One of two bullets fired at West Point, Georgia, on April 16, 1865, killed Confederate Brigadier General Robert Charles Tyler. As Tyler barked orders at his garrison of ragtag convalescents, which defended an earthwork fort named in his honor from a full brigade of Federal cavalry, he was shot at twice by sharpshooters. One bullet slammed into his chest. The second snapped his crutch in half, toppling the one-legged Southerner to the ground, where he died.
Tyler had lost his leg to amputation following a grievous wounding at Missionary Ridge while leading Bates’ Brigade with the Army of Tennessee. He had previously been wounded at Shiloh and Chickamauga. Confederate Lt. Col. John W. Inzer, who met Tyler in 1863, stated: ‘He was a stout, robust [officer], and had firmness, determination, and courage written in every line of his face….[I] soon learned to look upon him as one of the bravest men I ever saw.’
Despite his rise in the Confederate army, Tyler’s prewar life remains shrouded in mystery. Ezra J. Warner, author of the classic Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, once commented, ‘Tyler is by all odds the most enigmatic figure of the 425 generals of the Confederacy.’
Tyler was apparently born in Baltimore, Maryland, about 1833, although nothing is known of his early life. At age 23 he joined William Walker’s 1856 filibustering expedition to Nicaragua. He served as a first lieutenant in Walker’s infantry but remained abroad for less than a year. When Walker returned to Central America in 1860, Tyler was working as a clerk in Baltimore. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, as civil war threatened.
On April 18, 1861, just six days after the Federal post of Fort Sumter was shelled in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, Tyler traveled to Jackson, Tennessee, where he enlisted in Company D of the 15th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Within four months, Tyler was promoted to major and serving as regimental quartermaster. The Southern army seems to have appreciated Tyler’s Nicaraguan experiences. By autumn 1861, he was serving on the staff of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham.
Tyler’s first regimental command came in early November, when newly appointed Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved three thousand Federal troops down the Mississippi River by steamboat to Belmont, Missouri. Grant’s force threatened the Confederate garrison at Columbus, Kentucky, across the river from Belmont. As the Federal forces advanced toward Belmont, Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk sent five thousand Rebels across the river to drive them off.
As Polk was about to send the 15th Tennessee with this force, Confederate authorities realized the regiment had no commander. Three weeks earlier, their commanding officer, Colonel Charles M. Carroll, had been court-martialed for ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.’ Found guilty, Carroll departed, leaving the 15th Tennessee without a leader. The regiment asked Polk whether Tyler, serving on Cheatham’s staff, could lead them, and when Polk assented, Tyler found himself in combat.
Tyler and his regiment boarded Hill and crossed the river to Belmont. During the crossing, the men spotted ‘Yankee’ troops moving on the far shore. Immediately, the novice Confederates opened fire — only to discover that they had fired on fellow Confederates who were wearing dark uniforms, a circumstance that would frequently endanger Southern troops as the war continued.
The shootings foreshadowed Tyler’s performance as a regimental commander. Although he was understandably unfamiliar with the dispositions of his new command, during the thick of the fighting the attacks of the 15th Tennessee were poorly coordinated, and when the regiment attempted a blocking action during the Battle of Belmont, Tyler’s men failed miserably.
Although Belmont was a disappointment for the 15th, the Confederates won a victory. Rebel leaders ignored the poor performance of the 15th, and by New Year’s Eve, the young Marylander had been promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 15th Tennessee. Tyler managed to remedy the command problems he had experienced, and his leadership improved greatly after the inauspicious start.
In February 1862, Grant, now a major general in the Union army, pressed toward Corinth, Mississippi, an important railroad junction. As the Army of the Ohio under Union Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell prepared to link up with Grant’s troops, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston decided to strike Grant before the two Union armies united. By April 6, the Confederates were poised to attack Grant’s command near a small house of worship in southwestern Tennessee: Shiloh Church.
The 15th Tennessee formed a part of Johnston’s army, serving within the First Corps commanded by Polk, within a division headed by Cheatham. Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson led the first brigade of that division, which included the 15th. At 8:30 on the morning of April 6, Tyler moved his command out to attack Federal positions in a field that the Rea family had owned before the war.
As the 15th Tennessee advanced against the Union right, the regiment encountered heavy infantry and artillery fire. The Rebel line wavered, and some of Tyler’s men broke and began running toward the rear. Tyler, however, drew his pistol and forced them back into line. Bushrod Johnson noticed and later observed, ‘The gallantry, decision, and firmness of Lieut. Col. R.C. Tyler, who now, with drawn pistol, restored order and pressed forward his regiment, merits the highest commendation.’
During the morning, Tyler’s horse was shot three times, and by midday, Tyler himself had been ‘painfully’ wounded, according to Cheatham, and was taken from the field. Colonel George Maney was then given command of the remnants of the 15th Tennessee. He led them in an attack across the Sarah Bell field.
Although the Confederates pushed the Union force back to the Tennessee River, Don Carlos Buell and his fresh army arrived in time to save Grant’s struggling forces. The next day a Northern counterattack forced the Rebels to retire. The cost of the first major conflict in Tennessee was staggering: The Federals lost nearly thirteen thousand men killed, wounded, or missing, while the Southerners sustained almost ten thousand casualties, including their commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, who suffered a mortal wound. Forced back to Corinth, the Rebel leaders attempted to reorganize their shattered forces.
During this period of regrouping, Tyler was promoted to colonel, while the 15th Tennessee was placed under the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, which eventually devolved under the command of General Braxton Bragg. When the Federal army that the Rebels faced at Shiloh pressed toward Corinth, the Southerners withdrew to Tupelo.
While Bragg reorganized his command, the large Union army that threatened Corinth split up. Buell moved his Army of the Ohio toward Chattanooga, hoping to capture that leading Tennessee city. Chattanooga was not only a vital railroad center for the Confederacy, it was located in a region rich in the materials necessary to fuel the Rebel war machine: saltpeter, lead, copper, and coal. Capturing this city would also make a Federal invasion of Georgia possible.
Bragg and Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who commanded the Confederate Department of East Tennessee, knew it was vital that they protect Chattanooga. After conferring there in July, the two officers decided that they could pull Buell’s command away from his objective and into Kentucky by invading the Bluegrass State. Furthermore, they hoped an invasion of Kentucky would provide supplies, horses, and tens of thousands of new recruits for the Southern army. Planning the invasion, Bragg moved his command from Tupelo to Chattanooga. The invasion began on August 28, 1862, about the same time Robert E. Lee was leading the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, the campaign that ended on September 17 with the Battle of Antietam.
The commander of the Army of the Mississippi initially hoped to crush Buell in central Tennessee, but after Smith’s forces entered Kentucky and defeated a Union army at Richmond, Bragg also moved into the Commonwealth. Although Bragg aimed to capture Louisville, a major Union supply depot, one of his subordinates attacked a small Federal garrison at Munfordville. Bragg delayed, besieging this minor force, which gave Buell time to reach Louisville on September 25 and save the city and its rich hoard of materiel for the Union.
There, Buell reorganized his own command and bolstered his force with thousands of recruits. He then moved against a portion of Bragg’s army, which had advanced to Bardstown. When Buell’s fifty-eight thousand troops pressed these sixteen thousand Confederates, the Rebels fell back to Perryville. By October 8, three Southern divisions faced three Union corps at this small town in central Kentucky. Bragg, believing he faced only a portion of Buell’s army, decided to attack. At 2 p.m. his troops engaged those of Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s I Corps a few miles north of Perryville.
General Tyler continued to lead the 15th Tennessee, which was a part of Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson’s Brigade, the troops that were to open the Confederate attack by assaulting McCook’s left flank. They remained within Cheatham’s Division, in Polk’s wing of Bragg’s army. However, when the attack commenced, Donelson’s command was understrength, as two of his units had been detached for other service. Only Tyler’s 15th, the 16th, and the 38th Tennessee Regiments were available for the assault when orders were given to advance.
As Donelson’s men moved toward the Union lines, Cheatham shouted, ‘Give ’em hell, boys!’ General Polk, who was also an Episcopal bishop, seconded Cheatham’s sentiments with a phrase befitting a member of the cloth: ‘Give it to ’em, boys!’ the bishop-general cried out, adding, ‘Give ’em what General Cheatham says!’
With the 38th Tennessee kept in reserve, the 15th formed the left of Donelson’s line, while the 16th held the right. Faulty Confederate intelligence quickly led to disaster. While the Rebel troops were preparing their assault, the Union army extended its left flank. Instead of enveloping the extreme Federal left flank as planned, Donelson’s Brigade marched more toward the Union center. They were out alone, stepping toward certain destruction.
As the brigade came near the Federal line, the men became caught in a crossfire. Union artillery under Captain Samuel Harris poured fire on them from the left, while another battery directed by Captain Charles C. Parsons enfiladed their right flank. Furthermore, as the troops came closer to their goal, they were struck by musket fire from the front. C.H. Clark of the 16th Tennessee recalled, ‘It looked to me like the whole face of the Earth was covered with Yankees.’
The 16th Tennessee, rushed forward by one of Cheatham’s overzealous staff officers, was drawn out in front of the brigade and took appalling casualties; nearly 60 percent of the unit fell. Donelson’s men fought there, alone, for more than half an hour. Then brigades under Brig. Gens. A.P. Stewart and George Maney came up to support them, and Donelson’s command continued their assault. Tyler’s men rejoined the 16th Tennessee, and these two regiments pushed forward toward a house and barn owned by Mary Jane Gibson, a widow. As the troops entered Gibson’s cornfield, however, heavy fire from the 2nd Ohio Infantry checked them. One member of Donelson’s command noted, ‘The battle now raged with terror and the slaughter was terrible.’
Eventually, the 15th and 16th Tennessee forced the 2nd and 33rd Ohio Infantry Regiments back past Widow Gibson’s barn, but then the Rebel attack stalled, slowed by artillery fire from Harris’s battery and muskets of the 2nd Ohio. Tyler’s regiment fell back only when the troops ran out of ammunition. Although Donelson’s decimated and exhausted brigade could not shatter the Union line, attacks made by Brig. Gens. Patrick Cleburne and A.P. Stewart shoved the Federals back in this sector of the Perryville battlefield.
Although Tyler’s regiment and the other members of Donelson’s Brigade had begun the battle unsupported, they contributed strongly to the tactical victory, driving the North from the field. It was quickly evident that the 16th Tennessee had suffered far more than Tyler’s regiment. While Tyler lost nine men killed and twenty-five wounded, the 16th incurred more than two hundred casualties. There were more than seventy-five hundred dead or wounded on both sides, including more than a quarter of the Confederates who fought there. Those fortunate enough to have been wounded and survive suffered from poor medical treatment after the battle. George W. Parks, a wounded member of Donelson’s command, placed in a stable after the battle, later wrote that he was harassed by swarms of flies and ‘was most eat up by magets.’
Realizing he was badly outnumbered, Bragg withdrew from the region. Eventually, all Rebel forces left the state, leaving Kentucky firmly in Union hands for the remainder of the war. Bragg’s failures during the campaign brought complaints and censure from his subordinate officers. Polk, Lt. Gen. William Hardee, and several Southern newspapers criticized Bragg’s leadership. Others, including Kirby Smith, questioned his sanity. One Confederate wrote, ‘General Bragg is either stark mad or utterly incompetent.’ Many historians, including Bragg biographer Grady McWhiney, believe that nearly every Confederate officer in Bragg’s command lost faith in him during the retreat from Kentucky.
Not Robert C. Tyler. The enigmatic leader of the 15th Tennessee remained devoted to the Army of the Mississippi commander, even though Tyler’s division and corps commanders (Cheatham and Polk, respectively) harbored animosity toward Bragg. Apparently, Tyler was one of Bragg’s favorite officers, and their relationship would result in advancement for the Maryland general. On November 15, Bragg announced Tyler’s promotion to provost marshal of the army, ordering that he ‘be respected and obeyed accordingly.’
After the campaign, the Union Army of the Cumberland, under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, was established. He attacked Bragg at Stone’s River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Bragg had concentrated his command. Although Tyler was not present for the battle, the regiment numbered a mere 140 members following the Kentucky campaign and the losses it suffered at Stone’s River. Tyler’s 15th Tennessee was consolidated with the 484 members of the 37th Tennessee and, perhaps as a reward for his unwavering support, Bragg named Tyler to command the new unit. It was one of several consolidations necessary at the time. Thirteen officers from the 37th Tennessee resigned in protest, although Bragg refused to accept their resignations. The officers apparently believed that since the 37th provided the manpower core for the new regiment, one of their own officers should command them.
The Battle of Hoover’s Gap was one of Tyler’s first engagements while commanding the 15th/37th Tennessee. Tyler’s regiment was within supporting distance of the fighting, but though he was ordered to the front, the battle ended before his regiment could reach the field. Tyler was acknowledged for the speed of his advance, however. On reaching the Southern lines, his men held the Rebel center, where they were subjected to severe artillery fire. One officer was killed and five enlisted men were wounded while holding the position.
In September 1863, Bragg’s command, now called the Army of Tennessee, still protected Chattanooga. However, in a series of masterful maneuvers, General Rosecrans detailed a large Federal force toward the city so skillfully that, almost without bloodshed, it forced Bragg to withdraw to Lafayette, Georgia. Rosecrans entered Chattanooga on September 9, but then divided his forces, while General James Longstreet reinforced Bragg with two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia under Maj. Gens. John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws.
Crossing Chickamauga Creek, Bragg prepared to attack. The ensuing battle would prove to be Tyler’s greatest moment as a commander. His 15th/37th Tennessee were in Brig. Gen. William Bate’s Brigade, in A.P. Stewart’s Division of General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s corps.
When the fighting began on September 19, Bate’s Brigade attacked Federal troops near the Brotherton House at the center of the Union lines, Tyler’s consolidated regiment, kept in reserve, lay on the ground behind Bate’s attacking troops. At approximately 1 p.m., Tyler was called to bring his men to the front. With the Chattanooga road parallel to his line of battle, Tyler moved against the Yankees.
Moving through underbrush, the regiment closed to within three hundred yards of the enemy, where they were met with severe fire. Tyler recalled, ‘The firing here was for a short time spirited and obstinate, until the enemy gave back from my immediate front.’ When the firing stopped, he again ordered his men to lie down. As the Rebels pressed to the ground, fifty men from the 4th Alabama Infantry formed on Tyler’s left and joined his force. While Tyler integrated these men into his line of battle, Bate’s Brigade, which was several hundred yards away from Tyler’s regiment, was advancing. Distracted, Tyler did not notice that the brigade was moving, and his men became isolated from the rest of Bate’s command.
When some of his troops told him that Bate’s Brigade had departed, Tyler ordered his troops forward after them. His men advanced about fifty yards, but then, he wrote, ‘a heavy volley of musketry was poured in upon us from a position occupied by the enemy on the Chattanooga road not more than 250 or 300 yards in my immediate front.’ As the enemy muskets cracked from the top of Brotherton Ridge, Tyler ordered his men to shout three times ‘For old Tennessee!’ and then charge. He later explained, ‘We charged them from the hill in utter confusion and fired several volleys upon them as they retired to a skirt of woods.’
The routed Federals were in complete disarray as they fled Brotherton Ridge. Although Tyler’s troops chased them down the slope, the Rebels were soon struck by artillery fire coming from the woods to the right of them. ‘I immediately determined,’ Tyler later wrote, ‘to capture or drive [the battery] from its position. Advancing in almost a run, and with the yells of demons, we soon captured four pieces of fine artillery, the horses all having been removed or killed.’
Tyler, who had lost about eight men killed and sixty wounded in this action, suddenly grew fearful that the Yankees would strike his flank. Unaware as he was of the location of Bate’s Brigade, he hauled the captured cannons back to the regiment’s original position. The troops halted about three hundred yards east of the Chattanooga road. As darkness fell over the battlefield, Bate reported, ‘We bivouacked for the night upon the field of carnage enveloped by the smoke of battle and surrounded by the dead of friend and foe.’
The first day’s fighting had ended in a stalemate, but the second day, with Longstreet’s troops employed, the Confederates hit upon a gap in the Union center. They began to roll back both wings of the army, until on Horseshoe Ridge, with three-fifths of the army and its commanding general fleeing the battle, Maj. Gen. George Thomas held fast. From that day, Thomas was known as the Rock of Chickamauga. He retired with his troops in good order, joining Rosecrans at Chattanooga.
It was the lot of Tyler’s troops that day to attack defensive positions the Federals had prepared during the night. When Tyler was wounded in the assault, Lt. Col. Dudley Frayser took over command of the regiment, although he was also injured. Initially the 15th/37th Tennessee was repulsed; it then moved farther to the left to strike the enemy again. Despite his wound, Tyler returned to command his troops until they persuaded him to retire to the rear. The renewed attack by the 15th/37th Tennessee contributed to the collapse of the Union line, and that night Tyler’s regiment camped in the enemy works.
Both officers and enlisted men noted Tyler’s bravery and leadership during the Battle of Chickamauga. Confederate Lt. Col. Inzer wrote that ‘never did I see greater courage and daring displayed by any other than was shown by Colonel Tyler and his command. His bravery and his manner of handling his regiment on that bloody field were indeed conspicuous.’ The two days at Chickamauga were not only Tyler’s apex as a field commander but the greatest tactical victory for the Army of Tennessee. The Union army, which suffered more than sixteen thousand casualties, withdrew to Chattanooga. Bragg’s Rebel army, which lost eighteen thousand, followed and besieged the city.
While Bragg invested Chattanooga, he gave Bate divisional command and promoted Tyler to command Bate’s Brigade of Georgia and Tennessee troops. In late November, the Federal army attempted to break free. On November 24, Confederates defended their lines during the Battle of Lookout Mountain, high above the city. The next day, Union attacks continued at Missionary Ridge. Tyler’s troops defended a line near Bragg’s headquarters, on the Confederate right.
Tyler’s new brigade withstood assault after assault. When Union Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s soldiers attacked once more, a bullet struck Tyler in his left leg as he attempted to rally his breaking lines. With their commander struck down, the already crumbling line broke and fled. Bate recorded that ‘Our men of the extreme right gave back in some confusion, and in gallantly seeking to rally them Col. R.C. Tyler was dangerously wounded.’ The wound was so severe that surgeons amputated his leg.The Confederate army was driven from besieging Chattanooga. After this fight, the men in Bate’s former brigade began calling themselves Tyler’s Brigade, although their maimed commander no longer served with them.
Historian Ezra Warner noted that the severe wound and subsequent amputation left Tyler in a quandary. ‘Tyler apparently had no home to go to while recovering from his wound,’ Warner wrote, ‘not even the home of a friend. Instead, he went to West Point, Georgia, and its small Confederate hospital where, it is presumed, he knew no one.’ It was there, while recovering from his wound on February 24, 1864, that Tyler was named a brigadier general. General Joseph E. Johnston, who had replaced Bragg as commander of the Army of Tennessee, wrote, ‘It is reported that Colonel Tyler has been promoted….It will be long before he can return to duty.’ In fact, Tyler would never return to the Army of Tennessee.
During the winter of 1864-65, Tyler remained in West Point, a town that one Confederate called a ‘plucky little city,’ near the Alabama line. Although Tyler was far from Bragg’s former army, he remained involved in its politics. On January 22, 1865, he wrote Bragg, ‘Amidst all the excitement, disaster and disappointment of the past few weeks, I have anxiously been looking for something that would justify a hope and belief that you would once more be placed in command of the grand old Army of Tenn.’ He informed Bragg that he was ‘infinitely the superior of any Genl. The Confederacy can boast of.’ Tyler added, ‘I do Esteem you as a peerless Commander, the gallant Soldier, the Self Sacrificing Patriot — My beau ideal of a soldier.’ It appears that Tyler was one of the few who shared those sentiments, perhaps one of the few friends Bragg had left in the service. Bragg would never again command the Army of Tennessee, although he saw service in North Carolina under Johnston.
Despite his disabling wound, Tyler led an active social life (and may even have found love) while convalescing in West Point. On January 6, 1865, he sent a note to Miss Sallie Fanny Reid, who lived at a home called Sunny Villa. ‘Compliments of General Tyler,’ he wrote, ‘and would be delighted with the company of Miss Reid (if agreeable to her) to LaGrange this evening to a party to be given by Miss Bell.’ One Confederate who knew Tyler in West Point recalled, ‘The `belle of Georgia,’ Miss Sallie Fannie Reid, one of the most entertaining and brilliant conversationalists I ever met, was a fascination to Gen. Tyler.’ On the night of April 15, Tyler presented his spurs and a gold-headed cane to Miss Reid during a party that both attended. It would be the general’s last soiree.
The evening’s festivities would have been dampened had the guests known that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Va., on April 9. Not until weeks later, on April 26, would Johnston surrender the Army of Tennessee to General William Tecumseh Sherman. News of the Confederacy’s faltering fortunes had not yet reached west central Georgia.
As early as October 1, 1864, Tyler had been ordered to hold West Point if Northern troops approached the town. General John Bell Hood, the last commander of the Army of Tennessee, directed Tyler ‘to defend the place with all the forces at your command and take the best care you can of our railroad transportation.’ Confederate Lieutenant L.B. McFarland, a member of the 9th Tennessee Infantry who arrived at West Point on the morning of April 16, 1865, appreciated the importance of this locale:
I knew that there were a number of hospitals there, with many convalescents, and that large hospital stores were then crossing the Chattahoochee River at this point. So to delay the enemy was important.
Besides, just the year previous I had been in the hospital with pneumonia at LaGrange, Ga., just east of West Point, and during my convalescence had experienced the generous hospitality of its people and made many friends, and I could not miss the opportunity to aid in the defense of those kind people and hospitable homes.
The Southerners at West Point were threatened from several directions. As Yankee troops entered the region, Union Maj. Gen. James Wilson sent a cavalry brigade to West Point to capture the bridge spanning the Chattahoochee River, while he and the remainder of his command moved on Columbus. Also roving steadily but heading toward West Point was the Federal brigade led by Colonel Oscar LaGrange. The unit consisted of the 2nd and 4th Indiana Cavalries, the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, the 7th Kentucky Cavalry, and the 18th Indiana Battery.
At 8 a.m. on April 16, a Confederate soldier rode into town and sounded the alarm. As the Federals approached, women and children were sent across the river, and Tyler, hobbling on his crutches, gathered convalescents and local militia to oppose the Northern advance. The general had 113 men to defend the town. Only six of these were regular soldiers; the remainder, according to one trooper, were ‘old men and boy volunteers.’ Furthermore, these makeshift infantrymen were armed with smoothbore muskets. Outnumbered significantly by LaGrange’s Federal brigade, Tyler hustled the sick and elderly defenders into Fort Tyler, a small earthen fort on the west side of town that had recently been renamed in his honor.
McFarland, who volunteered to serve as Tyler’s adjutant, later described the works: ‘I found the fort to be of simple construction, square dirt embankments, with a ditch at the outside entrance on the west, open and protected only by a stockade in the rear of the entrance. There were three old pieces of artillery — a thirty-two pounder on the southeast corner and a brass twelve-pounder each on the northwest and southwest corners. There were no head logs nor other parapet protection.’
Despite the fort’s simplicity, the Federals would soon learn its capacity for staving off attacks. One Union officer described Fort Tyler ‘as a remarkably strong bastioned earth-work, thirty-five yards square, surrounded by a ditch twelve feet wide and ten feet deep, situated on a commanding eminence, protected by an imperfect abates, and mounting two 32-pounders and two field guns.’ One Southerner simply stated, ‘Under more favorable conditions [the fort] would have proved a veritable Gibraltar.’Initially, the fort did not impress Tyler or the other officers who saw it. One Confederate who inspected the fort told Tyler, ‘Why, General, this is a slaughter pen.”I know it,’ Tyler responded, ‘but we must man and try to hold it.’
As his troops filed into the fort shouldering their muskets, McFarland suggested to Tyler that they burn several homes just to the west, less than one hundred yards from the fort. Tyler refused to put them to the torch. He knew the owners and did not think they could stand the loss. This would prove a fatal mistake.
After deploying most of his garrison in the earthworks, Tyler sent McFarland and twenty volunteers out to the Montgomery road to act as skirmishers, hoping they could slow the Federal advance. At 10 a.m., Federal sharpshooters from the 2nd Indiana Cavalry approached the skirmishers and the fight began. While the skirmishers traded shots with the Yankee marksmen, Union artillerymen placed a battery on Ward’s Hill, half a mile from the fort. Once they’d set up, they immediately began shelling the redoubt. As shells screamed over the skirmishers’ heads, McFarland’s men retreated to the fort.
Directing the skirmishers’ retreat, McFarland sensed a bullet passing a few inches from his head and heard it hammer against a nearby apple tree. With the bravery and bravado that only a veteran of many battles could convey, McFarland took off his hat and bowed to the enemy sharpshooter before running back to the fort. Since those men had been on the north side of the fort and the entrance was on the west, they scrambled over the parapet to enter. While they hoisted themselves into Fort Tyler, Union sharpshooters continued to fire, their bullets cracking logs and pattering into the earthen embankment.
By 1:30 that afternoon, detachments of the 1st Wisconsin, 2nd Indiana, and 7th Kentucky Cavalries invested the fort. McFarland reported that ‘the enemy had surrounded the fort on all sides, their sharpshooters taking advantageous position beyond and on the roofs of houses and in trees; and for some time it was a battle of marksmanship between our sharpshooters and theirs, the targets of each being the heads only of the others.’ When LaGrange’s right wing began to encircle the works, however, the Confederates fired a shot from one of the brass 12-pounders at LaGrange and his staff that killed the general’s horse and two pack animals.
Despite that lucky shot, the Rebels’ guns were not long effective. Although the cannoneers slowed the Federal advance, Union marksmen shot down the Rebels operating the guns. Confederate soldier S.F. Power recalled, ‘The cannon in the fort was silenced about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, every gunner having been either killed or wounded.’
Union artillery had stopped dropping shells into Fort Tyler earlier, at about 1:30. One Confederate wrote, ‘every ball hit the mark, that is, every few minutes while squatting against the parapet when loading my gun, I could feel the jar’ of the shells landing inside the fort. While the Rebels slowly reloaded their muzzleloaders and attempted to avoid the shelling, the Federal cavalrymen fired rapidly into the fort with their repeating carbines. The firing covered the dismounted cavalrymen as they moved toward the fort. One Kentuckian wrote, ‘Our regiment was then directed to get up as close to the fort as possible — behind buildings, fences, posts, and anything affording the slightest cover, and act as sharpshooters to silence the fire of the fort.’
It was then that McFarland noticed a number of Yankees sniping from one of the cottages he had previously wanted to burn, one owned by Dr. A.W. Griggs. Finding Tyler, McFarland suggested that the Confederates direct artillery fire against that position to silence the sharpshooters. Tyler hobbled up to the wall and raised his field glasses to get a better view. Immediately, he attracted several shots from the building.
‘The first shot,’ Confederate S.F. Power wrote, ‘though fatal, was followed by a second, which cut his crutch in two and precipitated him to the ground. He was tenderly borne to the foot of the flagstaff, where he died an hour later, beneath the flag he had sworn to protect with his life, which had been presented by the noble ladies of West Point and vicinity.’ As the fort was situated on the Georgia-Alabama state line, Tyler was wounded in Alabama but died in Georgia. McFarland dourly noted that Tyler had given ‘his own life rather than destroy the homes of others. This was a noble prompting, but was not war.’
The Federal troopers eventually reached the ditch around the fort, as the slow-loading smoothbores proved no match for the fire available from repeating rifles. With only a few feet separating the contending troops, a stalemate developed. McFarland recalled ‘neither [side] could expose themselves to the other’ and that the Federal’sharpshooters made it too hot and dangerous for our men to put their heads up, as it was almost certain death.’ Instead, a number of men lifted their hats up on their ramrods to draw enemy fire.
Casualties began to mount in the fort, as Union troops attempted to breach the parapet. Major W.A. Camp, a militia member who owned the local hotel, had both his eyes shot out during this stage of the struggle. Another Rebel, a man named McNight from New Orleans, was struck by a Union bullet. Although carried to the nearby home of Mrs. Ann Wilson, he never received medical attention and died. Mrs. Wilson buried the soldier in her flower garden.
The stalemate lasted two hours. During this time, some Confederates used ignited shells as hand grenades, throwing them over the parapet into the ditch where the Federal troops huddled. Most did not explode. During any lull in the firing, the two sides exchanged ‘many a compliment, banter, and threat.’
On Tyler’s death, command devolved to a Captain Gonzales, who was also killed within the fort. Colonel J.H. Fannin then led the garrison. After Tyler died, one soldier reportedly raised a white handkerchief in surrender, but McFarland snatched it away and vowed to shoot the next man who attempted to give up. By the time he made that threat, many of the Confederates had already run out of ammunition and were hurling stones and empty rifles at the attackers.
Although the Federals had the garrison surrounded, they were still pinned down in the ditch that surrounded the fort. LaGrange ordered the sharpshooters to continue firing while other troops constructed bridges. To build them, the Union troops ripped planks from the homes that Tyler had spared from the torch. When the bridges were completed, a bugler sounded the charge, and LaGrange’s regiments hurtled forward. Throwing their bridges to span the ditch, they then ran into the fort.One Wisconsin officer described the attack:
Our boys are rapidly approaching the works. There they go into the ditch; now up on the embankment! There they lie within 10 feet of the enemy, waiting for the rest of the brigade to get up close as they are. While in the ditch lighted fuse shells are thrown over among our boys, but they prove boomerangs in every instance for our boys pitch them back into the fort, where they explode….Then they threw over great rocks, and some of our boys are badly bruised by them….The Bugler is sounding the charge. Up they spring to the top of the embankment like a swarm of bees. Up goes the white flag [the Rebels] have surrendered!
Confederate W.J. Slatter later wrote, ‘A large, fine looking Indian was the first to enter the fort. He carried an ax and cut down the pole from which floated our flag. En route home after my parole from prison, I met that same Indian, the Orderly Sergeant of his company, and he told me that Gen. Lagrange had offered a furlough to the one who first entered the fort, and he secured it.’ The garrison surrendered at 6 p.m.
When the Union soldiers entered Fort Tyler, they were surprised that so few Confederates had held it for so long. ‘You fought like demons,’ one Yankee remarked. ‘We thought you had at least two companies.’
The Federal victory over Fort Tyler gave the Union army control of the West Point bridges, which they promptly burned. The victorious troops also destroyed several hundred railroad cars that were loaded with quartermaster and commissary stores. Although the troops destroyed most of the goods, they gave seven hogsheads of sugar, two thousand sacks of corn, ten thousand pounds of bacon, and other stores to the mayor of West Point, so the Union and Confederate wounded and any destitute civilians could be fed.
The Federal success at West Point cost them seven men killed and twenty-nine wounded. The defeated garrison lost eighteen killed and twenty-eight wounded. LaGrange’s report noted that most of the Confederate dead and wounded were ‘mostly shot through the head.’ Several hundred Rebels were captured at the fort and the hospital.The night of the surrender, the bodies of General Tyler and Captain Gonzales were placed in the home of the Potts family, in West Point. This saved the Potts home.
Apparently, at least one member of the Potts clan had been involved in the fighting. Early in the day, one of the Potts daughters had climbed into a rifle pit and fired twice at the Federal skirmishers. When Union troops reported this to General LaGrange, after the fighting ceased the angered Union commander decided to burn the Potts home, but changed his mind when he learned that the two bodies had been placed there. ‘Were it not for the honored dead that lie in the house I would teach the female sharpshooter a lesson,’ LaGrange said. The next day, both soldiers were buried in the same plot in the town’s Pinewood Cemetery. Tyler, fighting his gallant but futile last-ditch defense, was the last Confederate general to be killed in Civil War action.
This article was written by Stuart W. Sanders and originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!