Union’s first naval victory of the Civil War

Did you know the first African-American hero of the Civil War was both cook and steward? Now that is a sea story.

His name was William Tillman, and his story has only been recently told. I discovered him by accident when buying at auction what may be his only known photograph. He is known as the “Union’s First Black Hero.”…

The Civil War began in April 1861. Tillman was serving as cook aboard the American schooner S.J. Waring. It was en route to a Confederate port when the ship was captured at sea off the U.S. East Coast on July 7, 1861 by a five man prize crew from the Confederate privateer Jefferson Davis.

Tillman had every reason to fear for his future in Southern hands. At first Tillman was treated well, but it did not take long for him to discover a plan for him to be sold into slavery. He would have none of it. Tillman used a hatchet to kill three of the five confederates, threw their bodies into the sea, and recaptured the vessel.

Tillman sailed the S.J. Waring successfully back north, arriving first to Sandy Hook, New Jersey and then New York. First placed in custody as a witness, Tillman soon became an instant celebrity and, to many, a hero…

Article originally written by Rear Admiral Daniel W. McKinnon, Jr.

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