Lt. John Bell Tilden

Lt. John Bell Tilden
Courtesy of Stuart Gray Gilchrist, Member, Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati

John Bell Tilden, the son of Richard and Anna (Myers) Tilden, was born in Philadelphia on 9 December 1761. Family tradition has it that he left his studies at Princeton (the College of New Jersey) at the age of eighteen to join the Continental Army, but Prince-ton records do not bear this out. There is no doubt that he was well educated, talented and charming.

Tilden was commissioned Ensign in the Second Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel Walter Stewart [an Original Member of the Society], on 28 May 1779. This regiment saw no particular action for the rest of the year: in October it was at West Point in Wayne’s Brigade and it spent the winter at Morristown. In 1780 there were minor actions in New Jersey, notably on 18 May at Paramus, and at the Blockhouse at Bergen Heights on 21 July: on 25 July Tilden was promoted to Lieutenant. In September the Second Regiment marched under Wayne’s command to Newport to welcome General Rochambeau to America, and immediately afterwards was force-marched with other units to West Point to counter Arnold’s treachery. In December the Second moved to Morristown for the winter. At first its men resisted joining the revolt of the Line on 1 January 1781, but at last did so under threat. When the Pennsylvania Line was re-formed, the Second remained on the table of organization but was a paper regiment to which Tilden remained assigned.

Lieutenant Tilden marched south with Anthony Wayne in May 1781. Unfortunately, the published extracts from his diary commence only after his arrival in Virginia on 1 August, but incidents of the march can be gleaned from the similar diary of his friend Lieutenant William Feltman [an Original Member of the Society]. It is from Tilden’s diary that a more intimate picture can be drawn of the young lieutenant: on 16 August, while on the march from Richmond to Williamsburg he wrote that he “employed the day in reading Lady Mary Montague’s letters.” On 27 August he recorded, “Spend the best part of the day in reading….”, and on 10 January 1782, “Spend the day in reading Spanish novels.” Again, on 27 January, “Spend ye day in reading comidies [sic]…” Some of these books may have been borrowed, but some certainly came from Pennsylvania in the lieutenant’s baggage, as did his flute and music, brought him by his “boy”, with which he beguiled time passed in a field hospital.

Of Tilden’s personal qualifications and charm we may perhaps judge from his reception in the family of William Byrd of “Westover”, one of Virginia’s most prominent families. On 24 August 1781 he wrote,

The troops take up the line of march at 4 o’clock, proceed towards Westover, and encamp on the farm of the late Colonel Byrd, at Westover on the banks of the James river. There is here an elegant mansion house, delightfully situated.

The next day he wrote,

Mount the front camp guard near Mrs. Byrd’s house; am invited to breakfast. Receive an invitation from her agreeable daughter Maria to make my home there while the troops remain here. Dine there in great elegance, drink tea in the afternoon, and was delighted with the grandeur of the apartments and the situation, which I think the most beautiful I ever saw. Family very kind.

August 26,-Breakfast with Mrs. Byrd and the young ladies…Escort the ladies to the place of worship, in company with Cols. Butler and Stewart. Am relieved at eleven, take a plan of Mrs. Byrd’s mansion….
August 27,-…At 6 o’clock drank tea at Mrs. Byrd’s; a numerous company and much entertainment, with the agreeable performance of Miss Maria Byrd on the harpsichord…
August 29.-…arrive at Westover about sunset. Am honoured with an invitation to sup with Mrs. Byrd, accept it. Sup in great elegance and spend the evening more agreeable than ever. At ll o’clock take my leave, warmly pressed by the young ladies to breakfast with them in the morning.
August 30.- Cross the river with the company and conduct them to the encampment. Return, intending to breakfast with the ladies – After recrossing the river an affair happens, by which I am deprived of the supreme happiness of breakfasting as before mentioned.

This “affair” was a drunken carouse by the officers, whose arrest and trial were ordered by Colonel Stewart. Tilden took personal affront, and recorded his revenge: “September 1.-…Our troops take up the line of march at 11 o’clock, encamp at Surry Court House, and have ye pleasure to mortify Colonel S[tewar]t.” Tilden may, a little later, have had cause to regret his tiff with the colonel, when he wrote on 23 September, “…Invited by S[tewar]t to wait on Gen. Rochambeau, but decline on account of the pique between us.” This may however have been balanced by his having, together with the other officers of the Pennsylvania Line, been received by General Washington a week previously.

After Yorktown, Tilden marched on 5 November with the Pennsylvania Line under General St. Clair’s command to Nathanael Greene’s headquarters outside Charleston. His diary records in some detail the dreary, cold and wet march. In Caswell County, North Carolina:

December 4.- The General [call] beat at daylight, the troops march at sunrise by ye left. Halt to get water. It began to snow very fast, which accompanies us nine miles to our encampment in ye woods, and continues all night. Our tents did not arrive until dark, and all the time we stood in the snow shivering and crowding over a smoky fire. When our tents arrived pitch them, scrape the snow, now half a foot deep, away with our feet. Make a fire which soon warms us, make tea and retire to bed. Sleep more comfortable tonight than sometime back….

On 7 December he wrote, “…Cross the Haw river at High Rock Ford, which we were obliged to wade, which was a rather cooling affair,…”. And in regard to their campfires Tilden observed, “Burn nothing but Pine Knots, which make the brightest day appear like evening.” At length, after a two-months’ march, they arrived at Greene’s headquarters on 4 January 1782.

The main purpose of Greene’s army was to contain the British in Charleston, their last major southern outpost. There were minor incidents and some casualties, but on 21 May Major General Alexander Leslie, commander of the British forces in the South, informed Greene that he intended making “no more excursions, but act entirely on the defensive.” The stalemate that had existed was thus officially recognized, but idleness took its toll. There were mutinous mutterings among the men in the Maryland and the Pennsylvania Lines. A few duels took place or were threat-ened. On 28 March Tilden recorded,

…On ye evening of ye 26th, a command was ordered out by Genl Greene with secret orders, and Cap. Wilmot of ye Maryland Line given command. He was also allowed to choose a subaltern. We became acquainted with every circum-stance by the brigade Major of our Line, endeavouring to prevent partiality. We are filled with thought of our being slighted. Write to Genl Greene.

Not clearly put here, the situation amounted to a Maryland officer’s being given a mission that the Pennsylvanians felt should have been theirs. A protest was sent Greene on 28 March, signed by nearly all the Pennsylvania officers, Tilden among them. To this Greene replied the next day, not to the satisfaction of the protesters who threatened a mass resignation. They should have known better: in a similar, earlier, situation, Greene had accepted en masse the resignations submitted, and the officers then had the humiliation of withdrawing them. Five Pennsylvanians did resign, among them Tilden’s friend William Feltman, but Tilden stayed the course.

On 23 May Tilden recorded that he was unwell; he was admitted to the field hospital and remained a patient until 18 August, although not confined to a ward all that time. His company was much reduced through sickness, and it was a bad time for all the northern troops, who succumbed to malaria and other semi-tropical diseases of the Carolina lowlands. When a reduction of the Pennsylvania Line took place in November, Lieutenant Tilden was one of the officers sent back home. They set out on 12 November and crossed into Pennsylvania at Littlestown, now in Adams County, on 29 December 1782. The next day Tilden wrote that it snowed all day, but that the detachment proceeded to York on foot; “Visit Mr. Chambers’ family and received with a great deal of friendship.” The visit was to have an important effect on Tilden’s future.

On 1 January 1783 the Pennsylvania Line was re-formed for the last time, and Tilden was retained in service in the Second Regiment, Colonel Richard Humpton [an Original Member of the Society]. These men were finally retired in November. At about that time Tilden signed the “Parchment Roll” of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania.

At York on 9 August 1784 John Bell Tilden married Jane, born 18 December 1766, the youngest daughter of Joseph and Martha (MacCalmont ?) Chambers. Soon thereafter Tilden removed to Frederick County, Virginia. There he took up medicine which he practiced for the rest of his life. At some time prior to 1824 he was admitted to the Methodist Episcopal ministry, but in a subsequent dispute about lay participation in church affairs he was expelled. Although a slave-owner, Tilden adopted the ideas of contemporary “colonization societies” by liberating his slaves and sending them to Liberia.

Mrs. Tilden died on 26 May 1827, and in June 1828 Tilden applied for a federal pension under the terms of the Act of 15 May of that year. He said, “I am not in possession of either of my commissions;…my diploma or certificate of membership of the Cincinnati Society is framed and cannot conveniently be forwarded.” He “should feel grateful if no unnecessary delay should prevent my [raising?] the amount, having about two weeks ago lost my barn &c by fire (I believe it accidental).” Tilden was granted a pension of three hundred and twenty dollars per annum on 29 July 1828. On 15 October 1838 Samuel Brent, from the Pension Office, wrote to J. L. Edwards at Winchester, Virginia, “John B. Tilden who was an officer and a pensioner died in the latter part of last summer, leaving no wife but several children, and some children’s children[,] very much scattered. One resides in Missouri. I am at a loss how to arrange that his arrears of pension may be drawn…”. Lieutenant Tilden had indeed died on 21 July 1838 and was buried at New Town, now Stephens City, Frederick County, Virginia. There were nine children of his marriage to Martha Chambers, and of them John B. Tilden, Jr. was admitted to membership in the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania in 1846.