Shiloh, the early Civil War’s bloodiest battle, was a Union victory but not an overwhelming one. On 6 April 1862, the Confederates failed to drive Union troops from the west bank of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The next day, the reinforced Federals counterattacked, forcing the Confederates to retreat from the battlefield. After a prolonged advance and siege, Union troops would seize their original objective in the area—the strategically important junction of the Mobile & Ohio and Memphis & Charleston railroads at Corinth, Mississippi.
General Ulysses S. Grant’s assessment of Shiloh illustrates the complexity of the battle, in which he was overall Union commander, and its resultant controversies. More than two decades after the fight, he wrote that “Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing . . . has been perhaps less understood, or to state the case more accurately, more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement . . . during the entire Rebellion.”
One misunderstanding that persists concerns the battle’s naval aspects. Any standard history of Shiloh mentions the two Union gunboats that fought there, but generally downplays their part in the battle. This view also usually overlooks the Navy’s role transporting men and matériel to Pittsburg Landing, reconnoitering farther upriver for military operations, and especially stabilizing the tenuous Federal left flank along the Tennessee during the battle.
Grant addressed the last contribution in his official battle report, praising the pair of gunboats for helping avert disaster on 6 April, when attacking Confederates intent on capturing Pittsburg Landing were forcing back Union troops. “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 [Dill Branch] was guarded by the gunboats Tyler and Lexington. . . . 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.”
A Pair of Timberclads
In early 1861, the U.S. Navy dispatched Commander John Rodgers to Cincinnati, Ohio, with orders to purchase civilian steamboats for conversion into gunboats for use in Army-Navy operations on Western-theater rivers. On 5 June, Rodgers bought the first three side-wheelers, which he would rename the Lexington, Tyler, and Conestoga. These would be the initial vessels of the Mississippi Flotilla, which grew as other conversions as well as purpose-build ironclads joined its ranks. Conversion to “timberclad” gunboats required lowering the three boats’ boilers and steam pipes into holds. Topsides, five-inch-thick oak bulwarks were added. These protected the vessels from small-arms fire but not from artillery fire. Finally, their wooden decks were reinforced to support heavy naval guns.
The Tyler had a 575-ton displacement, 180-foot length, and 45-foot beam. The vessel’s high-pressure, dual-steam engine could propel her at a top speed of 8 knots. Original armament consisted of six 8-inch smoothbores and one 32-pounder gun. Smaller and less powerful, the Lexington had a 448-ton displacement, 176-foot length, and 37-foot beam; at most, she could make 7 knots. Originally, the Lexington had two 32-pounders and four 8-inch smoothbores. With drafts of only six feet, these two timberclads easily could steam up many of the Tennessee’s shallow tributaries. The Conestoga was bigger than the other two vessels but only mounted four guns.
Joining the Fray
On 6 April, the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, commanded by General Albert Sydney Johnston, struck Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. The outnumbered Rebels’ early-morning attack sent unprepared Union troops reeling. Lieutenant Commander William Gwin, captain of the Tyler, noted that the Federal left flank had begun retreating northeast toward Pittsburg Landing by 0925. The Lexington, under the command of Lieutenant James W. Shirk, joined the Tyler at 1015. For more than an hour, shot and shell fell all around the gunboats, but neither timberclad received orders to join the fray.
At 1325, Gwin, clearly chaffing, sent Gunner Herman Peters to Brigadier General Stephen A. Hurlbut, whose Fourth Division held the Union left, requesting permission for the Tyler to open fire on enemy batteries and advancing troops. Hurlbut gave specific orders about where to fire but not before his troops had retreated to establish a new line near the Peach Orchard. At 1450 the Tyler was positioned off Dill Branch, a stream that flowed into the Tennessee, when she engaged enemy batteries. The gunboat expended 30 rounds on behalf of Hurlbut’s troops. Gwin reported: “I opened fire in the line directed [by Hurlbut] with good effect, silencing their batteries on our left. At 3:50 ceased firing and dropped down opposite the landing at Pittsburg.”
Gwin again sent Peters ashore, this time for further instructions from Grant. The gunner found the general, whose response, according to Gwin, was to “use [your] own judgment in the matter.” The two gunboats had carte blanche to direct their own counterbattery fire. Both moved upriver and anchored three-quarters of a mile above the landing. From 1615 until 1645, the Tyler fired at enemy artillery. The Lexington began firing at 1630 and unleashed 12 rounds before standing down at 1637. Many of their shells targeted Rebels attacking the Union battle line at “the Hornet’s Nest.” The Lexington then dropped back to Pittsburg Landing and took on board Captain Charles H. Hurd, 8th Illinois Infantry, to use his talents as a trained signal officer.
As Federal troops regrouped along the high ground behind Dill Branch, their backs to nearby Pittsburg Landing, Grant attempted to communicate with Major General Don Carlos Buell, whose Army of the Ohio was approaching the landing from the east side of the Tennessee. Army Lieutenants George N. Gray and James B. Ludwick and two other unnamed, newly minted signal officers had reported to Grant that morning. They were trained to communicate with gunboats in daylight using signal flags. The increasingly desperate Federal situation along the river bluff required innovation. Captain Hurd had joined the Lexington to facilitate communication between the gunboats and signal officers on the bluff. During the Civil War, indirect fire was rare but now necessary to help stem the Confederate advance toward the river.
The Final Line
The surrender of 1,300 Union troops in the Hornet’s Nest at about 1715 released numerous Confederate brigades and artillery batteries to advance on Pittsburg Landing. The Federals fell back and deployed for a final stand along the high ground above Dill and Tilghman branches, with their left flank on the river bluff less than a quarter-mile from the landing. All would be lost if the Confederates overran it before Buell’s army crossed the Tennessee in strength.
Above Dill Branch, Colonel Joseph D. Webster, Grant’s chief of staff, frantically gathered all available artillery. Webster placed 24-pounder siege guns, smaller rifled and smoothbore guns, and one 8-inch howitzer, which were soon joined by other guns, to cover the upper reaches of the branch and the high ground through which ran the Corinth and River roads. Confederates might try to use the roads to outflank the Federals behind Dill Branch. Webster and Grant believed the deep valleys of Tilghman Branch, to the west, and Dill Branch were impassable except to infantry and then with great difficulty. The Union artillery was supported by the remnants of Hurlbut’s division, whose line stretched to the right of the batteries. Four guns were deployed above Tilghman Branch and 25 guns above Dill Branch.
With darkness approaching, General P. G. T. Beauregard, commander of Confederate forces on the death of Johnston, realized the last chance to capture Pittsburg Landing before Buell could cross the river in force was at hand. But the Confederates, hungry and exhausted after nearly 12 hours of combat, would need to cross Dill Branch and disperse the Union troops and guns blocking the way.
The Limitations of Artillery
Misconceptions concerning the role played by the gunboats during the battle arise from an incorrect reading of terrain and the significance of artillery located at the topographic versus military crest of the northern plateau above Dill Branch. The guns were along the actual, topographic crest, which ranges in elevation from 450 to 475 feet. The military crest is the elevation at which guns can fire down the entire forward slope of a hill to its base. It is always lower than the topographic crest, and in this case averages 445 feet.
Dill Branch deeply dissects the surrounding ground, which on average is 85 to 100 feet above the stream. The gradient of the slopes typically ranges from 10 to 20 percent. The branch runs east-northeast approximately 3,000 feet and then turns southeast for nearly 1,000 feet before discharging into the Tennessee. The Union cannon were pointed down the deep ravines along the north side of Dill Branch, but the maximum depression of the gun tubes was 5 degrees. Cannon firing down one of the ravines typically overshot Confederates ascending the slope by 41 feet at a distance of 500 feet.
Because the artillery was located at the actual crest rather than the military crest, the gunners could not see the Confederates advancing up the slope until they reached the military crest, nor could they see Dill Branch. But the timberclads, located at the mouth of the branch, generally could deliver a raking fire against the Rebels along the stream and climbing the northern slope.
‘So as to Be Unbearable’
Shortly after 1700, the Lexington and Tyler moved upstream and anchored in the mouth of back-flooded Dill Branch. About 15 minutes later, a determined Federal cannonade began from the high ground above the branch, in which the timberclads’ guns joined. Gwin noted that Confederates had gained a firm position on the Federal left within one-half mile of the Tennessee by 1730.
Five minutes later, the Tyler and Lexington opened fire on Brigadier General James Chalmers’ brigade crossing Dill Branch near the river, in clear view of the gunboats. According to Shirk, the Lexington would pound the Confederates for 10 minutes, and over the next 50 minutes, the Tyler would fire 32 shells. A Federal officer along the river bluff later wrote, “shells from these boats [the Lexington and Tyler] came whizzing through the timber, exploding in the air and on the ground, [and] greatly terrifying the advancing enemy.”
Captain Charles Gage’s Alabama Battery, which was brought up to support Chalmers’ attack, also was shelled by the gunboats, thanks to the assistance of Captain Hurd. One air burst killed three of the battery’s horses, disabled seven others, and badly wounded a gunner. Elsewhere, Private James Bouie, Company C, 5th Tennessee, was torn to pieces by an exploding shell from one of the gunboats. The 5th’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles D. Venable, reported that “the shelling from the gunboats was so as to be unbearable, killing and wounding several of my men.”
To Chalmers’ left, three of Brigadier General John Jackson’s regiments, the 2nd Texas, 17th Alabama, and 18th Alabama, crossed the back-flooded Dill Branch. Meanwhile, Chalmers’ men began climbing the slope on the north side of the stream. When the troops topped the military crest, they came under direct fire from Webster’s guns.
Chalmers reported, “our men struggled vainly to ascend the hill, which was very steep, making charge after charge without success, but continued to fight until night closed hostilities on both sides.” While retreating back across Dill Branch, Chalmers’ regiments were “met by a fire from the whole line of batteries protected by infantry and assisted by shells from the gunboats.”
The Kentucky Orphan Brigade, under Colonel Robert T. Trabue’s temporary command, moved up to form the Confederate extreme right flank. There, on the high ground south of Dill Branch, Trabue’s troops felt the timberclads’ full fury as they awaited orders. According to the colonel, the Orphans “endured a most terrific cannonade and shelling from the enemy gunboats.”
A severe wound inflicted by naval bombardment is particularly telling for its description. A round of spherical case shot exploded above a battery deployed with the Orphan Brigade. One artilleryman was hit by the shell’s Borman fuse, which had become “a hot, ragged projectile that slashed through muscle and veins, cut an artery in the left knee area, and lodged in the left femur (upper large leg bone). The soldier bled to death before anything could be done.” One of the last naval rounds killed three men in the brigade’s 4th Kentucky Regiment. Elsewhere, “the gunboats opened a most destructive fire” on Colonel Marshall J. Smith’s Louisiana Crescent Regiment. Smith reported, “we endured [the fire] for some time, not being able to reply, and under orders we retired in good order.”
Overshooting the Enemy
Confederates along Dill Branch corroborated the effect of the Union artillery’s tube-depression restrictions. To the left of Chalmers’ brigade, the 2nd Texas of Jackson’s brigade ascended the steep north slope of Dill Branch. Water-logged soft soil, steep slopes, and significant tree stands slowed its ascent. Colonel John C. Moore, the regiment’s commander, described their experience: “Artillery balls generally passed over our heads and across the ravine [Dill Branch]. They then changed the position of some of their guns, placing them so as to bring on us a raking fire up the ravine from our right.”
It is important to note that Moore stated artillery fire was coming up, not down, the ravine from his right. Fire therefore was not coming from ahead, where Webster had marshalled all available guns. What Colonel Moore did not realize, because of the roar of shells and the thick smoke from black powder from Webster’s guns passing over his soldiers’ heads, was that the enfilading fire was from the gunboats, which were firing up the ravine. To the colonel’s right was the long southeast segment of Dill Branch opening to the river in direct view of the timberclads. Captains Lewis Markgraf’s and Emil Munch’s batteries, positioned on the actual crest of the prominent south spur of the high ground near the branch’s mouth, could not be the source of the raking fire. Their rounds passed over Moore’s infantrymen until they reached the military crest.
General Jackson acknowledged the precipitous slopes and the inability of cannon to reach his troops as they ascended the north slope of Dill Branch: “Without ammunition and with only their bayonets to rely on, steadily my men advanced under a heavy fire from light batteries, siege pieces, and gunboats. Passing through the ravine [Dill Branch], they arrived near the crest of the opposite hill upon which the enemy’s batteries were. . . . Sheltering themselves against the precipitous side of the ravine, they remained under this fire for some time.” Jackson’s statement clarifies two points: (1) Webster’s artillery had little impact on Confederate troops until they reached the military crest at 445 feet elevation; and (2) below the military crest the Rebels were largely shielded from Webster’s guns. However, Jackson’s men were not shielded from the timberclads’ guns.
Webster’s gunners had a partial view, depending on tree and undergrowth density, of Confederate infantry descending the southern slope to Dill Branch. Charles Hubert, of the 15th Illinois, deployed on the high ground above Dill Branch, observed, “smoke was so great . . . that I could not see the enemy in our front.”
The Dill Branch action was largely an artillery fight, an assessment echoed in other battle accounts. A future cavalry lieutenant general, Colonel Joseph Wheeler led the 19th Alabama in Jackson’s brigade. He reported: “after passing through the deep ravine . . . we halted within 400 yards of the river, and remained ready to move forward for about half an hour. . . . During all this movement the regiment was under a heavy fire from their gunboats and other artillery.” Wheeler’s men were located near the mouth of Dill Branch beneath Markgraf’s and Munch’s batteries. Below the military crest of the steep slope ahead of them, the Alabamians were visible to Gwin but not to Markgraf and Munch. Only the gunboats could provide effective raking fire.
Private Leander Stillwell, 61st Illinois, described the horrific shelling by the timberclads farther up Dill Branch, “The gunboats had at last joined hands in the dance and were pitching big twenty-pound Parrot shells up the ravine in front of Hurlbut.” General Hurlbut, ranking Federal officer nearest Dill Branch, summed up the role played by the gunboats in stemming the Confederate push to the landing. “[From] my own observation and the statement of prisoners his [Gwin’s] fire was most effectual in stopping the advance of the enemy on Sunday afternoon and night.”
After dark, the Confederates fell back from Dill Branch to bivouac in overrun Union camps. All through that night the gunboats maintained a slow bombardment of the enemy’s right, firing a shell every 10 or 15 minutes, that at least kept the Rebels awake. The next day, 7 April, Grant’s forces, reinforced by Buell’s troops, went on the offensive and forced the Confederates to withdraw to Corinth.
The Adviser’s Assessment
Very soon afterward, President Abraham Lincoln sent Leonard Swett, a trusted adviser and fellow Illinois attorney, to the battlefield to make an independent assessment of the joint Army-Navy operation at Shiloh. Swett had been directed to send his report directly to Lincoln.
The lawyer had no connection with the Navy but had served in the Army during the Mexican War. He spent three days touring the battlefield and talking with Grant and his staff. Three months later, Swett telegraphed Lincoln that “from all I could learn I believe the gunboats Lexington and Tyler . . . saved our army from defeat. At least it is within bounds to say they rendered us invaluable services.”
Conventional wisdom downplays gunboat effectiveness along Dill Branch. Grant directly and forcefully stated the opposite, and Swett independently concurred with the general. The U.S. Navy deserves long-delayed recognition of its significant contribution to the outcome of the first day’s action at Shiloh.
Nicholas F. Budd, “The Adaption of the Vessels of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the Circumstances of Riverine Warfare during the American Civil War,” (Masters of Military Art and Science thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1997).
Larry J. Daniel, The Battle That Changed the Civil War: Shiloh (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).
William C. Davis, Diary of a Confederate Soldier: John S. Jackman (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).
Ulysses S. Grant, “The Battle of Shiloh,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1 (New York: The Century Company, 1884), 465–86.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1884).
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, ser. 1, vol. 22 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907).
Timothy B. Smith, Shiloh: Conquer or Perish (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2014).