Tim Spofford | Civil War Valor, Two Portraits in Black
Tim Spofford, Author, Civil Rights, Human Rights
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Civil War Valor, Two Portraits in Black

May 01 2018

Civil War Valor, Two Portraits in Black

When it comes to Civil War heroes, we seldom think of sailors or black men.

But two new biographies focus on black sailors who snatched ships from the Confederacy and delivered them to the Union against tremendous odds. 

One sailor was 27-year-old William Tillman, a free black cook aboard the schooner S.J. Waring.  In the summer of 1861, soon after the war started, Tillman and his ship left New York for South America.

 Eight other men were aboard, all of them white, according to Brian McGinty, author of Tillman’s biography, The Rest I Will Kill. 

More than 200 miles on their way, a Confederate privateer seized the Waring as a prize of war. The rebels removed all but three of the Waring’s crew and an Irish passenger. Weapons and gear were also seized, but not the hatchet Tillman hid.

With a rebel crew of five in charge, the Waring headed for Charleston, where Tillman was to be sold into slavery. Having seen Dixie-style slavery in his travels, Tillman had other ideas. He would spare as many of the rebel crew as he could, he told himself, “and the rest I will kill.” 

The three white men from the original crew in New York agreed to cooperate: a German sailor, a Scottish sailor and the Irish passenger. One night Tillman entered the stateroom of the sleeping rebel captain and split his skull with the hatchet. 

In the stateroom of the second mate, Tillman bashed in the side of the thrashing rebel’s head. And after slicing into the rebel first mate, Tillman had all three gasping victims heaved into the sea. The last two rebels were clapped in irons.

With few nautical skills but great ingenuity, the black cook steered the Waring hundreds of miles back to New York. He became the toast of the town and the subject of national news stories. Cheering crowds paid to hear Tillman speak at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum on lower Broadway. 

But Tillman was soon forgotten, his fame eclipsed by other Civil War heroes. 

Robert Smalls’ place in history would not fade as quickly, as author Cate Lineberry shows in Small’s biography, Be Free or Die. In 1862, the black sailor was 23 and the enslaved wheelman aboard the rebel transport ship Planter. The ship worked in and around Charleston harbor with a crew of ten. 

The bonds of slavery chafed Smalls, who had a wife and three children who could be sold off at any time. One day he vowed that he and his family would “be free or die.” 

Smalls gathered six crewmates, all slaves, and persuaded them to help snatch the Planter at a time of his choosing and escape to freedom with their families.  

Apparently sure the black sailors were incapable of such a feat, the Planter’s white officers and sailors often left them alone for overnight amusements elsewhere. Once they left the ship one night, Smalls slyly steamed toward freedom, slipping past sentries, police, guard boats and two armed forts. With his family and eleven other slaves aboard, Smalls approached the Union gunboats moored in the fog ten miles away.  

The flapping white sheet on his ship helped persuade the Yanks not to fire. And as their reward, Smalls gave them his military cargo: four cannon the Union badly needed.     

Smalls won fame as a national hero and became the first black captain of a Union ship. He met President Lincoln on a secret mission, joined in other raids on rebel positions near Charleston and rose to become an entrepreneur and U.S. congressman.

These two black sailors, both illiterate, astounded millions of Americans who could scarcely conceive of such brilliant feats from two black men. Their stories offer a lesson today to those of us who persist in slighting the talents of African-Americans.

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