Revenge on the High Seas! The Union Advances Towards Manassas!

Tuesday, July 16, 1861

The Revenge of William Tilghman of the S.J. Waring

Rebel privateers in the brig Jeff Davis had captured the S.J. Waring on July 7. For the past week, they had been sailing for a Southern port. Four of the Waring‘s original crew, still on board, were put to work on the vessel as the Confederate sailors piloted the ship.

Over the next week, the Unionist prisoners hoped that their ship would be recaptured by a United States vessel blockading the coast. With the hope of that actually happening quickly fading, William Tilghman, the black steward from the original crew of the Waring, concocted a plan to retake the ship.

When the Waring was captured, the Confederates cut up the United States flag to piece together a Confederate flag. Tilghman had vowed revenge and his plan addressed such feelings.

At least one member of the original crew refused to take part in Tilghman’s plan, but the steward acted anyway. Just before midnight, with the Confederate captain and two mates asleep and the ship under the lazy command of two seamen, Tilghman, axe in hand, sneaked into the captain’s cabin.

The Rebel lay sleeping, never to wake again as Tilghman’s axe fell upon his skull, cracking it with a sharp thud. The noise was not enough to wake the first mate and the steward dealt him the same revenge, the blade cutting bone and brain. He left the dead men below deck and, covered in the blood of reprisal, moved to the upper deck where slept the second mate.

Maybe there was just enough noise to wake this unfortunate pirate, for he was just lifting his head and rubbing his eyes, taking in the eerie dark around him when, from the blackness, he was struck in the temple, never to rise again.

All three dead men had met with Tilghman’s promised retribution and no gravestones would mark their final rest in some ornate Southern cemetery. After his deadly work, the steward cast all three bodies over the side of the Waring to be devoured by the Atlantic Ocean. He did all of this in under eight minutes.

Tilghman called to the two remaining Confederates, telling them that he was now captain of the vessel and that they must obey him or meet the same unfortunate end. Having been shown three times what disobeying may bring them, they quickly consented.

At first they were put into leg irons, but were soon allowed to be free when they promised to guide the Waring to a Northern port.

The ship arrived safely in New York on July 21st under the command of William Tilghman. Upon arrival, Tilghman was taken into custody, but only as a witness. He was awarded $6,000 and became, perhaps, America’s first black hero. He was featured at P.T. Barnum’s Museum at New York City where thousands came to meet the black man who retook his ship.1

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The Union Advances Towards Manassas!

General McDowell expected to meet the Rebels near Fairfax Courthouse. They had pushed a brigade forward to hold the area around the town and to alert Confederate General Beauregard, commanding the 18,000-strong Confederate Army of the Potomac, of the expected Union advance. At 3pm, McDowell’s 30,000 men stepped off, each of the four divisions following their orders given the day before.

The northern Virginia countryside was dotted with rundown plantations and rough fields gone to seed. Blackberries flanked both sides of the road as General William Tecumseh Sherman, now commanding a brigade in General Hunter’s Division, marched his men along the Columbia Pike towards Annandale.

“The march demonstrated little save the general laxity of discipline,” wrote Sherman after the war, “for with all my personal efforts I could not prevent the men from straggling for water, blackberries, or any thing on the way they fancied.”2

The advance was light on the first day, with most divisions having to march only five miles to reach their specified camping spots. While Hunter’s Division marched to just east of Annandale, General Miles’s Division occupied the little town itself. Taking a more northerly route, General Tyler’s Division moved into Vienna. General Heintzelman’s Division, ordered to be more southerly, took the Old Fairefax Road to where the Orange & Alexandria Railroad crossed the road and Pohick Run.

It was well after dark before the entire army finally settled in its bivouacs for the night. The next day’s march would start at dawn.3

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Patterson Sputters to a Move

Back on land, the sacred soil of Virginia, Union General Patterson had advanced to within eight miles of General Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester. He refused the option to advance farther the day before but, on this date, he pushed a moderate force south, up the Valley Pike. They met some Rebel cavalry, but dispersed them with a few shots. The road was found to be barricaded with fallen trees, so the going was slow.

This advance was to fool General Johnston into thinking that Patterson’s entire force was coming. Apparently, the scattering of some cavalry accomplished that goal and they returned to the main body at Bunker Hill.

Throughout the day, reports of the Army of the Shenandoah’s strength filtered into camp. Finally, Patterson believed his pitiful army of 18,000 faced a well-entrenched Rebel army of 42,000 that had sixty cannons. He also believed that General McDowell would fight Beauregard on this day and so, on the next, he resolved to fight Johnston.

Patterson’s generals disagreed with that idea. Attacking Johnston would either destroy the Union army or send Johnston into the waiting arms of Beauregard at Manassas. Finally convinced, Patterson decided to move from Bunker Hill to Charlestown, a twelve mile march that would drop him seventeen miles from Winchester.

Patterson’s mission was to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard. To do this, he had to at least appear to threaten the Confederates at all times. Even the feigning of an attack could keep the Rebels at Winchester. Instead, Patterson decided to leave their front and leave Johnston an easy back door out.4



  1. Harper’s Weekly, August 3, 1861. Also, an article by C.R. Gibbs which quotes the New York Tribune. []
  2. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Volume 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman. []
  3. Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
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Revenge on the High Seas! The Union Advances Towards Manassas! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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