Colonel Tench Tilghman: George Washington’s Eyes and Ears


January 27, 2016
by Jeff Dacus Also by this Author


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In the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House hangs a painting commissioned by the Maryland Legislature often called the “Annapolis Portrait” of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. The moment portrayed in the work is after the surrender of the British Army at Yorktown in 1781. Two of the figures are easily recognized, Washington of course, and the Marquis De Lafayette. But the third figure, not so readily identified, is Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman. Another contemporary painting of the same event by James Peale titled “Washington and His Generals” includes the figures of Washington, Benjamin Lincoln, Comte de Rochambeau, Gen. Francois Chastellux; the remaining figure is Tilghman, though he is not a general officer. Who was he and why would he be included so conspicuously with Washington?

Tench Tilghman was born in Maryland on December 25, 1744, the son of well-to-do gentry parents. His father was a member of the legislature and a well-known lawyer, his mother from an equally accomplished Maryland family that had moved to Philadelphia. His maternal grandfather sent for Tench, the oldest of six boys, in 1758 and the young man traveled to Philadelphia to attend the College and Academy of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania. One of his cousins in the town was Peggy Shippen, who would later marry Benedict Arnold.

Graduating in 1761, Tench went into business with an uncle, where he worked until committing to the colonial cause on the eve of the Revolutionary War. His first duty for the rebellious colonies was not on the battlefield but on the diplomatic front. He was chosen to accompany his uncle on a peace mission to the Six Nations with Philip Schuyler.

When the first rumblings of conflict came from the north, Tilghman joined a company of the Pennsylvania Associators (a form of militia) commanded by Captain Sharpe Delaney. Their aristocratic airs earned these soldiers the nicknames “Ladies Light Infantry” and the “Silk Stockings.” The derisive names stuck. During the first campaign around New York, Tilghman’s company was in the Flying Camp located in New Jersey.

As the action around New York intensified, Washington needed more staff to help manage his paperwork and he sought young men of quality backgrounds to serve as a secretary or aide.[1] Washington was familiar with the Tilghman family, having met Tench’s father and uncle. Washington consulted Tilghman and the young man agreed to be part of the general’s “family.” In an arrangement unique among the aides, Tilghman agreed to serve as a volunteer, without rank or compensation. He told his father of the arrangement to serve Washington in a letter on October 7, 1776:

            “I am detained here by no particular engagements entered into with the General, so far from it, that tho’ he has repeatedly told me I ought to have a Compensation for my Services, I have refused … I wished to serve as a Volunteer.”[2]

As a volunteer aide, Tilghman served alongside Washington for the remainder of the war, riding with him in each battle and performing the task of being the general’s mouthpiece as well as his eyes and ears. Like the other young members of Washington’s staff, Tilghman raced about the battlefield exchanging messages, observing the action, and bringing news from various parts of the front lines. Tilghman rode next to Washington in the streets of Trenton after Christmas in 1776, and he was one of the few eyewitnesses that actually saw the confrontation between Washington and Charles Lee during the chaotic retreat before the British on June 28, 1778. The young officer shared the harsh conditions at Morristown and Valley Forge.

In camp, Tilghman performed duty as Washington’s alter ego, fashioning letters from verbal outlines and placing them before the General for final approval and signature. Much of the General’s correspondence is in the handwriting of Tilghman. His knowledge of French was essential to Washington when dealing with foreign officers and he became a close friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. He would serve longer than any of Washington’s aides or secretaries.

In May of 1781, Washington convinced Congress that Tilghman deserved the rank and pay of a lieutenant colonel, with seniority dating to April 1, 1777. In a typical, magnanimous gesture, Tilghman refused to have his date of rank the same as that of Alexander Hamilton and Richard Kidder Meade, fellow members of Washington’s “family,” as they had joined the commander in chief before him.

The British were cornered at Yorktown and forced to surrender in October of 1781. As the British capitulation was finalized, Washington needed someone to carry the news of Cornwallis’s surrender to Congress in Philadelphia. Tradition at the time placed a great honor on the soldier who delivered such information;[3] James Wilkinson, for example, had been given the brevet rank of brigadier general by Congress for delivering the news of the fall of British General John Burgoyne in October of 1777. Tilghman was chosen to relay the news, based on his close association with Washington and also his knowledge of the best Maryland and Pennsylvania routes to the new nation’s capital.

Tilghman left on the morning of October 20 and arrived in Philadelphia at about three in the morning of the 24th. He went straight to the home of the president of Congress, Thomas McKean, on High Street. A night watchman threatened to arrest Tilghman as he pounded on the president’s door but soon joined the other members of the night watch in proclaiming: “All is well and Cornwallis is taken!” This ride, along with his friendship with Washington, earned Tilghman a place in the paintings by the Peales. Congress rewarded him with a sword and a horse.

In the years after the war, Tilghman lived in Baltimore where he started a mercantile business with the help of Robert Morris. He stayed close to Washington, exchanging personal letters and news. In one note, Washington chided the young man for not notifying him of his marriage in June of 1783.[4] Tilghman served as Washington’s agent in Maryland, facilitating transactions for the general. On one occasion, Washington needed plans for renovating his greenhouse and asked Tilghman to get information on the structure built at Dr. Charles Carroll’s place called Mont Clare.[5] Tilghman drew a plan and gave careful details on its construction, which served as a model for Washington’s own. [6] When the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal group for former Continental Army officers, was organized, Washington had pins representing the Society made for some of the officers and sent one to Tilghman.

Unfortunately, Tilghman would not live very long after the war ended. After delivering the news of Yorktown, he showed signs of ill health, never feeling entirely well. He became extremely sick in early 1786, dying on April 18, apparently of the effects of hepatitis.

George Washington, often portrayed by historians as “cold and formal,”[7] revealed his depth of feeling for the deceased former aide in letters to several different people. After being informed of Tilghman’s, death by the man’s youngest brother Thomas,[8] Washington sent a poignant reply:

            As there were few men for whom I had a warmer friendship, or greater regard than for your Brother – Colonel Tilghman – when living; so, with much truth I can assure you, that, there a(re) none whose death I could more sincerely have regretted …[9]

He later sent a note to James Tilghman, the aide’s father:

Of all the numerous acquaintances of your lately deceased son, & 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 than I did – No one entertained a higher opinion of his worth, or had imbibed sentiments of greater friendship for him than I had done … It is however a dispensation, the wisdom of which is inscrutable; and amidst your grief, there is this consolation to be drawn, that while living, no man could be more esteemed – and since dead, none more lamented …[10]

Washington placed Tilghman among the prominent of the Revolution in a letter to Thomas Jefferson:

            You have probably heard of the death of Genl Greene before this reaches you, in which case you will, in common with your Countrymen, have regretted the loss of so great and so honest a man. Genl McDougall, who was a brave Soldier & a disinterested patriot, is also dead … Colo. Tilghman , who was formerly of my family, died lately & left as fair as reputation as ever belonged to a human character. Thus some of the pillars of the revolution fall.[11]

The esteem that Washington held for Tilghman is obvious. The people of Maryland added their own touching and telling assessment of the former aide on the inscription on his tombstone:

In Memory of
Col. Tench Tilghman
Who died April 18, 1786
In the 42nd year of his age,
Very much lamented.
He took an early and active part
In the great contest that secured
The Independence of
The United States of America.
He was an Aide-de-Camp to
His Excellency General Washington
Commander in Chief of the American Armies,
And was honored
With his friendship and confidence,
He was one of those
Whose merits were distinguished
Honorably rewarded
By the Congress
Still more to his Praise
He was
A good man.[12]


[1] For another look at the process of working for Washington, see J. L. Bell, “George Baylor: Spirited, Willing and Wrong for the Job,” Journal of the American Revolution, 12, 2015.

[2] S. A. Harrison, Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman: Secretary and Aide to Washington (Albany: J. Munsell, 1876), 142.

[3] Ibid, 42-44.

[4] George Washington to Tench Tilghman, October 2, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives (

[5] Washington to Tilghman, August 11, 1784, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 2, July 1784- January 1785, W.W. Abbott, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 30-31.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Ferling, C-SPAN In Depth, July 5, 2009.

[8] Thomas Ringgold Tilghman to Washington, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol.4, 2 April 1786-31 January 1787, W.W. Abbott, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 27.

[9] Ibid, 47.

[10] Ibid, 96.

[11] Ibid, 184.

[12] L. G. Shreve, Tench Tilghman, The Life and Times of Washington’s Aide-de-Camp (Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1982), 199-200.


  • Enjoyed this piece on Tench Tilghman and learning more about his background and Washington’s high regard for him. Perhaps because I’m interested in Paine, who also volunteered in a Flying Camp and then as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Greene during Washington’s retreat across New Jersey in the fall of ’76, I’m motivated, after reading your piece, to learn more about those Flying Camps in general and the role of aide-de-camp in particular.

    1. Sounds like the topic for an article, the role of the Flying Camp during the war. For more information on the aides, try Arthur Lefkowitz, “George Washington’s Indispensable Men”

  • Appreciate the resource suggestion. I also think that an article on the Flying Camps would be very interesting. I’m not the person to do that one, but I think there are several elements that would be appropriate to address: 1. Looking at Washington’s vision for those Flying Camps as a precursor to today’s elite military mobile units, and 2. The difficulties that Washington had with the states providing troops to such units, especially since the states were wary of anything, even remotely, that smacked of a standing army.

    1. Point of clarification, to avoid any risk of misunderstanding:
      Washington didn’t invent the concept of the Flying Camp, or the term; both were well-known in 18th century military literature. Here’s a definition from a 1768 military dictionary:
      “Flying Camp, a body of light-horse, or foot, who are always in motion, either to cover an army or garrison, and to keep the enemy in continual alarm.”

      1. The concept and term of a “flying camp” actually goes way back in recorded time to the Egyptians and is found in Greek and Roman accounts.

  • Jeff –

    Thanks for this great piece. I have always wanted to learn more about Tilghman and your piece shines a well deserved light on this man and offers insight into those who helped make the Continental Army work. Well done.


  • Don, thanks for the clarification on Washington and his “flying camps.” I did indeed assume Washington had invented the term. Appreciate the correction.

  • During World War Two, there was a professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA named Tench Tilghman, Jr. Does anyone know anything about him?

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