USS Tyler and USS Lexington at Shiloh

One decisive reason the Federals won the war on the rivers was the rapid creation and utilization of gunboats. These vessels protected transports, patrolled the rivers, shelled Confederate defenses, directly supported Union amphibious operations, and more than once saved a Federal force from destruction by pouring fire on victorious Confederates. Dramatic examples include Milliken’s Bend in June 1863 and Baton Rouge in August 1862, where Union garrisons were saved from annihilation. Ulysses S. Grant escaped at the Battle of Belmont in September 1861 under the guns of timberclads USS Tyler and USS Lexington.

Gunboats Tyler, Lexington and Conestoga at Cairo, IL, 1961. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Perhaps the most famous example of gunboats aiding the army in a battle was at Shiloh. The Union army also had the support of Tyler and Lexington, the only navy ships around since ironclad USS Cairo and timberclad USS Conestoga had been called away. Both were commanded by Lieutenant William Gwin, a young officer who in time would have several warships named after him due to his exploits. The Tyler was originally named A.O. Tyler, but some called it Taylor so as not to associate the vessel with John Tyler, the former president who served in the Confederate Congress. The timberclads were second-line warships. Although well armed, they were vulnerable to heavy cannon, and as such usually supported the ironclads.[1]

On April 6, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi surprised Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of West Tennessee. Fighting was bitter and fierce from the first volley. By noon, the carnage had already surpassed Bull Run and Fort Donelson, and by 2:30 p.m. Johnston was dead. The Confederates, despite some bungled attacks, gradually forced the Federals towards the banks of the Tennessee River. As they did so they came in range of Gwin’s gunboats, which waited for orders but received none from Grant. Eventually, Gwin managed to get directions from Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut. At 2:50 p.m., Gwin opened on the Rebel right. The shots often went wide and entered Duncan Field. Losses were light among the Confederates, but many noted the loud booming of the cannon. Still, at this point Gwin’s timberclads had no real effect on the battle.[2]

The gunboats were more important as the Confederates arrayed for the final push across the ravine that straddled Dill Branch. Hurlbut directed them to fire into the area of Cloud Field, the bombardment beginning at 5:35. Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg, who was organizing the attack at Dill Branch wrote “Their fire, though terrific in sound and producing some consternation at first, did us no damage, as the shells passed over and exploded far beyond our posi­tions.” Colonel John D. Martin, commanding a brigade, reported it “sounded terribly and looked ugly and hurt but few.” Joseph Boyce of the 1st Missouri, serving in Martin’s brigade, called the floating artillery “nothing but noise.”[3]

Hurlbut in 1861

While the gunboats were not so effective against the main battle line, they affected those close to the river. Company E of 2nd Alabama Artillery lost seven horses, three in one shot. They ended up withdrawing, leaving one cannon in the ravine. The 52nd Tennessee “scattered like sheep” according to William F. Mosier, who served in the regiment. The 10th Mississippi saw men cut down and veered towards the river. Finding the bluffs too high, they only skirmished with Union forces while sniping at the timberclads. Lexington stopped firing at 6:10 and Tyler at 6:25, although if it was due to the 10th Mississippi remains doubtful.[4]

While the gunboats overshot against the main battle line, the shells landed a bit to the rear, where Confederate forces were still forming. The 5th Tennessee ran for cover. Thomas Chinn Robertson of the 4th Louisiana wrote “the shells fell around us like hail and as we could do nothing against the ‘black rascals’, we retreated back about two miles.” Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee, who was even further to the back, thought the fire of the gunboats “was perfectly appalling to our men.” Brig. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, who’s brigade had broken through the Federal center and was poised to attack again, halted. Whether or not most of these regiments could have attacked is doubtful. They were exhausted and in disarray. Yet, it seems the gunboats assured these forces could not promptly form up. If not decisive, Gwin’s guns certainly aided the Federal defense in this regard.[5]

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, filling in for Johnston, called off the attack before more regiments joined in. He would have the men rest and then finish Grant off on April 7. Beauregard reported “officers and men were exhausted by a combat of over twelve hours without food, and jaded by the march of the preceding day through mud and water.” In addition, many speculated that Beauregard did not want his men under fire from the gunboats. Maj. Gen. Leondias Polk, one of Beauregard’s corps commanders, thought the roar of Federal artillery, particularly the gunboats with their heavy cannon, convinced Beauregard his men were “waging an unequal contest.” There is not as much direct evidence for Polk’s assessment, but it is possible it influenced Beauregard’s decision. Whether or not the Confederates could have carried Grant’s line is debatable. The terrain was rough, Grant had plenty of artillery, and the Army of the Ohio had arrived, bringing fresh troops, which in turn raised morale in Grant’s battered army. On the other hand, Cleburne at least was well positioned to cause mischief. Regardless, a grander push was never attempted and the Tyler and Lexington played their part.[6]

Pierre G.T. Beauregard

On the night of April 6, Gwin asked Brig. Gen. William Nelson how he could aid his division. Nelson was an old navy officer, which is likely why Gwin asked him and not Grant or Maj. Gen Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio. Nelson replied that he wanted wine, cigars, and naval fire every ten minutes into the Confederates lines to keep them awake. Starting at 9:00 Tyler fired every ten minutes. Grant also sent an order for Gwin to fire.[7]

Union naval fire did little damage, but its roar kept many awake, although most reported eventually going to sleep. It did have a psychological effect. Those hit were horribly mangled and some men died in clumps. One shell killed four Confederates playing poker in a Sibley tent, each man apparently still holding their cards when found. Cleburne reported the shells killed mostly Union wounded who were resting on the ground. He fumed that “History records few instances of more reckless inhumanity than this.”[8]

Battle of Milliken’s Bend

The timberclad pair of Tyler and Lexington survived Shiloh and the war. They were active in many other battles and campaigns, with Lexington saving the garrison at Milliken’s Bend. Yet, both are mostly recalled for their duty at Shiloh. The effect they had has been debated, but it seemed to be a matter of where a soldier was located. What can be said is the gunboats helped repulse the Confederacy’s final push and added to Confederate disorganization and exhaustion on April 7. Gwin’s gunboats were hardly decisive, but certainly a factor in the Union victory at Shiloh.


[1] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 29 vols. (Washington, DC, 1894-1921), Series 2, vol. 1, 227-228. Hereafter cited as ORN. All references are to series I unless otherwise noted; Lanny Kelton Smith, The Battle of Shiloh: The Union Armies, 6 April 1862. (n.p.: Lanny Kelton Smith, 2019), 520.

[2] War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington , DC, 1880-1901), Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, page 529. Hereafter cited as OR. All references are to series I unless otherwise noted;  ORN 22, 762-763; D.W. Reed, The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Enraged. (Knoxville, 2008), 53.

[3]OR 10, pt. 1, 204, 466, 622; ORN 22, 763, 764; Boyce, Joseph. Captain Joseph Boyce and the 1st Missouri Infantry, C.S.A. (St. Louis, 2011), 65.

[4] OR 10, pt. 1, 551; ORN 22, 763-764, 786; Larry J. Daniel, Shiloh (New York, 1998), 254; Mobile Advertiser and Register, April 11, 1862; William F. Mosier, Letter, 52nd Tennessee File, Shiloh National Military Park Confederate Regiment Files; Henry Woodhead, Voices of the Civil War: Shiloh (Alexandria, VA, 1996), 125.

[5] OR 10, pt. 1, 582; Hardee to Shover April 9, 1862, Felicia Shover Letters, University of North Carolina; Edwin H. Rennolds, A History of the Henry County Commands Which Served in the Confederate States Army (Jacksonville, 1904), 36-37; Thomas Chinn Robertson Letter (4th Louisiana),  Navarro College; Timothy B. Smith, “‘Gallant and Invaluable Service’: The United States Navy at the Battle of Shiloh,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 58 (2004): 48-50.

[6] OR 10, pt. 1, 384, 385, 387, 410; Thomas Jordan, “Notes of a Confederate Staff Officer at Shiloh,” in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, ed., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols. (New York, 1884-1888), 1:602-603; Thomas Jordan, and Roger Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry (New Orleans, 1868), 135-136; D.C. Kelley, “Mistakes Concerning Battle of Shiloh,” in Confederate Veteran 9, No. 12 (December 1901), 532; Alfred Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1884), 1:305.

[7]OR 10, pt. 1, 323-324;  ORN 22, 764; Ulysses S. Grant, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant 5 (Carbondale, 1973), 341-342.

[8] OR 10, pt. 1, 582-583; Daniel, Shiloh, 263; Frank L. Richardson, “War As I Saw It,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly 6, no. 1 (January 1923), 102-103.

9 Responses to USS Tyler and USS Lexington at Shiloh

  1. I thank you Sean for this article. This week’s Question of The Week involved Shilo. I have always been interested in the naval aspects of it. It is interesting that no definitive assessment has been arrived at when it comes to the Union gunboats effectiveness. I’ve read accounts over the years that claim the battle was lost for the Union forces if not for the actions of the gunboats. Other accounts say they didn’t make a whole lot of actual difference. I have read similar varying accounts of the Battle of Malvern Hill, in that Union gunboat participation was described as anywhere from “ineffective” to “being quite devastating” on the Confederate forces. Again, great article!

    1. There was at least always a psychological element given the tremendous noise of their cannon and that death when it came was gruesome. I have noted this when reading about other battles were gunboats supported the defenders, such as at Baton Rouge, Milliken’s Bend, and Fort Butler.

  2. One of the facts too often ignored by students of the Battle of Shiloh: ALL of the functioning Federal artillery pieces were withdrawn north from defense of the Sunken Road/ Hornet’s Nest prior to the surrender of Prentiss at 5:29pm. These cannon were installed in Grant’s Last Line, stretching from Markgraf’s Ohio Battery (overlooking Pittsburg Landing) west nearly one mile to Hickenlooper’s four pieces; from Hickenlooper, the Union line bent north nearly 90 degrees, and extended another mile, nearly to Snake Creek and incorporated all of the artillery Sherman and McClernand managed to save, as well as Lew Wallace’s late-arriving units. In total, more than 52 pieces of ground-based artillery comprised this formidable “last line of defense,” ordered by Grant and constructed by Webster, Hurlbut and Sherman.
    Equally discounted: the 13 water-based artillery pieces mounted on Naval platforms (which as Sean Michael Chick points out, may have contributed to Beauregard’s decision to move his Army “out of harm’s way,” abandoning hard-won territory that would not be regained on Day Two.)
    When the 13 pieces of Naval artillery are added to the 52+ available pieces of field artillery, it becomes clear how powerful was Grant’s Last Line of Defense, initiated mid-afternoon and completed before sunset of Day One.

    1. The last line was impressive, but weak in the sector Cleburne threatened. There the terrain was not imposing, direct artillery support was absent, and the Federal regiments had already been sent flying in the hours before by Cleburne’s well positioned attack. They also had not received the morale boost that came with Buell’s arrival, his main contribution of his army on April 6. Many did not know Buell was on hand until well after sunset. Also, Cleburne’s brigade had rested around midday while some of the regiments Bragg was arranging at Dill Branch had bee in the fight since dawn.

      That said, it is unlikely much could be done. Cleburne had no immediate support, particularly with Polk (who was the closest to him) forming slowly and under fire from the gunboats. The bigger what is is what if Cleburne had another brigade or two with him at that moment and there was no order to pull back.

      As it was though, the Rebels were preparing to push where Grant was strongest. The terrain at Dill Branch was rough, artillery was plentiful, gunboats were close by, and Buell’s vanguard caused a surge in hope and morale among the men still on the firing line, not mention well disciplined troops ready if the Rebels had been more aggressive. Nothing is impossible in war (just ask the Rebels about Missionary Ridge) but success at Dill Branch was highly unlikely, with or without a retreat order.

    2. Sean Michael Chick
      I take your point that “Cleburne’s force, resupplied with ammunition, attempted to press forward [against Grant’s Last Line]” but two things stopped Cleburne’s advance (as reported in the OR Ser.1 vol.10 part 1 page 582): the “heavy fire from the enemy’s field artillery and gunboats” and “an aid of General Beauregard informed me [we] were not to approach nearer to the [Tennessee] River.” Therefore, Cleburne’s prospects (and Chalmers and Jackson’s further east) remain forever as “What if…”
      Mike Maxwell

      1. One of the best Shiloh sources is the William Henry Harder Memoirs (23rd Tennessee) at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It is very detailed, and has really helped me flesh out the regiment’s actions at Rea Field and in the fighting after Cleburne’s brigade was mauled.

        Harder describes a very disappointed Cleburne falling back on April 6 and just about ready to strike. I would have to read it again to see his thoughts on artillery, but in their sector there was only the 5th Ohio Artillery in direct support. The Union infantry were dispirited and had yet to hear of Buell’s arrival. That said, some artillery might have been able to add support, as there were 4 batteries just east of where Cleburne was going to strike. As for the gunboats, it according with my thesis that they did not affect Bragg too much but did disorganize Polk’s force.

        Not that it could change the fight the lack of reserves, but it is worth noting as most today see Grant’s line as impregnable. It would have been tough, but like any line of defense, it had a weakness. The Rebels though would have needed more men, more time, some luck and once again reserves. All Cleburne could do was add to the causality list.

        Hardee also later mentioned being disappointed that Cleburne was not allowed to keep up his momentum. He did not elaborate though, so it might be more an off-handed comment than analysis.

      2. Sean Michael Chick
        Thanks for acquainting me with the Harder Memoirs.
        Thanks, also, for confirming my suspicion that Hickenlooper’s Ohio Battery was the “weak position” (at the bend in Grant’s Last Line) that Cleburne intended to force. When Captain Andrew Hickenlooper reported to BGen Sherman in late afternoon, the commander of the Fifth Division placed Hickenlooper’s battery at that spot, believing “the 5th Ohio Battery had just arrived at the Landing,” not realizing that Hickenlooper’s four guns (he started the day with six) had been fighting as part of Prentiss’ Sixth Division since early morning. (Munch and Hickenlooper were the last Federal artillery extracted from the Hornet’s Nest, about an hour before Prentiss surrendered.)
        For his efforts, Hickenlooper was mentioned favorably in reports by both Sherman AND Prentiss.
        Mike Maxwell

  3. Thanks for this article. Gary Joiner in Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy has interesting details regarding how the gunboats used the Dill Branch ravine in their firing towards the Confederate lines, as well as the impact of the Tennessee River being at a high stage from the wet Spring.

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