First Northern Civil War Hero: Billy Tillman, Ship’s Cook and Free Black Man
by Gordon Thorsby
Harper's Weekly (generally the only thing to show of the incident.)
The Civil War had many heroes. Billy Tillman (also Tilghman) was arguably the first hero. The story of William “Billy” Tillman is noteworthy because 1861 was a time of few positive events for the North. Of all of the possible candidates for heroes, the man in the center of the event was a Black ship’s steward. It is also interesting because this story was lost in the fog of history until it was discovered by a Brooklyn, New York researcher 10-15 years ago writing on the Civil War. The story was never in Official Records because the action never took place militarily. It involved a Northern civilian ship with civilian sailors and Confederate privateers.
Billy Tillman was born in Milford, Delaware in 1834, a free man though many Blacks in Delaware were slaves. Tillman started sailing in 1851 with the same shipping company. Tillman was 5-feet-11, tall for the time, a high, open forehead, and pockmarked features.”
Tillman hired onto the S.J. Waring, a 300-ton schooner (built in Port Jefferson, N.Y., in 1853) that was based out of Brookhaven, Long Island. The S.J. Waring departed New York for Montevideo, Uruguay on July 4, with a crew of ten, the captain, a mate, and a passenger named Bryce McKinnon. On the third day out, about 150 miles from Sandy Hook, New York, an American flagged sailing schooner hailed the S.J. Waring until close on, the colors were hauled down and the Confederate colors went up. The schooner was the privateer Jefferson Davis, previously a slaver and now with five cannon. the S.J Waring had been overtaken making it the Jefferson Davis’ third capture since it entered Northern waters. Captain Smith, the master of the S.J. Waring was put aboard the Jefferson Davis, and a five man prize crew went aboard the S.J. Waring, with orders for her to sail to Charleston where the ship and cargo would be sold for prize money. Tillman would be part of the cargo that would be sold on the wharves of Charleston.
Tillman had been told by the prize crew that they intended to sell him into slavery. A free man who would become a slave did not sit well with Tillman. Tillman told German sailor Billy Stedding of the Waring, “I am not going to Charleston a live man; they may take me there dead.” A plan was hatched. Tillman continued his cook duties roaming freely about the ship. On a moonlit night nine days later, Stedding gave a signal and Tillman took action. He took a hatchet and struck the captain in the head several times while he slept. He repeated the deed on the first mate and the second mate and the three were dumped overboard. The other two were given the choice of assisting in navigating the ship back to New York or joining the others overboard. They decided wisely and though the schooner had to fight heavy seas and one storm, the ship arrived in New York five days later on July 21st. First Bull Run took place also on July 21st.
While the disaster of Bull Run was heavily reported, the lesser incident of the S.J. Waring found its way into print. The New-York Tribune wrote, “To this colored man was the nation indebted for the first vindication of its honor on the sea.”
Tillman and the three crew members of the S.J. Waring eventually received prize money for the recapture and return of the schooner. Tillman’s equal share was $6,000 (approximately $150,000 in today’s dollars. The large prize money was excellent but Tillman’s preserved freedom was priceless. The two surviving prisoners were considered for trial as pirates. Lincoln wanted to but realized that doing so was one of the causes of the War of 1812.
What happened to the Jefferson Davis is what happened to many ships on the Atlantic. The Jefferson Davis privateer career was short, capturing nine merchant sailing vessels with three being retaken and two that they burned. Less than a month after William Tillman arrived back in New York in command of the S.J. Waring, the Jefferson Davis went aground and was lost while attempting to enter the harbor off of St. Augustine, Florida.
Tillman was a celebrated as a hero for the naval rescue incident briefly. He did experience a bit of local fame in New York. William Tillman’s likeness was plastered on the playbills of P.T. Barnum's American Museum as a sight for viewers to meet the "first hero" of the Civil War. Just two years later, in 1863, Tillman seems to have disappeared. Tillman may have moved to Rhode Island since his name appeared in the 1870 Census as living and working as a seaman in Warwick. He was married with a child but the rest is gone, faded into the fabric of life.
“He certainly ranks among the top half-dozen African-American heroes of the Civil War as far as I’m concerned,” said Gerald Henig, professor emeritus of history at California State University.
Note: A book, “The Rest I Will Kill” by Brian McGinty tells a full story and a documentary film The Search for the Jefferson Davis, about the Jefferson Davis shipwreck resurrected the story. The August 2018 issue of “Civil War Times,” also reported the story of William Tillman.
War on the Waters, by Mcpherson, James M., University of North Carolina Press, 2012. P. 21.
St. August and Lighthouse Museum, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/tillman-william-b-k-william-tilghman-1834-1880/, 7/7/2011.