several readers wrote me about last week's column that told the story of federal Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes, a Baltimorean who swore in Lyndon B. Johnson as president aboard Air Force One after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

They pointed out that Hughes' Maryland lineage included Tench Tilghman, who, like Hughes, had been at the center of one of history's most momentous events.


Tilghman, Revolutionary War aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington and one of Maryland's most famous patriots, carried the news of the British surrender in 1781 at Yorktown, Va., to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, in a ride that has been compared as being second only to that of Paul Revere.

Tilghman, who was born and raised on his father's Talbot County plantation and educated in Philadelphia, was the only one of Washington's aide-de-camps to remain at his side from 1776 to 1783.


Tilghman enlisted in 1775 in the famous "Silk Stockings" light infantry of Philadelphia.

When the Silk Stockings joined Washington's army, it became part of what was called the Flying Camp, and he was promoted to captain. He became Washington's aide-de-camp and secretary the next year.

When the French fleet bottled up some 8,000 British soldiers and sailors under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown on the Virginia peninsula, the British sued for peace.

"On the morning of 17 October a red coated British drummer boy, accompanied by an officer showing white, appeared on the parapets to beat out the signal for parley. Lord Cornwallis had something to say to General Washington," wrote L.G. Shreve, a Baltimore author and former CIA official, in his 1982 book, "Tench Tilghman: The Life and Times of Washington's Aide-de-Camp."

A cease-fire brought the allied bombardment to an end while surrender terms were negotiated. In the early morning of Oct. 19, 1781, Cornwallis and Thomas Symonds, the senior British naval commander, signed the surrender documents.

Washington added a line to the document: "Done in the trenches before York Town October 19th, 1781," and then he, French commander Jean Baptiste Rochambeau and Adm. Louis de Barras added their names.

It was 2 p.m. when the American and French armies stood in triumph as British forces marched out to the tune "The World Turned Upside Down" to formally surrender their arms.

Washington's next priority was getting word to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and he turned to Tilghman for this task.


"Familiarity with both water and terrain between Yorktown and Philadelphia and personal knowledge of Congressional leaders made Tilghman an obvious choice, but quite aside from such mundane considerations, nothing could have been more appropriate, no other officer more deserving of the honor," Shreve wrote.

Tilghman, still suffering from the effects of a fever, left camp early Saturday morning, Oct. 20, carrying a dispatch case with the important documents, traveling by boat.

After a storm delayed the vessel's progress, he finally reached Annapolis only to learn that another messenger had beaten him.

He departed from Annapolis for Rock Hall on Oct. 22 aboard a vessel that was caught in a dead calm. It took most of the day for the boat to reach Rock Hall, only 20 miles away.

An unofficial account had reached Philadelphia that day from the French admiral, the Comte de Grasse, and was read to the Congress. But any public celebration was postponed because there was some question as to its authenticity.

For Tilghman, Philadelphia lay ahead some 90 miles to the north. Now traveling by horse, he pressed on, passing through what is now Edesville and Chestertown.


Every two to four hours, he would rein in at a tavern to switch to a fresh mount, calling out, "A horse for the Congress. Cornwallis is taken!"

He galloped at high speed across Kent County and into Delaware, passing through Georgetown and Fredericktown, fording the Sassafras River and skirting Christiana.

It was late on Oct. 23 or early on Oct. 24 when he entered Philadelphia. He quickly dismounted after finding the home of Thomas McKean, president of the Continental Congress.

Tilghman began at once to furiously pound on McKean's door in the gathering dawn, so much so that he risked arrest from a passing night watchman.

Finally, McKean, dressed in nightclothes, swung open the heavy door to be greeted by the exuberant Tilghman.

The news was quickly spread throughout Philadelphia by criers yelling: "All is well, and Cornwallis is taken."


"Lights flashed in every window; men, women and children poured into the streets. The State House rang out its peal 'Liberty throughout the land to all inhabitants thereof,' and the American nation was born into the world," wrote Bradley T. Johnson, a Marylander and 19th-century biographer of Washington.

Each member of Congress contributed a dollar to help defray the cost of Tilghman's journey.

Congress also petitioned the Board of War to present Tilghman with a horse and a dress sword as "testimony of their high opinion of his merit and ability."

Frail from his war years, Tilghman established Tench Tilghman & Co., a Baltimore mercantile house, and was only 41 when he died in 1786.

At his death, Washington eulogized him: "Some of the pillars of the Revolution fall."

Tilghman was buried in St. Paul's Cemetery in Baltimore, then at Charles and Saratoga streets, and was moved in 1804 to a new cemetery at Fremont and Lombard streets.


His wife, Anna Maria Tilghman, his first cousin who survived him by 52 years, finally received the promised sword in 1786.

In 1971, vandalism led family members to move his remains to the Oxford Cemetery in Talbot County, where he was interred next to his wife.

The original stone that had marked his resting place in Baltimore, with an inscription that had been approved by Washington, was restored and placed at the grave.