William Tillman was a 27-year-old steward and cook who used a hatchet to turn the tables on his Rebel captors in 1861. This violent and heroic action of the illiterate black sailor threatened with enslavement is as significant as it is enthralling.
Tillman was born a free man to free parents in Milford, Delaware. Delaware permitted slavery but had a relatively small slave population. The young man, Tillman, found an opportunity as a naval and merchant seaman.
At the beginning of the Civil War, he worked as cook and steward for the eight-man Union merchant schooner S. J. Waring, which left Brookhaven, New York, bound for Montevideo, Uruguay in early July 1861 with a cargo of food products. The crew also comprised the captain and two mates, a 23-year-old German seaman named William Stedding, a British sailor named Daniel McLeod, and a young man named Bryce McKinnon.
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Just three days into their journey, Confederate privateers from the ship Jeff Davis captured and boarded the vessel Tillman worked on, the schooner S.J. Waring, on July 7, 1861. The southern sailors who had captured Tillman’s ship were sailing under a letter of marque issued by Confederate President Jefferson Davis that permitted Jeff Davis (sometimes called the Jefferson Davis) to act as a privateer on behalf of the Confederacy.
Traditionally, nations without a strong navy—like the Confederacy—relied on private seamen to attack enemy merchant ships. Armed with letters of marque, these sailors claimed legitimacy under the nation for which they sailed. Jefferson Davis was a former slave ship refitted for war with five cannons. The Waring was actually the third vessel that Jefferson Davis had seized during its raid on Union shipping in the Atlantic.
Almost immediately after taking over Waring, the prize crew cut up the American flag in order to make a Rebel banner. The captain, two mates, and two of Waring’s seamen were taken aboard Jeff Davis, while a prize crew consisting of a prize master, two mates, and two seamen took control of the captured vessel. The officers of Jeff Davis chose to leave Tillman on Waring, figuring they could sell him, a free black, into slavery in Charleston, S.C., for a hefty sum. Despite having told Tillman that he would be sold into slavery upon reaching Charleston, the Confederal crew viewed him as harmless and allowed him to roam the schooner to perform his routine duties.
For about a week, Waring cruised on the high seas while, unbeknownst to its Confederate captors, Tillman and Stedding, the German, plotted a way to secure their freedom. On July 16, Tillman slipped into the cabin of the Southern prize master who was leading Waring’s prize crew, raised high a hatchet he had secreted away, and brought it crashing down on the Southern seaman’s head. Before 10 minutes had elapsed, two other Confederate crewmen had been killed with the same bloody hatchet. Tillman effectively took over the ship. He demanded everyone, including the two remaining Confederates that he spared, to cooperate with him in returning the Confederate vessel to New York.
The crew of Unionists and Confederates pulled together in their newly assigned duties and even survived a storm before reaching their northern destination. Detained, interviewed, and his story confirmed, Tillman’s daring action was welcome news to the victory-starved Union, which had just suffered a crushing defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. The popular press lionized Tillman, a federal court awarded him $6,000 for his salvage (ship recovery) claim; Currier & Ives did his portrait
After the uprising, Tillman was hired by P.T. Barnum’s New York museum to regale audiences with the story of how he killed three pirates in less than eight minutes. His appearances were a big hit with the audiences and people travelled far away to him speak and see the hatchet he used.