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The Civil War at Sea

The actions of an African-American steward catapulted him into the limelight as he became one of the earliest heroes of the Northern States in the American Civil War



SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

EDITOR’S NOTE:
William Tillman was later awarded (grudgingly) $6,000 in salvage compensation from the S. J. Waring’s insurance company.

New York, August 3, 1861

RETAKING OF ONE OF THE VESSELS CAPTURED BY THE JEFF. DAVIS.

The schooner S. J. Waring, mentioned in our last among the vessels which had been captured by the privateer, Jeff. Davis, arrived in this port on Sunday July 21st, having been retaken by the black steward, with the assistance of one of the seamen.

When the S. J. Waring was taken by the Jeff. Davis, her captain and mate were taken off, but the colored steward, two of the seamen and a passenger were left on board. The steward having discovered, by a conversation which he heard, that it was the intention of the prize master, Capt. Amiel, to sell him into slavery as soon as the schooner arrived in Charleston, determined to make a desperate attempt to retake the vessel. He proposed his plan to the two sailors who belonged to the schooner, but one of them refused to have anything to do with it. the other one, however, a young German by the name of William Stedding, agreed to assist, and these two men undertook the bold task of overcoming the whole prize crew.

The following account of the successful execution of this enterprise is given by the passenger, Bryce Mackinnon. After narrating the events of the capture, substantially the same as already published, he says:--

“The schooner was headed for Charleston, or some inlet on the coast near that port. We were not put in irons, but were used with as much kindness as we could expect. The steward continued to cook and provide for us, and our men worked the vessel. I became quite intimate with the officers, and expected soon to be a prisoner of war in Charleston, though we hoped we might fall in with a United States vessel, and be rescued from our captors. Thus we got on quietly on our way southward until Tuesday, the 16th inst., when we were 50 miles south and 100 miles west of port, and thought we might get in the next day.

What followed, I did not anticipate. It is true that now, when I look back, I remember that Amiel had congratulated himself upon the valuable prize he had found in the steward, whom he vowed was worth a cool thousand on Meeting Street, Charleston, and I further remarked that, on several occasions, Tillman, the steward, shook his head and muttered, “Dem fo’ks nebber git to Charls’n;” but I supposed the that he was expecting, like the rest of us, to meet with a friend in one of Uncle Sam’s cruisers.

It was a bright moonlight night, was that of Tuesday, so pleasant that I remained on deck ‘til 11 P.M., later than I usually did. The steward had turned in at 8, as was his habit. Our trunk cabin projected about three feet above the main deck, and was entered by a companion ay in the middle of the forward end. When I went down, the mate was nodding on the cabin roof, just in front of the wheel, in a half recumbent position. Behind him stood Wm. Stedding, one of our old crew, at the wheel. Milnor, the South Carolinan, lay asleep on a pile of sails at the foot of the foremast. McLeod, another of our men, with Dorsey, the Jerseyman, were asleep in the forecastle. The cabin lamp was burning on the table when I went below, and Capt. Amiel lay snoring in his berth in his stateroom, sound asleep. In the stateroom on the other side of the cabin slept the steward and second mate, the former on top, the latter in the second berth, the third and lowest sleeping place being unoccupied.

The weather being sultry, the doors of the staterooms had been taken off, so that not only were the rooms open from the cabin, but my room, in the rear of the captain’s opened into his, the door between also being down. I took my coat and vest off very leisurely, and swallowed a draught of cherry brandy before getting into bed, so that I would think it was 11:10 when I retired. It could not have been more than 10 minutes later when I was awakened from a light sleep by a peculiar sound in the captain’s room, which I knew instinctively could only have been produced by an ax cleaving Amiel’s skull.

No sooner did the “thush” strike upon my ear than I leaped out of bed, and leaning against the door casing in the partition, saw the steward dart through the twilight--for he had extinguished the light-- noiseless as a cat across the cabin toward the second mate’s room. I also saw, at the same glance, Capt. Amiel rise from his berth and attempt to follow him; but the blood blinded him, and he fell to the floor, with a horrid gurgling sound in his throat. All this was but the work of a second. The cleaving of the skull, like  a flash from a  gun, preceding the report, was followed by a weak, faint cry, like that of  a sick child, and the burbling in the throat. I knew then that his wound was mortal. Stooping sideways, the steward entered the second mate’s cabin, and once more swung his ax, but not so effectively.

The mate started up with a “G_d d_n you, don’t strike me again,” and clutched at the steward’s breast, but eluding the wounded man, he ran on deck, to where the man lay near the wheel-house, and keeping his axe behind him demanded “what all this noise was about?”

The mate who had been aroused by the outcries of the captain and mate, had raised himself up on his elbow, and stared at the steward in a half-stupid, half fascinated way, not seeing the pistol which Stedding the man at the helm, had pointed at him for use in case of necessity. As he turned his face toward the steward, the later drove his weapon home into the base of his skull. Stedding and the steward then tumbled him overboard. He rose on the wave, with a hoarse cry, when about two lengths astern, and water having raised him, but he must have soon gone down to his long account.

Then the steward came down to the cabin, where I still stood, while Stedding remained, pistol in hand, to guard the deck. The captain cried faintly twice to me by name, “Help me—help me,” but he was past help. Another swishing blow of the ax, and he did not repeat the cry. Then the steward returned to the second mate’s cabin, where, seated on  a pile of starch boxes, his legs drawn up, and his head between his knees, was the half-stupified man. Again and again, the ax fell, and again and again the cry “Don’t do that,” fell on my ear, each time fainter than the last. Stedding now came down, and the steward and he took the corpse of the captain by the feet, and dragging it up the companion-way, tossed it overboard. Meantime, I had got some irons out, hoping to intercede to avoid bloodshed. Stedding and the steward once more came down, and each taking the second mate by the shoulder led him out, from the place where had had crouched ion the starch boxes. He seemed to walk, with their assistance, as they went up the companion-way, but his head lay a pulpy mass upon his shoulder, and a moment after a loud splash alongside told the fate of another of the privateers.

There were three persons on board who knew nothing of all this. The two privateer sailors, and Donald McLeod, one of our sailors, whom I subsequently learned would not join the steward and Stedding in the attempt to recapture the vessel. Handing me his pistol. Stedding went forward and roused Milnor, the South Carolinan, a young man of two or three and twenty, from his sleep at the foot of the mainmast, and called him aft. Not seeing his comrades when he came into the cabin, he was much frightened and begged for life. The steward told him he would not kill him, but iron him, and his fate would depend upon his good behavior; he wanted to spill as little blood as possible. He willingly held out his wrists for the irons. The then went forward to the forecastle and called the other privateer, Dorsey. Upon learning the condition of affairs he begged for his life, which they promised to spare if he would assist in working the ship and be true and faithful, to all of which he agreed.

The steward now took command, and the schooner headed for the North, with a fair wind. None of us knew anything of navigation, but we trusted to good fortune and the land to enable us to make out our course. The South Carolinan was release from irons the next morning, and proved a very useful and willing fellow in working the ship.

On Friday, the 19th, at 8 o’clock in the morning, we made the land, which became quite distinct by noon, and we kept on our way with good weather, sounding our way as we went. Of course we had to be vigilant. Two of our hands might turn upon us at any moment, and McLeod was not faithful; for three days before we got in he went forward and slept with them in the forecastle. Stedding, Tillman and I managed it so that two of us were on deck all the while, and always aft of the other three. The men  on watch carried the two pistols, and the one that slept always kept one eye open, lest we might be attacked. On Sunday morning, at 9 o’clock, we got a pilot off Sandy Hook, and soon after hired a tug for $60 to tow us to New York, where we arrived about 4 P.M., truly thankful for our great deliverance.”

The steward’s name is William Tillman. He says that he was born of free colored parents in Milford, Delaware, and is 27 years of age. His parents moved to Providence, R. I., when he was 14 years old. and he has since called that place his home. He has followed the sea for ten years, and has been in the employ of Jonas Smith & Co., No. 227 Front Street, by whom the schooner was owned, for the last three years. He is of medium height, rather strongly built, crisp hair, of nearly unmixed negro blood and bears in his countenance an expression of honesty, strong common sense, with some touches of humor.

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