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A Story of High Seas Heroism

The Story of William Tillman

Line engraving published in Harper's Weekly, 1861, depicting the recapture of the schooner S.J. Waring by William Tillman.
Line engraving published in
Harper’s Weekly, 1861, depicting the recapture of the schooner
S.J. Waring by William Tillman.

William Tillman faced a brutal choice: slavery or death.

He was steward and cook onboard the merchant schooner S.J. Waring, about 300 tons, bound for Montevideo, Uruguay with an assorted cargo. Three days out from port, July 7, 1861, and one hundred fifty miles out from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, at lat. 38, long. 69.

Tillman’s vessel was boarded by men from the rebel privateer Jeff Davis. They declared the schooner property of the Confederate States of America. The Civil War was less than four months old.

The rebels ransacked the vessel and ordered Captain Smith, the ship’s master, to haul down the Stars and Stripes. He was then taken to the privateer. Tillman was told that he, like the ship, was southern property and that he would be sold into bondage when the ship reached its new destination.

The confederates put a five man prize crew on Tillman’s ship and turned her south, toward Charleston. Now, each day at sea beat down on Tillman like a hammer. An overwhelming sense of dread, however, was gradually replaced by iron-willed resolve. Tillman, in concert, with a handful of passengers hatched a bold plan.

Tillman’s duties gave him the run of most of the vessel. The rebels were used to seeing him moving about. Moreover, while cautious around the handful of white crewmen and passengers, the prize crew did not consider Tillman capable of either bravery or treachery; it was to be their undoing. Tillman was key to the recapture of the S.J. Waring. And he struck in the middle of the night.

William Wells Brown, an African-American writer and historian described Tillman’s heroism and subsequent actions in a book written in 1867:

“Armed with a heavy club, he proceeds to the captain’s room. He strikes the fatal blow: he feels the pulse, and all is still. He next goes to the adjoining room: another blow is struck, and the black man is master of the cabin. Cautiously he ascends to the deck, strikes the mate: the officer is wounded but not killed. He draws his revolver, and calls for help. The crew are aroused: they are hastening to aid their commander. The negro repeats his blows with the heavy club: the rebel falls dead at Tillman’s feet. The African seizes the revolver, drives the crew below deck, orders the release of the Yankee, puts the enemy in irons, and proclaims himself master of the vessel.”

The Waring’s head is turned towards New York, with the stars and stripes flying, a fair wind, and she rapidly retraces her steps. A storm comes up: more men are needed to work the ship. Tillman orders the rebels to be unchained, and brought on deck. The command is obeyed; and they are put to work, but informed, that, if they show any disobedience, they will be shot down. Five days more, and “The S.J. Waring” arrives in the port of New York, under command of William Tillman, the negro patriot.”

Harper’s Weekly, August 3, 1861 reported that Tillman was held briefly in the House of Detention as a witness and “that he had been before the Chamber of Commerce, and it is in contemplation to present him with a substantial reward.”

Brown records that Tillman received $6,000 in prize money and he also wrote:

“The New-York Tribune said of this event, – To this colored man was the nation indebted for the first vindication of its honor on the sea. Another public journal spoke of that achievement alone as an offset to the defeat of the Federal arms at Bull Run. Unstinted praise from all parties, even those who are usually awkward in any other vernacular than derision of the colored man, has been awarded to this colored man. At Barnum’s Museum he was the center of attractive gaze to daily increasing thousands. All loyal journals joined in praise of the heroic act; and, even when the news reached England, the negro’s bravery was applauded.”

A few weeks later, there was another attempt by the Jeff Davis to seize a northern vessel. This time the capture of the Enchantress, was foiled by a black steward named Jacob Garrick when he alerted a nearby union gunboat.

The long tradition of black seamenship and courage of men like Tillman and Garrick may have paid off in another more unexpected way. Perhaps these exploits also helped persuade Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to open enlistment in the Union Navy to African-Americans in September 1861, long before the Army permitted such enlistment.

— written by C.R. Gibbs noted author and former Maritime Administration Employee

All photos are used courtesy of the U.S. War Shipping Commission, the Maritime Administration,
nbsp;the National Archives and the U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command