An African–American sailor used a sharp blade to turn the tables on his Rebel captors

Steward William Tillman had been ready for greater than per week to take again his freedom after Accomplice privateers from the ship Jeff Davis had captured and boarded his vessel, the schooner S.J. Waring, on July 7, 1861. The Rebels have been piloting Waring again to a Accomplice port with the intent of claiming prize cash and promoting Tillman, a free black, into slavery for extra revenue. However Tillman would have none of it. On July 16, he slipped into the cabin of the Southern prize grasp who was main Waring’s prize crew, raised excessive a hatchet he had secreted away, and introduced it crashing down on the Southern seaman’s head. Earlier than 10 minutes had elapsed, two different Accomplice crewmen had been killed with the identical bloody hatchet. Tillman had successfully taken over the ship. Now what would he do?

The Southern sailors who had captured Tillman’s ship have been crusing underneath a letter of marque issued by Accomplice President Jefferson Davis that permitted Jeff Davis (generally known as the Jefferson Davis) to behave as a privateer on behalf of the Confederacy. Historically, nations with out a sturdy navy—just like the Confederacy—relied on non-public seamen to assault enemy service provider ships. Armed with letters of marque, these sailors claimed legitimacy underneath the nation for which they sailed. However Abraham Lincoln refused to acknowledge these sailors as lawful belligerents, and on April 19 he issued a proclamation stating captains and crews of Insurgent privateers can be handled as pirates.

Lincoln’s proclamation gave little pause to ardent Southern seamen, nevertheless, and shortly many ships like Jeff Davis have been leaving from Accomplice ports to prey on Union transport. Jeff Davis struck rapidly, capturing Enchantress on July 6 (see sidebar), after which snagging S.J. Waring the subsequent day.

The captain’s stateroom seemed like a slaughterhouse

S.J. Waring had departed New York for Buenos Aires on July 4, and on board have been the captain and mate, black steward William Tillman, a 23-year-old German seaman named William Stedding, a British sailor named Daniel McLeod, and a passenger named Bryce McKinnon. Tillman would finally change into essentially the most consequential man aboard the ship. A 27-year-old native of Delaware who had lived in Windfall, R.I., since he was 14, he had been working as a sailor for the previous decade. Standing 5-feet-11 with an athletic construct, one observer described Tillman as having a “excessive, open brow, and pockmarked options.” Others would recount that they might “see by the glimmer of his beaming eye, that he possessed inside him a considerable amount of the excessive mettle and calculating thoughts peculiar to a brave man.”

On July 7, Jeff Davis captured Waring. The captain, two mates, and two of Waring’s seamen have been taken aboard Jeff Davis, whereas a prize crew consisting of a prize grasp, two mates, and two seamen took management of the captured vessel. The officers of Jeff Davis selected to go away Tillman on Waring, figuring they might promote him in Charleston, S.C., for a hefty sum.

Initially the Rebels handled Tillman kindly as a part of their deceit. The prize grasp informed him that he can be “properly rewarded in Charleston” for serving to carry the ship into port. One other member of the prize crew informed him, “If you go right down to Savannah, I would like you to go to my home, and I’ll care for you.” Tillman replied politely, saying, “Sure, sir; thanks,” as he doffed his hat. However Tillman afterward informed Billy Stedding, “I’m not going to Charleston a stay man; they might take me there lifeless.”

Inventive license: Tillman’s exploits turned grist for a novel titled The Insurgent Pirate’s Deadly Prize, printed by Philadelphia writer Barclay & Co. The e book additionally included a fantastic story of Tillman liberating and marrying a slave. Data point out, nevertheless that Tillman truly wed Julia A. Prophet, a free black lady, in 1863. (The Library Firm of Philadelphia)


Tillman’s instinct proved prescient. At one level he overheard the prize grasp say to a different member of the crew, “You speak to that stewart [sic], and maintain him in good coronary heart. By God, he won’t ever see the North once more.” The captain turned extra direct with Tillman, telling him “that he would but see me down in Savannah, and there he would cope with me as he happy.” At that, Tillman thought to himself, “Previous man, you’ll by no means catch me down there.” Certainly, the prize crew would come to remorse having stored him on board the ship.

Nearly instantly after taking up Waring, the prize crew minimize up the American flag as a way to make a Insurgent banner. This motion “incensed me to make use of violence,” Tillman later recalled, for it “made my blood boil, and I vowed to have revenge.” For a couple of week, Waring cruised on the excessive seas whereas, unbeknownst to its Accomplice captors, Tillman and Billy Stedding, the German, have been plotting a approach to safe their freedom. “Within the afternoon we talked it over once more, and I stated it’s our solely probability, and if we don’t go in tonight and clear ourselves we’ve got to go to a southern port; go into slavery, or have our heads chopped off,” Tillman later acknowledged. He spoke to McLeod in regards to the plans, however the British sailor was not keen to hitch the mutiny. That evening Tillman and Stedding labored alone, getting ready their weapons and finalizing their plans. Lastly, Stedding got here to Tillman and stated, “Now’s our time.”

Shortly earlier than midnight on July 16, Stedding signaled to Tillman that the prize crew was asleep. Stedding drew a pistol and clutched a knife whereas retaining watch on the deck. Tillman grabbed a hatchet and crept into the captain’s quarters, the place he “raised his axe and gave him a vigorous blow on his cranium, from which he gave the impression to be launched into eternity, for he moved not an inch.” By the point Tillman was completed, the captain’s stateroom seemed like a slaughterhouse, with the mattress linens and flooring “lined with blood.” Tillman subsequent discovered the primary mate sleeping close by “and handled him in the identical abstract and horrible method.”

Ringleader: Good-looking and succesful, William Tillman risked all of it to realize his freedom. (William Tillman, the Coloured Steward, ca. 1861. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, picture no. 79100d, New-York Historic Society)

McKinnon, the passenger, witnessed this second slaying and let loose a scream in terror. In line with Tillman, “He jumped up very a lot affright. I stated ‘you needn’t be scared; I suppose you understand what I’ve been as much as.’ He stated ‘sure.’ I informed him to take a chair and sit down. He did so.” Earlier than leaving, Tillman assured him, “Do you be nonetheless; I shall not harm a hair of your head.”

Tillman went to the poop deck, the place he noticed Stedding holding a knife and pointing a pistol on the second mate, who had simply been woke up by the sound of McKinnon’s scream. Fearing that the report of a gunshot would awaken the opposite two members of the prize crew, Tillman signaled to Stedding to not hearth. Nonetheless groggy from sleep, the second mate stated to Stedding, “What the h—ll is all this noise within the cabin.” However earlier than he may get to his toes, Tillman struck him together with his hatchet close to the temple. The second mate had been mendacity close to the desecrated Union flag, and now it bore “a number of marks of the crimson fluid.” Tillman and Stedding grabbed the second mate and threw him overboard. Then they went below-deck and grabbed the captain and first mate and flung them overboard, too. The whole enterprise took lower than eight minutes.

There have been nonetheless two males from the prize crew asleep, one named Miller and the opposite named Dorset. Tillman stated to Stedding, “We’ve executed all of the butchering we will on this voyage; the opposite two fellows I’ll take again; there are two of them and two of us; we will handle them I assume.” Stedding took a knife away from Miller, and Stedding, Tillman and McKinnon then put the 2 prize crewmen in irons. Dorset begged Stedding to spare his life. “Sure, we don’t intend to spill any extra blood than we’ve got executed,” Stedding assured him.

Subsequent Tillman known as McLeod, the British sailor, out of his berth and stated, “Have you learnt we’ve got taken this vessel to-night?” McLeod replied, “No.” Tillman stated, “You wouldn’t assist to take this vessel, and I need to see if you’ll assist to take her to a northern port. We saved ourselves thus far.” After McLeod agreed to work for the mutineers, Tillman hove the vessel on a northwest course.

The mutineers, nevertheless, didn’t know the way to navigate the ship. The following morning Tillman spoke to one of many prize crew, saying, “I would like you to hitch us, and assist take this vessel again. However thoughts, the least criminal, or the least flip, and overboard you go along with the remainder.” “Effectively,” replied the person, “I’ll do one of the best I can.” Tillman recalled, “And he labored properly all the best way again. He couldn’t do in any other case. It was pump or sink.”

For greater than 4 days the boys labored with “unremitting vigilance and exertion” and introduced the vessel to port at Sandy Hook, N.J., simply south of New York Metropolis.

As soon as in New York, Tillman was positioned in police custody as a witness, whereas the flag, hatchet, and Insurgent captain’s coat have been held on the headquarters of the harbor police. Individuals gazed in surprise on the hatchet. “One can be stunned to look upon the small instrument which did such serviceable and on the similar time bloody work on board the schooner,” marveled the New York Herald. “It’s a easy wooden hatchet, the deal with about eighteen inches in size and the pinnacle not weighing a lot over sixteen or eighteen ounces…being lined with the blood of these whom it slew, and a number of other splinters knocked off the deal with within the efforts of the courageous Tillman to destroy the enemies of his flag.”

New Yorkers, longing for constructive Union information to assist offset the newly arriving information of the Federal defeat on the First Battle of Bull Run, hailed Tillman as a hero. The Herald acknowledged that his “identify will now change into historic because the enactor of as nice a bit of daring and heroism as maybe the world ever noticed” and that he “possesses the physique and normal look of a courageous man.” The editors marveled “that he may bear virtually something than seeing the expensive outdated flag which had fluttered so lengthy over the freest nation on the planet transferred into the colours of the insurgent authorities. His powers of speech, though tinctured with that accent peculiar to his race, but possesses a easy eloquence and drive of its personal, which has been the comment of all who conversed with him yesterday.”

(Harper’s Weekly)

Extra Jeff Davis Drama

Jacob Garrick was one other black sailor who escaped Jeff Davis. Garrick was a 25-year-old native of the Danish West Indies, a free man who was serving as a cook dinner on Enchantress, a service provider ship out of Boston, when it was captured by Jeff Davis on July 6, 1861.

William Smith, the prize grasp positioned answerable for Enchantress, deliberate to take the vessel again to Charleston, the place he would promote Garrick into slavery for $1,500. However on July 22, Garrick’s fortunes improved when the steamer USS Albatross got here up subsequent to Enchantress to test its cargo, as proven within the above illustration. Garrick threw himself overboard, shouting that Enchantress was a “captured vessel of the privateer Jeff Davis and they’re taking her into Charleston.” Albatross picked up Garrick after which arrested Enchantress’ crew. Albatross towed Enchantress to Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Va., after which to Philadelphia, the place William Smith discovered himself indicted for piracy.

Garrick testified in opposition to Smith throughout the trial, depicting him as a pirate and a slave dealer. One member of the prosecution known as Smith’s actions “an offence with out feeling, as a result of to tear a person from his residence and enslave him ceaselessly, in opposition to the usages of warfare, stamps this transaction…[as] a piratical, outrageous aggression, with none of the colour or the types of regulation.” The trial ended on October 25, and Smith was discovered responsible and sentenced to be hanged. 4 days later, on October 29, all however one of many different crewmen have been additionally discovered responsible. Jefferson Davis, nevertheless, threatened to retaliate if Abraham Lincoln ought to perform the execution.

Davis put aside 14 Union prisoners of warfare, together with Colonel Michael Corcoran of the 69th New York Volunteers, as hostages within the place of Smith and the opposite privateers. Accomplice authorities demanded of the Lincoln administration “an absolute, unconditional abandonment of the pretext that they’re pirates” earlier than an change would happen. After protracted negotiations, the prisoner change lastly passed off in June 1862. –J.W.

On July 22, Tillman was taken from the Home of Detention to the workplace of U.S. Marshal Robert Murray, the place he was visited by “a lot of residents” of all courses. They greeted him “with the warmest expressions of esteem and laudation for the way by which he had taken from the robber bands of the rebels the property so ruthlessly stolen.” On the marshal’s workplace Tillman held courtroom as a line of tourists got here to satisfy him. Sitting comfortably in an armchair, Tillman rose and bowed “with an air of humility” and shook the hand of every visitor. The guests praised him for his gallantry and bravado, telling him he deserved the “thanks of the entire nation.”

“You need to have your liberty,” one caller informed him. “Sure,” stated one other, “If all the coloured folks have been such as you, we might not have all of this bother.” “I did one of the best I may,” Tillman replied. “I couldn’t see every other approach to get my liberty.” Tillman informed one other customer that killing the boys was “a great motion” and a “service to that Union which I like.” E. Delafield Smith, New York Metropolis’s federal prosecutor, joked, “We must run you for President but.”

On one event, Marshal Murray requested Tillman, “Did they beg, any of them?” Tillman replied, “They didn’t have any probability to beg.” Tillman admitted that he had initially thought of attempting to seize all 5 of his captors, however rapidly decided that this is able to not be practicable. “There have been too many for that; there have been 5 of them and solely three of us. After this I stated, properly, I’ll get all I can again alive, and the remainder I’ll kill.”

Tillman turned one thing of a celeb in New York Metropolis and all through the nation. One photographer marketed his {photograph} “on the market at wholesale,” whereas Barnum’s American Museum introduced that he “will obtain guests on the Museum in any respect hours, and relate his experiences with Southern chivalry and exhibit the Secession Flag which the rebels made out of the schooner’s American Flag; additionally a Insurgent Cutlass and THE IDENTICAL HATCHET with which Tillman killed the ocean robbers.”

A Unhappy Backstory

Earlier than Jeff Davis was named after the Accomplice president, it had participated in a number of several types of commerce within the Atlantic World. Constructed about 1845 in Baltimore, the ship had been named Putnam and served for a time as a service provider vessel, earlier than being repurposed as a slaver within the 1850s and renamed Echo. In the summertime of 1858, Echo left the coast of Africa with some 455 captives, however by the point it reached Cuba in August 1858, greater than 100 of the slaves had died. The usDolphin seized Echo earlier than it may land its unlawful human cargo, as depicted above. The ship was “stuffed with Africans,” wrote one in every of Dolphin’s officers. “There have been 328 negroes crowded collectively between decks….The poor wretches seemed half starved, and a few of them have been mere skeletons.”

Dolphin introduced Echo to Charleston Harbor, and positioned the African captives in Fort Sumter, the place they continued to die. “Thirty-five died whereas in my custody,” wrote the U.S. marshal to a good friend. “I want that everybody in South Carolina who’s in favor of reopening the slave commerce may have seen what I’ve been compelled to witness….It appears to me that I can always remember it.”

Finally the 271 surviving Africans would sail again to Africa, however 72 of them perished on that journey. Of the 455 initially plundered from Africa, solely 199 returned—and so they to Liberia, not their unique houses.

In the meantime, the officers and crew of Echo sat in jail at Charleston, questioning what destiny would befall them. The ship’s captain was a person from Boston; a lot of the officers and crew have been American. However in fact, that they had little purpose to be apprehensive. Regardless of the overwhelming proof, a Charleston grand jury refused to indict them, which one observer known as “a monstrous piece of absurdity.” –J.W.

A Quick Time within the Limelight: After his escape from Waring, Tillman was so widespread that photographers offered his tintype. However his fame ultimately pale and his later years are obscure. Census information from the 1870s point out he resided in Rhode Island. By the Eighties, he was divorced and dwelling in San Francisco. His dying date is unknown. (Courtesy Rear Admiral Daniel McKinnon Jr.)

William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator famous that one print depicted Tillman “as an embodiment of black motion on the ocean in distinction with some delinquent Federal officer as white inaction on land.” It continued: “This one sign act of coloured American executiveness, thus exhibited in store home windows and elsewhere to the plenty, outweighs any quantity of argument or rhetoric—for here’s a palpable reality, immediately interesting to their sense of justice, and invested, allow us to hope, with a potent and magical affect in direction of conquering that offspring of slavery, prejudice of shade.” On October 29, 1861, Tillman, Stedding, McLeod, and McKinnon sued within the federal courtroom in New York Metropolis, claiming the worth of the ship as salvage. The homeowners of the vessel and cargo objected, asserting that Tillman couldn’t declare a share of the salvage as a result of he had been “animated by a want to flee the doom of Slavery, to which he feared, not with out purpose that his captors meant to consign him.” However a current precedent led the native press to consider that the courtroom would seemingly rule in favor of Tillman and “will make his ebony face to shine with pleasure.” And that’s exactly what occurred. Tillman and Stedding provided gripping testimony earlier than the courtroom. And in a exceptional choice, Choose William D. Shipman, a President James Buchanan appointee, awarded Tillman and the opposite plaintiffs a $17,000 judgment within the case. Roughly half of that award went to Tillman, whereas Stedding acquired the subsequent largest share.

Tillman turned one thing of a celeb

The abolitionist editors of The Liberator famous the irony of Tillman’s authorized victory in mild of the 1857 Dred Scott choice—a case that held that African-People weren’t residents and couldn’t sue in federal courtroom. “It is going to be recollected that Tillman belongs to that class of individuals who, in keeping with Southern expounders of regulation, haven’t any standing in a United States Court docket, and no rights, both, which a white man is certain to respect.

Southern newspapers provided little response to the case, merely reporting the decision with out a lot commentary. The editors of the New Orleans Instances-Picayune took discover of Barnum’s commercials for the general public to return see Tillman, writing with derision, “This allows the general public to see the best hero of this warfare!”

Bigger, bloodier occasions rapidly pushed the story of Tillman’s battle for freedom on the excessive seas out of the headlines, and he ended up being a footnote of Civil Conflict historical past. However along with making for a stirring story of a person battling to remain free, the reception to Tillman’s story and his courtroom case pressured Confederates leaders to comprehend that they wanted to take care of respectability among the many powers of the world. The civilized world had rejected each privateering and the trans-Atlantic slave commerce over the earlier 5 a long time. If the Confederacy needed to realize worldwide recognition, it couldn’t allow its privateers to interact in a black market slave commerce.

Jonathan W. White is the creator or editor of eight books, together with Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Goals Throughout the Civil Conflict (2017) and “Our Little Monitor”: The Best Invention of the Civil Conflict (2018), with Anna Gibson Holloway. Take a look at his web site at


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