By Jack Myers
Delta Cultural Center
In the early morning hours of July 4, 1863, a large force of Confederate troops began their attempt to retake the Union-occupied city of Helena. Federal preparations had been made days earlier for just such an event. In addition to the heavily armed Fort Curtis, built the preceding year, four battery positions surrounding the town and adjacent infantry trenches in support of those batteries were built. Trees were felled and used to block roads leading into town and the swampy area to the south was made cavalry resistant with insidious, underwater spike pits, infantry trenches, and artillery. It would take all of this engineering and a bit of luck to repel the expected invasion by a numerically superior Confederate force.
Union army defensive plans were enhanced by riverine firepower. Three of the navy’s Mississippi Squadron gunboats were ordered to proceed to Helena for support. Only one gunboat was in position on that fateful morning, the U.S.S. Tyler. The Tyler was the first of the wooden-clad, brown-water gun platforms built by the United States in 1861 and had already participated in several fierce engagements including the Battle of Shiloh. Her guns included eight huge smooth-bore cannons which could send fifty-two pound explosives over a mile.
During the Battle of Helena, the official records indicate that the Tyler fired 413 heavy rounds into the charging ranks of the attackers with devastating effectiveness. A large portion of Confederate losses were specifically credited to the enfilading fire of the gunboat. Union commanders were quick to credit and praise the contribution of the U.S.S. Tyler to the success of the day.
As Helena-West Helena prepares to display its Civil War history, particular mention will be made of this generally unheralded participant. A newly-erected wayside marker touts the Tyler’s performance at the river’s edge, and plans are being considered for the construction of a replica of the boat as part of our on-going historical project.
By Jack Myers
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