A Brave Ship: The U.S.S. Tyler


U.S.S. Tyler (2)

The U.S.S. Tyler was a timberclad warship of the United States Navy during the Civil War. She was one of three wooden steam ships purchased in 1861 by the Federal government to convert for use on western rivers.  It was sheathed with 5-inch thick white oak planks and the engines and boiler were retrofitted.  The Tyler ran about 180 feet in length and had a 45 foot beam.  It drew 6 feet of water and weighed around 575 tons.  The ship was a side wheeler powered by a pair of single cylinder, high pressure reciprocating beam engines.  These received steam from four boilers and could travel up to 8 knots.  There was space for a crew of 67 men.  Originally, the ship would be armed with six 8-inch guns and one 32 pounder.  That would change as the war progressed.

The ship that would become the U.S.S. Tyler originated in 1857 at Cincinatti, Ohio and was christianed the A.O. Tyler.  This commercial steamship operated the western waters until it sank on January 17, 1860.  After being salvaged, the unfortunate boat continued it’s thankless work.  Then the civil war broke out. On January 13, 1861, the steamer was enroute to New Orleans when it was fired on by state militia at Vicksburg.  Although the ship was searched and released by the Confederates, this incident would become historical.  Taking place just 4 days after Mississippi seceded makes the firing on of the Tyler one of the first shots fired in the Civil War.

In June 1861, the Tyler was purchased for $21,000 by the U.S. Army to operate in the Western Gunboat Flotilla.  Commander John Rogers, who was over this plan to buy the ships, wanted to change the name of the Tyler to Taylor. He complained that former President John Tyler supported the South and it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a  warship named after him. The new name didn’t stick though, and the plucky ship continued to be called the Tyler.   Although purchased by the army, it would have a crew made up from the navy.  The appropriate work was done to convert her for warfare and Henry A. Walke took command.  Walke had been in the navy since 1827 and seen active service in the war already when he arrived in St. Louis to take charge of the timberclad. This would be a different type of naval assignment though, since Walke’s job would be to support the advance of the army.  Not all his sailors were happy with their new ship. Some described it as a “wood crate” or a “clumsy barge.” A Master’s Mate called her “a very slow boat, scarcely faster than the iron clad boats.” Nevertheless, with whatever misgivings some crew had, the Tyler moved south.  There was a war on.

U.S.S. Tyler (3)



On September 4, 1861, the U.S.S. Tyler and Lexington engaged the CSS Jackson and shore batteries near Hickman and Columbus, Kentucky.  Two days later, the ships supported Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s seizure of Paducah. On November 6th, the Tyler was involved in supporting General Grant at the Battle of Belmont. Commander Walke described some of the action at Belmont in the following few lines:

“At about noon,hearing the battle at Belmont still going on, our two gunboats made a third attack upon their batteries, this time going nearly a quarter of a mile nearer to them.  We opened a brisk fire of shell and seemingly with good effect, while in this engagement one of their 24 pounders struck us on the starboard bulwarks and continuing obliquely through the spar deck took off the head of  Michael Adams, seaman, and broke the arm and otherwise seriously injured James Wolfe, seaman, and slightly wounding a third.  Acting Surgeon Kearney, who was cool and assiduous in the discharge of his duties, immediately dressed Wolfe’s wounds, but considered him in critical condition.”

Henry A. Walke

U.S.S. Tyler (Henry A. Walke)

Later in his report, Commander Walke said this about his men of the Tyler:

“It is but an act of justice to the officers and crew to state that they acted throughout all our engagements with perfect coolness, ability, and courage, the crew answering the calls to quarters with an alarcity becoming earnest cooperators for the government. I was astonished, with the apparently new material we have, to see with what zeal and efficiency they all performed their parts.”

In mid January 1862, Commander Henry Walke was transferred to command the ironclad warship Carondelet.  Lieutenant William Gwin assumed command of the Tyler.

William Gwin

U.S.S. Tyler (William Gwin)

The ship was next involved in the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennesse River on February 6th. For the next several days the Tyler, along with the timberclads Conestoga and Lexington,  follwed the river down to Florence, Alabama capturing Confederate supplies and destroying a railroad bridge at Eastport.  Then in mid February, it was involved in taking Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.  When Conferate forces under General Albert Sidney Johnston attacked Grant at Shiloh on April 6th, the Tyler steamed up to Pittsburg Landing and opened fire on advancing rebels. On April 7th, the Tyler opened fire at 1 a.m. firing every fifteen minutes to harass the Confederates. General Grant later thanked the gunboats for helping to repulse the enemy. The Tyler continued it’s shining record of military service by capturing a Confederate transport and burning another on April 19th.  On July 15th, the Tyler along with two other ships fought a running battle with the Confederate ram Arkansas on the Mississppi River. William Gwin was then promoted to Lt. Commander on July 16, 1862.  He and most of the Tyler’s crew were transferred to the USS Mound City.  The Mound City had lost most of it’s men on June 17th when a Confederate battery at St. Charles, Arkansas on the White River hit it’s steam drum. After replacing much of the crew and staff, the Tyler was invloved in the operations around the Vicksburg campaign.  It also assisted in the Federal victory over Fort Hindman at Arkansas Post.

U.S.S. Tyler (1)

The U.S.S. Tyler was officially transferred to the Navy in October 1862. It’s armament was increased with three 30-pounder Parrots replacing the 32-pounder.  Four more 24-pounders were added later and even a 12-pound howitzer.  This made the Tyler the most heavily armored timberclad of the war. Lieutenant Commander James M. Prichett was placed in command.  Prichett had been born in 1838 and was a native of Indiana. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1857 and started his career in the military.  Although young, he was very efficient with his command and soon had the Tyler ready for duty.  Their next test would be at the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863.

U.S.S. Tyler at Helena

U.S.S. Tyler (Helena)

Confederate officials in Richmond continued to apply more pressure on the Trans-Mississippi Department to do something in order to relieve the threat to Vicksburg.  The city had been under siege for months and time was running out.  Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes gathered his scattered forces together and marched toward Helena on the Mississippi River.  Helena had been an important port on the river and one of the wealthiest cities in Arkansas before the war. In July 1862, a union army had marched across Arkansas and took control of Helena. Since then, Federals had been building up the defenses of the town.  In addition to large Fort Curtis, four batteries had been erected on the bluffs around Helena.  By early 1863, Major General Benjamin Prentiss had assumed command of the Union forces at Helena.  This army veteran recognized the threat and quickly strengthened his position.  Reports were coming in during June of Confederate forces moving toward him from the west.  After asking for support from the navy, Admiral Porter sent three vessels to operate in the area.  One of these was the Tyler.

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, being for the most part contributions by Union and Confederate officers, based upon “the Century War Series.” Edited by R. U. J. and C. C. B., etc. [Illustrated.]

On July 4th, the Confederate forces were ready.  Their attack began at sunrise on the most southern fort called Battery D along the Little Rock Road. Only the Tyler was at Helena on that morning, but it was more than ready for trouble. Fighting began to occur at the northern most fort called Battery A next. Then two brigades under General Sterling Price charged the center of the Union line at Battery C.  It was at this point that the Northern line broke as jubilant Rebels poured over the works of the battery on what was called Graveyard Hill.  Hell and terror then broke loose on the Confederates at the height of their triumph on the bluffs around Helena.  Not only did the big guns of Fort Curtis target the Rebels, but the Tyler began to barrage them with shells set to explode at 10 and 15 second charges. Only one rebel battery had been able to get in position south of Helena and they were able to fire a few shots at the Tyler. The ship quickly silenced them though and the sailors turned attention back to Battery C.  According to Commander S.L. Phelps in his official report, “the slaughter of the enemy at this time was terrible and all unite in describing the horrors of that hillside and the ravines after the battle as baffling description, the killed literally torn to pieces by shell, and the avenging fire of the gunboat pursued the enemy 2 or 3 miles to reserve forces creating a panic there which added not a little to the end of victory.” At 10:30 a.m. General Holmes ordered what remained of his army to retreat. The battle had lasted a little over four hours. The Tyler fired 413 rounds during the Battle of Helena. Lieutenant Commander Prichett and Acting Executive officer George L. Smith had helped General Prentiss to accomplish a major Union victory over the Confederates. This should have been the lead story of the nation, but two events covered up the Battle of Helena. Vicksburg surrendered on July 4th and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in retreat after their loss at Gettysburg.  Casualties for General Prentiss were about 239 killed, wounded and missing. Confederate casualties were over 1,600 killed, wounded and missing.  Many of the Rebels surrendered in the ravines around the batteries rather than risk fleeing because of the severe shelling.  Once more, the Tyler had helped save a Union army and win a victory.

Report of Acting Ensign Smith. U.S. Navy, Acting Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Tyler.   July 5, 1863 – Off Helena.

“We weighed anchor at 10 minutes of 6 o’clock and proceeded down the river about 3/4 of a mile below the town, where we opened our port battery.  The enemy replied with two small rifled field pieces supposed to be 12-pounders, two shot of which struck within the 50 yards of our stern.  They were soon silenced by bringing our stern gun, 30-pounder parrott, to bear on them.  We then proceeded one half mile further up the river, where the enemy endeavored to break through in force into our lines through a ravine about 200 feet deep.  Here we sent our shells to a very destructive effect among the enemy.  The killed and wounded by our shells in this place were about 600 men.  I visited the ground here this morning and found about that number still on the ground. “

” The officers and crew behaved in a most gallant manner. There was neither excitement nor discouragement shown by anyone aboard, and as the whole engagement was principally conducted under your own observation, it is needless for me to make any remarks. We fired 413 rounds, most of which were 8-inch, 15 second and 10 second shells.”

” At 12:30 pm the enemy left the field, after leaving the greatest portion of their killed and wounded on the ground.  They were commanded by General Holmes and Price and supposed to be 15,0000 strong.  It was a most decisive victory on our side and officers and crew are very anxious for once more to open our guns on these marauding invaders. “

” This vessel came out of action uninjured and no loss of men. I am respectfully your obedient servant. ”       George L. Smith, Acting Executive Officer.

Lieutenant Commander Prichett was transferred in January 1864 to the Mahopac in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  The Tyler subsequently participated in the invasion of Arkansas and operated on the White River. Her last major combat was near Clarendon, Arkansas when she engaged Southern shore batteries. The ship was still on the White River at the start of 1865, but by April, was in Memphis. Most of the crew were discharged there at the end of the war.

History was not done with the Tyler though. On April 27, 1865 the sidewheeler was used in rescue duty with a volunteer crew to assist in the steamboat Sultana disaster. The Sultana was a  steamboat used by government officials to transport Union soldiers home from Confederate prison camps when the war ended.  Over 2,400 men were crowded onto the ship as it churned north from Vicksburg.  Owners of the Sultana had purposefully packed as many men on the ship as they could  because they were being paid at least $5 per man. The Sultana had been built to hold only about 376 passengers. The overcrowded river boat had pulled into Helena on the 26th where the last picture of the doomed craft was taken. It headed northward once again. At about 2 a.m. the overworked boilers exploded when the ship was about ten miles north of Memphis.  Men and passengers were suddenly thrown into the icy cold water. Some were killed instantly by the explosion while others died from falling debris.  Ships from Memphis and other places quickly came to the rescue, but it was too late for most of the Sultana passengers.  A sailor aboard the Tyler wrote a description of what he saw and heard in the river around the burning ship. He related, ” of all the sounds and noises I ever heard, that was the most sorrowful; some cursing, calling for help; and shrieking.  I will never forget those awful sounds.”  Up to 1,800 people lost their lives that night.  Because some passengers were on the ship, there will never be an accurate count.  Most of those lost were soldiers though.  This would be the worst maritime disaster in United States history. More people died on the Sultana than on the Titanic.  Once again, history would overlook much about this event that the Tyler played a part in. Most of the country’s attention was turned to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14th and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth.

The Sultana at Helena

U.S.S. Tyler (Sultanna)

Later, the Tyler was ordered to Mound City, Illinois where it was sold in public auction for $6,000.  It’s wooden structure and frame had seen some of the first shots of the Civil War and ended with the Sultana disaster. The sidewheeler had experienced both victories and tragedies. It then returned to civilian use.  With that, the U.S.S. Tyler faded into history.


Sources Used:

Hamersly, Lewis Randolph: “The Records of Living Officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps” 4th edition, L.R. Hamersly & Co. Philadelphia, 1890.

“Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion”. Series I – Volume 22. Washington, Government Printing Press. 1908.

Smith, Myron: “The Timberclads in the Civil War: The Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler on the Western Waters” McFarland & Company, North Carolina, 2008.

“Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of teh Rebellion”. Series I – Volume 25. Washington, Government Printing Press. 1912.

Taylor, Michael: “Battle of Helena” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, 2018. Battle of Helena – Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net

Myers, Jack: “U.S.S. Tyler” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, 2018. USS<i>Tyler<i>- Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net

Hendricks, Nancy: “Sultana” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, 2017. <i>Sultana</i>{Steamboat} – Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net




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