This Day in History: Congress learns of the American victory at Yorktown
On this day in 1781, George Washington’s aide-de-camp wraps up a multi-day ride from Yorktown to Philadelphia. You might know about Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride, but do you know about Tench Tilghman’s?
Paul Revere’s service earned him a poem, and he’s endured in American memory ever since. By contrast, Tilghman’s ride has gone mostly unnoticed—but the effort took so much out of him that he was sick for days afterwards.
Tilghman didn’t mind. He’d been entrusted with the long journey as a reward for his years of Revolutionary War service: Of all the soldiers in the army, Tilghman was the one who got to tell Congress that the war against Great Britain was won!
General Charles Cornwallis had formally surrendered on October 19. The very next day, Tilghman left on his mission. He’d barely slept, and he was suffering from recurring bouts of fever. (He may have had malaria.) Nevertheless, Tilghman would not let General Washington down. He hopped on a boat, intending to catch a quick ride to Maryland.
It wasn’t to be. The boat’s captain made a navigational error that left his vessel stranded on a sandbar. Precious hours were lost as the crew waited for the tide to come in. When Tilghman finally arrived in Annapolis, it was already October 22.
Only then did he discover that he was running a race against a message from the French.
“I found that a letter from Count de Grasse to Governor Lee . . . had gone forward to Congress,” Tilghman wrote Washington, “in which the Count informed the Governor that Cornwallis had then surrendered—This made me the more anxious to reach Philada as I knew both Congress and the public would be uneasy at not receiving dispatches from you. I was not wrong in my conjecture—for some really began to doubt the matter.”
Tilghman would have to move faster. He hopped aboard a packet to Rock Hall. From there, he found a horse and began the long ride to Philadelphia.
He spread word of the American victory as he traveled.
The Maryland Journal wrote of Tilghman’s reception in Chestertown. The people were ecstatic! Their celebrations included “the roaring of Cannon, and the Exhibition of Bonfires, Illuminations, etc.” They held a ball and drank thirteen toasts. While the city celebrated, Tilghman caught a few quick hours of sleep at his father’s house. By daybreak on October 23, he was already on his way again. He rode hard all day, switching his tired horse for a fresh one whenever possible.
He finally arrived in Philadelphia during the early morning hours of October 24. It was the middle of the night, but he wasn’t going to wait around any longer. He pounded at Thomas McKean’s door—McKean was then the Continental Congress’s President.
Tilghman was making such a racket that the city watchmen thought he was drunk! Fortunately, Tilghman’s real purpose was clarified and the same watchmen soon carried a message throughout the city: “Cornwallis is taken!”
The next morning, Tilghman met with a congressional committee. “[T]hey were perfectly satisfied with the propriety and expediency of every step which was taken,” Tilghman reported to Washington. By then, Tilghman was back in bed, fighting a fever. Nevertheless, the faithful aide wasn’t one to be held down for long.
“I shall without delay join you,” he wrote Washington. “I am too much attached by duty and affection to remain a moment behind, when I think my presence can render any service or assistance to your Excellency.”
With men such as these, no wonder our Revolution was won.
Frederick N. Rasmussen, Another Tilghman involved in a historic moment (Baltimore Sun; May 27, 2012)
Letter to George Washington from Tench Tilghman (Oct. 27, 1781)
Pennsylvania Gazette (October 24, 1781) (relevant portion reprinted in a footnote HERE)
Richard M. Ketchum, Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution (2004)
Samuel Alexander Harrison, Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman: Secretary and Aid to Washington (1876)