On July 16, 1861, William Tillman, a free Black man who was a cook on a merchant ship became one of the Civil War’s first heroes after his vessel was captured 150 miles off New Jersey by a former slave ship turned privateer, the Jefferson Davis.
Tillman’s story was reenacted as part of a documentary about the Search for the Jefferson Davis. In it, marine archaeologists try to identify a wreck found off St. Augustine, Fla., that may be the Confederate ship.
An article by the Associated Press reports that after the Jefferson Davis captured Tillman's New York vessel, the S.J. Waring, five Confederates were left onboard to sail it “to a Southern port.” The Confederates also told Tillman, then 29, that they would sell him into slavery.
In response, Tillman transformed into a soldier, killing three of the rebels with a hatchet and then giving the others the choice of helping to sail the ship north or dying. They complied with his demand, and with the help of the Waring’s crew andTillman as captain, sailed to New York Harbor in five days.
Tillman went on to receive adulation as a war hero and became a public speaker for P.T. Barnum's New York museum, where he awed crowds with his story. Tillman also received a $6,000 reward, an enormous sum at the time, from the merchant ship’s insurance company, as the loss of the vessel and its contents would have cost much more.
He was last heard of living in Warwick, Rhode Island, his hometown, and working as a sailor.
(Photo: AP Photo/US Navy's Naval History & Heritage Command via Harpers Weekly)