One hundred and fifty years ago, while war raged on land in America, a lesser known struggle was also being waged on the high seas. Confederate privateers were beginning a campaign which would decimate the United States merchant fleet by the end of the Civil War.
William Tillman, a free black, was cook and steward aboard the S. J. Waring. Sailing out of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the Waring was bound for Montevideo, Uruguay with a mixed cargo. Three days out from Sandy Hook, at latitude 38 degrees, longitude 69 degrees, the Waring was captured by the rebel privateer Jeff Davis. The Captain of the Waring was taken aboard the Jeff Davis. A prize crew was put aboard the Waring. The Confederates advised Tillman that they were sailing the Waring to Charleston where she would be sold as a prize of war and Tillman would be sold as a slave.
Tillman continued to perform the duties of cook and steward and had the run of the ship. Although the Confederates kept a careful guard on the Waring’s captured white crew and passengers, they paid little attention to Tillman. That was a mistake. Tillman decided that he would retake the ship, or die in the attempt, preferring to die rather than being sold as a slave.
Armed with a heavy club, Tillman crept into the cabin of the commander of the rebel prize crew, and killed him. He then subdued the remainder of the prize crew, freed the white crew, and charted a course for New York with the Stars and Stripes flying.
Tillman was awarded $6,000.00, an immense sum for the time, prize money for his recapture of the ship, and was a national hero throughout the Union.