Title: The Rest I Will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave
Author: Brian McGinty
No. of Pages: 240
Release Date: 16 August 2016
“Independence Day, 1861. The schooner S. J. Waring sets sail from New York on a routine voyage to South America. Seventeen days later, it limps back into New York’s frenzied harbor with the ship’s black steward, William Tillman, at the helm. While the story of that ill-fated voyage is one of the most harrowing tales of captivity and survival on the high seas, it has, almost unbelievably, been lost to history.
Now reclaiming Tillman as the real American hero he was, historian Brian McGinty dramatically returns readers to that riotous, explosive summer of 1861, when the country was tearing apart at the seams and the Union army was in near shambles following a humiliating defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. Desperate for good news, the North was soon riveted by reports of an incident that occurred a few hundred miles off the coast of New York, where the Waring had been overtaken by a marauding crew of Confederate privateers. While the white sailors became chummy with their Southern captors, free black man William Tillman was perfectly aware of the fate that awaited him in the ruthless, slave-filled ports south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Stealthily biding his time until a moonlit night nine days after the capture, Tillman single-handedly killed three officers of the privateer crew, then took the wheel and pointed it home. Yet, with no experience as a navigator, only one other helper, and a war-torn Atlantic seaboard to contend with, his struggle had just begun.
It took five perilous days at sea—all thrillingly recounted here—before the Waring returned to New York Harbor, where the story of Tillman’s shipboard courage became such a tabloid sensation that he was not only put on the bill of Barnum’s American Museum but also proclaimed to be the “first hero” of the Civil War. As McGinty evocatively shows, however, in the horrors of the war then engulfing the nation, memories of his heroism—even of his identity—were all but lost to history.
As such, The Rest I Will Kill becomes a thrilling and historically significant work, as well as an extraordinary journey that recounts how a free black man was able to defy efforts to make him a slave and become an unlikely glimmer of hope for a disheartened Union army in the war-battered North.”
My Thoughts: The Rest I Will Kill sounds like it will be an amazing true-life tale of danger and selfless heroism. After all, black men did not fight back against white men in the early 1860s. So, any story that refutes this idea has to be good. Right?
Unfortunately, Brian McGinty’s narrative is just…not good. Half of the book is setting the stage for the confrontation, educating readers on the early stages of the Civil War and establishing the mood in the North as well as the South. This is important and turns out to be the most interesting sections of the story because he discusses the early efforts at the Union blockade, maritime law, and the political quagmire that was the South seceding from the Union. Sadly, while this is a key section and sets the tone for Tillman’s later actions, Mr. McGinty barely scratches the surface on the political, social, and legal implications of the Civil War. Details are insufficient to truly understand anyone’s mindset at that time.
As for William Tillman, his harrowing adventure turns out to be less so. Mr. McGinty tries to impart the danger Tillman faces both before and after his mutiny, but he is not successful. Tillman becomes less a hero and more someone acting to save his own neck. While the reasons he does so are completely understandable, he is not someone who would ignite the nation behind his cause. It gets worse when he gets back to New York, as he quickly becomes a pawn in the world of maritime insurance and a spectacle that lines the pockets of P. T. Barnum. He kills to preserve his freedom but then foregoes some of that hard-won freedom by becoming subservient to insurance lawyers and Barnum himself.
The entire story is disappointing in its lack of details and Mr. McGinty’s inability to create any empathy for Tillman. In spite of Mr. McGinty’s attempts to portray Tillman as larger than life, Tillman remains little more than a caricature. You cannot empathize with him because you do not know who he is anymore than you know what he was thinking before, during, and after the brutal act which brought him a modicum of fame. It is a frustrating reading experience because one instinctively wants more than what Mr. McGinty provides.
Thrilling? No. Historically significant? Probably not. Mildly interesting? Yes. Thus is my lackluster response to Mr. McGinty’s story of William Tillman and his one moment of fame.