The Iron Clad, USS Tyler, patrolled the Midwestern Rivers
“The Brown Water Navy”
Written by Ned Lodwick, US Grant Homestead Association
The Ohio River was the ‘highway’ to the development of Southern Ohio.The early explorers came by canoe, and then later settlers brought their families on flat boats. Brown County’s most successful early towns were Aberdeen, Higginsport, Levanna, and Ripley. All of these towns were heavily involved in shipping and boat building. With the invention of the steamboat our county’s tie to the river only increased and by the time the Civil War began many Brown County men called themselves ‘river men’ and volunteered to serve in the Navy.
When most people think of the Navy in the Civil War they envision thoughts of the Monitor verses the Merrimac or the sea going Confederate Raider, “Alabama”, but a large part of the United States Navy was made up of shallow draft vessels that plied the rivers and bays of the interior. This fresh water or river navy was often called the ‘Brown Water Navy’.
The “Brown Water Navy” was made up of three basic types of vessels; the ironclad, the tinclad, and the timberclad. All three types had to be shallow drafted which means they were able to navigate the shallow waters of rivers. Often a tin clad and timberclad could operate in 3-4 feet of water and the ironclad in 6-8 feet.
A tinclad or timberclad was often a commercial steam boat that was converted to a war ship. They would have field artillery pieces and mortars mounted on the deck and a small number of infantry assigned to the crew to increase its firepower. To protect the vessel and crew from enemy fire cotton bales, sand bags, or light metal sheets would be used to ‘armor’ the boat, thus the name, tinclad. In the case of the timberclad the vessel was simply re-enforced with heavy wooden planking. These vessels were most valuable against other similar vessels, lightly defended towns or forts, and in support of the more powerful ironclads.
An ironclad was generally built specifically as a warship. They were often massive ships with thick iron sides and tremendous cannons that could destroy almost any ship or fort it encountered. They generally were slower than the tinclads or timberclads and often were under powered for their weight and could have difficulty against fast currents.
As the Brown County infantrymen were scattered among multiple regiments the Brown County sailors served on a variety of “Brown Water Navy” vessels. They served on the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Mississippi, and Yazoo Rivers to name only a few. The ships they served on often saw heavy action in support of infantry operations.
Several Brown County seamen served on the tinclad, “Victory”. She was mostly on the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers. Her most noted action was in defense of Paducah, Kentucky, against an attack by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in April of 1864. On April 13th the Rebels actually entered a portion on the town and plundered several businesses. On the 14th the “Victory” and four other gunboats arrived to support the fort and after Morgan again demanded the surrender of the town and fort the Union forces opened fire. A seaman on the “Victory” described the action in a letter to the “Ripley Bee”. “The ‘Victory’ steaming slowly up and down the river continued throwing shell and shrapnel, raking the woods in every direction. For nearly three hours the thunder of our artillery was deafening, the starboard casements seemed one perfect blaze; the flames, from the bursting shells”. The Confederates retreated with forty men killed while the Brown County seaman reported that the only loss on the “Victory” was six hours sleep.
Brown County sailors aboard the tinclads, “Reindeer”, “Silver Lake” and the “Moose” were with the ”Victory” in the pursuit of Morgan on his ‘Great Ohio Raid” in July of 1863. They were drifting at anchor off Ripley when the Raiders rode in sight of the Ohio River and caused them to reverse their course and continue their ride through our state. It was the “Moose” that steamed around a bend in the river at Buffington Island that again foiled Morgan’s attempt to cross the river to safety in Kentucky.
Brown Countians on the tinclads “Prairie Bird”, “Kenwood” and “Linden” saw service on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Port Gibson, and on the Yazoo River. Those aboard the tinclad, “Tallahatchie” were on the Red River Campaign in Arkansas when the river level dropped so low that she and the other vessels were within inches of being grounded, abandoned, and destroyed. Only for a young engineer’s idea to dam the river to raise the water level then break the dam and have all the warships ride to safety on the flood tide were the sailors saved from capture.
The timberclad, “USS Tyler”, had several Brown County seamen aboard when she arrived at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. General Grant ordered the “Tyler” to fire a shell into the Confederate position every fifteen minutes. Pvt. George W. Walker of the 70th OVI wrote in a letter to his wife, “We laid on our rifles to sleep after the first day of battle and heard the scream of great shells from the gunboats overhead on their way to the Rebs”. The “Tyler” was also engaged at Ft. Henry, Ft. Donelson, and Vicksburg.
The Brown County sailors of the Union ‘Brown Water Navy’ served with distinction. Victories at Ft. Henry, Ft. Donelson, Island No. 10, Shiloh, Port Gibson and Vicksburg were possible due to the help of these sturdy ships and their crews.