William Tillman, An Unlikely Hero

In July, 1861, a merchant schooner, S.J. Waring, bound for Montivideo from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, carrying passengers and cargo, was boarded by sailors from the crew of the rebel ship Jeff Davis. The men took control of the ship and commandeered it for the Confederate States of America.

The invaders ordered the ship’s captain Smith to take down the Stars and Stripes and declared that everything was now the property of the south.

One of the Waring’s crew was a Negro steward and cook named William Tillman.  He knew that his fate would most likely be to be sold into bondage. For him this was an ominous situation. In conjunction with some of the original crew members left aboard, a plot was hatched that would take place while the invading crew were sleeping.

Because his duties on the ship gave him access and opportunity to move about the vessel, it was possible for him to sneak into where the rebel crew members were sleeping. Armed with a heavy club, he struck fatal or near fatal blows to the heads of the sleeping Confederates. When others awoke, Tillman overcame their leader and took control of the Waring and set sail for New York.

The voyage home was interrupted by a severe storm that required help from the captured rebel crew. Tillman ordered them to work to get the ship safely back to port or face the possibility of being shot to death. They complied.

Tillman was celebrated in the New York newspapers as a hero and was given a sizable reward. There was another attempt on a Union vessel by the Jeff Davis a few weeks later. This attempt was foiled by a black steward named Jacob Garrick, who notified a Union gunboat that was in the vicinity.

Because of the heroism exhibited by Tillman, Garrick and other sailors and crew members, Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells opened up enlistment in the Navy for colored men in September, 1861.

Prologue, a community-based educational organization is restoring a marina located on Chicago’s far-south side at the Calumet River. The marina is to be used as a maritime training facility and an alternative high school. The William Tillman Marine Science and Technology Academy is scheduled to open in Fall 2016.

Bernard C. Turner



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