By Jack Myer
Delta Cultural Center
In January, 1861, three months before the start of the Civil War, a side-wheeled, commercial packet was making her normal run down the Ohio River from Cincinnati to the Mississippi and New Orleans. As she steamed her way by Vicksburg, Mississippi, a cannon shot flew across her bow. After several shots, Captain John Collier obeyed the universal signal to heave to. The boat was detained and searched for a rumored cache of weapons and ruffians called “wide-awakes” thought to be planning a raid on the city. When a search revealed neither weapons nor ruffians, she was permitted to proceed to New Orleans. The boat was the A.O. Tyler, named for her owner, and the shots might have been the first of the war to come.
War did come in April, and in early June, three merchant steam boats in Cincinnati were purchased for immediate conversion into army gunboats. The plan was to add firepower along inland waterways in support of United States Army forces soon to be deployed. The largest of these boats was the A.O. Tyler at 180 feet from stem to stern and a width of 45 feet across the beam. Her upper decks would be removed, the vulnerable boilers and machinery lowered into the hold, and remaining decks strengthened to support six thousand pound naval cannons. High white oak bulwarks or walls 5 inches thick would serve as protection for the crew from small arms fire. Two steam engines would supply power to the individual side wheels producing a maximum speed of roughly 10 knots or 12 miles per hour against the current. The side wheels enabled her to turn on her own axis. At top speed, she would consume nearly 400 gallons of river water per hour.
Her heavy armament was to consist of six 8 inch smooth-bore cannons capable of hurling an anti-personnel, 52-pound, explosive shell over a mile or sending a 65- pound, solid round shot into land fortifications or enemy vessels. Two 32-pounder smooth-bores were added, one fore and one aft, as chasers. The armament would change throughout the course of the war, but this timberclad vessel was the most heavily armed and fearsome of the hastily refitted ordnance platforms.
The complement was to number 67 men with transfers from army artillery units forming the gun crews while the cadre of officers was to be regular navy. Navy Commander John Rogers, the actual procurer of the vessel, was assigned as her initial commanding officer. Some records show her referred to as the “Taylor” in protest to the implied link to former President John Tyler an outspoken secessionist, but the name was never officially adopted.
In August, 1861, the gunboat Tyler was underway as part of the U.S. Army venture known as the Western Gunboat Flotilla. On the 21st, the Tyler exchanged fire with Confederates near Commerce, Missouri. This engagement became the first in which shots were fired in anger in the Western Theater of operations.
In November, General Ulysses S. Grant, recently placed in command of the Western Theater, launched an attack on Confederate positions at Belmont, Missouri, while the Tyler engaged the fortifications across the Mississippi River at Columbus, Kentucky. Tyler’s guns also covered Grant’s hasty retreat.
The Tyler would participate in General Grant’s campaigns against Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. She would fire 200 explosive rounds into Confederate positions during the Battle of Shiloh, and though outmatched, would later engage the ironclad CSS Arkansas on the Yazoo River in Mississippi near Vicksburg.
The Army’s Western Gunboat Flotilla was transferred to the Navy as the Mississippi Squadron in October, 1862. Now, as a commissioned naval war vessel, she officially became the USS Tyler.
She saw heavy fighting at Hayne’s Bluff, Mississippi, and supported General Sherman’s attack on Fort Hindman at Arkansas Post on the Arkansas River. Assigned to guerrilla suppression and patrol duty between the mouth of the White River and Memphis, the USS Tyler was in place to provide support to U.S. forces occupying Helena, Arkansas. On the 4th of July, 1863, she fired 413 explosive rounds into the charging ranks of Confederates and was credited with being the deciding factor against the numerically superior attacking force.
In defense of General Steel’s supply terminal at DeValls Bluff on the White River, USS Tyler engaged Confederate forces at Clarendon, Arkansas. Intense fighting at point blank range led to the withdrawal of General Jo Shelby’s Confederate troops.
The remainder of the war saw the USS Tyler on patrol duty on the Mississippi River. At war’s end she was stationed in Memphis where her crew was discharged. In April she scrambled together a voluntary crew and assisted in the rescue efforts for the pitiful victims of the Sultana explosion at Mound City, Arkansas, just upstream from Memphis.
On August 17, 1865, the bold military career of this unheralded, unsophisticated-looking but important timberclad came to an end on the auction block. She sold for $6,000 as her service record closed, and she faded from view into civilian use.