Early in the war, the Army had requirement for light-draft, armed vessels to escort riverboats transporting troops and supplies along the western waterways. In the summer of 1861, the Navy barely had the notion of a production program, much less actual vessels to meet the need. An early example of cross-service coordination, in June 1861 Commander (later Captain) John Rogers consulted with Army officers and purchased three side-wheel steamers for conversion to gunboats. These were the USS Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler. The trio cost $62,000.
Rogers complained the vessels lacked fittings and arrangements for warship service. After experimenting to find the appropriate thickness, Rogers ordered five-inch thick bulwarks placed around the vessel to provide minimum protection for the crew against small arms. This and other modifications added $41,000 to the total cost of the modified river boats, informally classed as "timberclads."
Originally named A.O. Tyler, the Tyler was the largest of the three, measuring 178 feet long with a 45 foot beam. The modified steamer displaced between 420 to 575 tons, drawing 6 to 7 feet of water. Her two cylinder engine gave a speed of 8 knots.
The Tyler's armament included six 8-inch guns and one 32-pdr initially. And these guns were put to use shortly after the ship's conversion. Part of the Western Flotilla, technically under Army control with Naval officers on board, the Tyler supported reconnaissance operations in the waters around Cairo, Illinois. In one of the earliest contest between Federal and Confederate warships, the Tyler and Lexington exchanged shots with a rebel gunboat off Hickman, Kentucky on September 4. Later in November, under Commander Henry Walke the Tyler supported General U.S. Grant's landings and assault on Belmont, Missouri.
When Grant moved down the Tennessee River in February 1862, the Tyler was among Commodore Andrew Foote's flotilla which reduced Fort Henry. Afterward, while the ironclads moved around to the Cumberland River to support operations against Fort Donelson, the three timberclads continued down the Tennessee to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, clearing the river of rebel shipping.
The high-point of Tyler's wartime career was on April 6-7, 1862. Along with the Lexington, Tyler protected Grant's river flank at Pittsburg Landing in the battle of Shiloh. During the night, the gunboats intermittently shelled Confederate positions, depriving them of much needed rest and reorganization.
Following Shiloh, Tyler along with the other timberclads operated against Confederate positions around Vicksburg. While patrolling the Yazoo River on June 15, 1862 in conjunction with the USS Carondelet and the USS Star of the West, the Tyler came under fire from the CSS Arkansas. With the Carondelet taken out of action and the Star of the West in retreat, the Tyler alone faced the rebel ironclad. The Tyler managed to reach the safety of the main Federal fleet, but was damaged.
For the remainder of the war, Tyler patrolled the lower Mississippi Valley, occasionally engaging rebel batteries. Formally, the ship was not transferred to the Navy until October 1862. In 1863, her armament increased with three 30-pdr Parrotts replacing the 32-pdrs, augmenting the 8-inch guns. Still later four 24-pdrs were added. The ship often carried a 12-pdr howitzer for landing duties. As with most of the Mississippi Squadron, the Navy sold the Tyler at the end of the war.
For all practical purposes the Tyler and her timberclad sisters were limited ersatz warships built in a period of emergency. With many river miles and battles recorded in the logbook, the Tyler turned out a rather useful warship despite this.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Volumes 22-24. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908-1910.
Canney, Donald L. The Old Steam Navy - Volume Two: The Ironclads, 1842-1885. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1993. Pages 36-37.
Silverstone, Paul H. Warships of the Civil War Navies. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989. Pages 159-160.