The Gunboats USS Lexington and USS Tyler at the Battle of Shiloh

One of the keys to winning the western theater of the Civil War was gaining control of the larger rivers in the region, including the Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers. These vital waterways were major transportation routes through the south, and the U.S. realized early on the importance of controlling these waterways. The U.S. Navy operated fleets of river gunboats to not only patrol the rivers but also to assist the army in its land operations near the rivers. One example of this is the April 6th-7th, 1862, Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee.

Following the Union victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862, the gunboats USS Lexington (under the command of Lieutenant James W. Shirk) and USS Tyler (Lieutenant William Gwin) were assigned the task of patrolling the Tennessee River. Both vessels were civilian sidewheeler steamboats that had been purchased and converted into navy gunboats. Both were armed with two 32 pounder smoothbore cannon and four eight inch smoothbores. Over the next few weeks, the two gunboats engaged the enemy along the shore of the river as far south as Florence, Alabama; in late March and early April, they also assisted in the transportation of Union troops to Pittsburg Landing on the western shore of the river a few miles north of the Tennessee—Mississippi state line.

On the morning of April 6th, Tyler was at Pittsburg Landing, and Lexington was six miles north at another landing called Crump’s Landing. At dawn, Confederate forces attacked Federal camps west and south of Pittsburg Landing, taking the U.S. troops by surprise, and driving them northeast toward Pittsburg Landing. Tyler went into action, shelling the Confederate left as the Rebels drove back the Federals. Lexington left Crump’s Landing and arrived at the scene of the fighting in mid-morning, but then returned to Crump’s to provide cover fire if needed for General Lew Wallace’s infantry division. Upon learning that Wallace had taken an inland route to the battlefield, Lexington again steamed for Pittsburg Landing. In the late afternoon, Tyler’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Gwin, received orders from Major General Ulysses S. Grant to use his own discretion in terms of firing on the enemy as a final defensive line of artillery and infantry assembled near the river.

At about the same time, Lexington returned and the two gunboats targeted Confederate artillery batteries, helping the Federal land based artillery to stop a final Confederate attack before General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered his forces to end the assault and pull back for the night to rest and prepare to resume the attack in the morning. At about 9:00 p.m. Tyler began firing periodically on Confederate positions to harass the enemy, and at 1 a.m., Lexington took over and continued the shelling until dawn on April 7th. Overnight, thousands of reinforcements from the Army of the Ohio arrived on the scene, and the next morning, a Union counterattack drove the Confederates from the field.

Gunboats USS Lexington and USS Tyler at Shiloh April 6, 1862

In a report filed soon after the battle, Grant gave credit to the vital role of the gunboats in the successful repulse of the final Rebel attack on April 6th:

At a late hour in the afternoon a desperate effort was made by the enemy to turn our left and get possession of the Landing, transports, etc. This point was guarded by the gunboats Tyler and Lexington, Captains Gwin and Shirk, U. S. Navy, commanding, four 20-pounder Parrott guns and a battery of rifled guns. As there is a deep and impassable ravine for artillery or cavalry, and very difficult for infantry, at this point, no troops were stationed here, except the necessary artillerists and small infantry force for their support. Just at this moment the advance of Major-General Buell’s column (a part of the division under General Nelson) arrived, the two generals named both being present. An advance was immediately made upon the point of attack and the enemy soon driven back. In this repulse much is due to the presence of the gunboats Tyler and Lexington and their able commanders, Captains Gwin and Shirk.

The commanding officers of both gunboats filed after action reports for the Battle of Shiloh. Here’s Lieutenant Gwin’s report for the USS Tyler:

U. S. Gunboat Tyler,
Pittsburg, Tenn., April 8, 1862.

Lt. William Gwin USN

Sir: I have the honor to inform you that the enemy attacked our lines on our left the morning of the 6th instant at 6:30 and by his overwhelming numbers forced our men to fall back in some confusion. At 9:25, finding that the rebels were still driving our leftwing back, I steamed up to a point 1 mile above Pittsburg, taking a good position to support our troops should they be forced down to the banks of the river. At 10:15 the Lexington, Lieutenant Commanding Shirk, joined me, having come up from Crump’s Landing. After a short time she returned for the purpose of supporting the command of General Wallace, which occupied that point. Not having received any instructions from the commanding general in regard to the service to be rendered by the gunboats, I awaited them patiently, although for an hour or more shot and shell were falling all around us. Feeling that could some system of communication be established the Tyler could be of great advantage to our left wing, at1:25 p. m. I sent an officer, requesting that I might be allowed to open on the woods in the direction of the batteries and advancing forces of the rebels. General Hurlbut, who commanded on our left, sent me word to do so, giving me directions how to fire, that I might do it with no damage to our troops, and expressing himself grateful for this offer of support, saying that without reinforcements he would not be able to maintain the position he then occupied for an hour. Therefore, at 2:50, I opened fire in the line directed with good effect, silencing their batteries on our left. At 3:50 ceased firing and dropped down opposite the landing at Pittsburg; sent Mr. Peters, gunner, on shore to communicate with General Grant for further instructions. His response was to use my own judgment in the matter. At 4 p.m. the Lexington, Lieutenant Commanding Shirk, having arrived from Crump’s Landing, the Tyler, in company with the Lexington, took position three-fourths of a mile above Pittsburg and opened heavy fire in direction of the rebel batteries on their right, the missiles of which were falling all around us. We silenced them in thirty minutes. At 5:35, the rebels having succeeded in gaining a position on the left of our line, an eighth of a mile above the landing at Pittsburg and a half a mile from the river, both vessels opened a heavy and well-directed fire on them, and in a short time, in conjunction with our artillery on shore, succeeded in silencing their artillery, driving them back in confusion.

At 6 p. m. the Tyler opened deliberate fire in the direction of the rebel right wing, throwing 5-second and 10-second shell. At 6:25 ceased firing.

At 9 p. m. the Tyler again opened fire by direction of General Nelson (who greatly distinguished himself in yesterday’s engagement), throwing 5-second, 10-second, and 15-second shell, and an occasional shrapnel from the howitzer, at intervals of ten minutes in direction of the rebel right wing until 1 a. m., when the Lexington relieved us and continued the fire at intervals of fifteen minutes until 5 a. m., when our land forces having attacked the enemy, forcing them gradually back, it made it dangerous for the gunboats to fire. At 7 I received a communication from General Grant (enclosed is a copy) which prevented the gunboats from taking an active part throughout the rest of the day. Lieutenant Commanding Shirk deserves the greatest praise for the efficient manner in which the battery of the Lexington was served.

At 5:35 p. m. the enemy were forced to retreat in haste, having contested every inch of the ground with great stubbornness during the entire day.

The officers and men of this vessel displayed their usual gallantry and enthusiasm during the entire day and night.

Your old wooden boats, I feel confident, rendered invaluable service on the 6th instant to the land forces.

USS Tyler

Gunner Herman Peters deserves great credit for the prompt and courageous manner in which he traversed our lines, conveying communications from this vessel to the commanding generals. The rebels had a force of 100,000 men, A. S. Johnston (killed, body found on the field), Beauregard, Hardee, Bragg, and Polk, being their commanding generals. Governor George W. Johnson, provisional governor of Kentucky, is a prisoner in our hands, mortally wounded. Loss severe on both sides; ours, probably 10,000. The rebels suffered a much greater one. I think this has been a crushing blow to the rebellion.

I am happy to state no casualties occurred on either of the gunboats. The Tyler expended 188 shell, 4 solid shot, 2 stand of grape, and 6 shrapnel. Enclosed I send you Lieutenant Commanding Shirk’s report.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Wm. Gwin,
Lieut., Comdg. Division of Gunboats, Tennessee River.

Flag-Officer A. H. Foote,
Comdg. Naval Forces, Western Waters.

Lieutenant Shirk filed this report for the USS Lexington:

U. S. Gunboat Lexington,
Pittsburg, Tenn., April 8, 1862.

Sir: On the morning of the 6th instant, while lying at Crump’s Landing, I heard severe cannonading in the direction of Pittsburg. I got underway and stood up the river to

Lt. James Shirk USN in 1868

communicate with Lieutenant Commanding Gwin, of the Tyler. Upon my reaching this place I found that an attack had been made upon our army by the rebels in force. I returned to Crump’s, to support the division under command of General Lew Wallace, when I found that his division had proceeded to join the main force back of Pittsburg Landing.

I then steamed back to this place, and no instructions reaching the gunboats from the commanding general on shore, we were forced to remain inactive hearers of the desperate fight until the left wing of our forces, having been forced back and completely turned, and the rebels getting so near the river that the missiles from their batteries fell thick and fast over and around us, enabled us to use our great guns with such effect that the fire of the enemy was silenced in thirty minutes.

This was between 4:10 and 4:40 [p.] m. Again, at 5:35 [p.] m. the enemy having gained a position on the left of our lines, within an eighth of a mile of the landing and of the transports, we again, with the Tyler, opened fire upon them, silencing the enemy, and, as I hear from many army officers on the field, totally demoralizing his forces and driving them from their position in a perfect rout in the space of ten minutes.

The firing on the part of the land forces then ceased. At 8 o’clock I went down to Crump’s Landing, and finding that everything was quiet there, returned to this place.

At 1 a.m. on the 7th I relieved the Tyler, Lieutenant Commanding Gwin, in a position immediately above the landing, and fired, until daylight, a shell every fifteen minutes into the enemy’s camp.

Yesterday, at daylight, the fight recommenced between the two parties on shore and continued until 5 p.m., when the enemy left in a hurried retreat.

The gunboats occupying a position on the left of our lines not being allowed to fire, I spent the morning and part of the afternoon in acts of mercy, picking up the wounded who had found their way to the river and conveying them to the hospital boats.

USS Lexington

I must say that the gallantry and good conduct of the officers and men whom I have the honor to command, displayed upon this occasion, as often before, are beyond all praise.

I have the honor to be, sir, your most obedient servant,

James W. Shirk,
Lieutenant, Commanding.

Flag-Officer A. H. Foote, U. S. Navy,
Comdg. U. S. Naval Forces, Western Waters, Cairo, Ill.

Sources:

Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron by Gary D. Joiner

Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel

Shiloh: Bloody April by Wiley Sword

Official Records of the Union and Pacific Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 22


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