One hundred and fifty years ago today, African-American steward William Tillman on the schooner SJ Waring, which had been captured by the infamous Confederate privateer Jefferson Davis, single-handedly retook his ship, becoming one of the first noted black heroes of the Civil War. This story was highlighted in the St. Augustine Record today, and it one of many told in the recently released documentary film The Search for the Jefferson Davis, which follows the research of LAMP archaeologists as they seek out the historical stories and physical remains of this ship, lost off the coast of St. Augustine 150 years ago.
St. Augustine Record:

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The Union’s first black hero of the Civil War wasn’t one of the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, famously depicted in the 1989 film “Glory,” but rather a merchant ship’s cook who took up arms to prevent being sold into slavery after a Confederate raider captured his vessel.
At least that’s the reckoning of some historians and a pair of upstate New York-based documentary producers who have included William Tillman’s story in their new film on the short-but-prolific wartime record of the brig Jefferson Davis, a Southern privateer that seized several Union ships in the opening months of the war.
“He certainly ranks among the top half-dozen African-American heroes of the Civil War as far as I’m concerned,” said Gerald Henig, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, in the San Francisco Bay area.

The entire article is worth a read, and if you think that’s a great story wait until you see the documentary. It is available for sale in the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum gift shop, and its really an excellent show.
UPDATED: Since this original blog posting, another great article on this story came out in the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt below, and click the link to the original article, its a good one.

Tillman’s heroic action struck a responsive chord among a Northern population that was reeling from the news of the Union defeat at Bull Run on the same day the Waring arrived in New York. The New-York Tribune wrote, “To this colored man was the nation indebted for the first vindication of its honor on the sea.” Another publication reported that the achievement drew “unstinted praise from all parties, even those who are usually awkward in any other vernacular than derision of the colored man.” At Barnum’s Museum Tillman was the center of an “attractive gaze to daily increasing thousands” and “pictorials vied with each other in portraying his features, and in graphic delineations of the scene on board the brig.” Several months later the federal government awarded Tillman the sum of $6,000 ($154,000 in 2011 dollars) as prize-money for the capture of the schooner.