|Delaware Military History
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
Among the Union's very first black heroes during the Civil War was a black cook who took up arms
to prevent being sold into slavery. William Tillman was a 27 year old steward and cook born to free
parents in Delaware. He moved to Rhode Island with his mother as a teenager and later settled in
William Tillman faced a brutal choice: slavery or death.
He was steward and cook on board 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
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
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.
Tillman returned to Rhode Island and married in 1863. In the 1870 census he is listed as a seaman
living in Warwick RI.
-- written by C.R. Gibbs noted author and former Maritime Administration Employee