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Black seaman's 1861 heroics recalled in new film +video

Jul 7, 2011 12:06:00 PM - thestate.com
View a trailer for the documentary DVD at the end of this story.

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.

"This is a guy who falls between the cracks," said Joe Zarzynski, a retired history teacher from Wilton, N.Y., and co-producer of the documentary film released earlier this year. "We have our pantheon of heroes for the Civil War, and this guy should be there."

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