A Stono River Story: The Ambush of the Isaac P. Smith

Acting Assistant Paymaster Frederic Calvin Hills, circa 1863. Author’s collection.
Acting Assistant Paymaster Frederic Calvin Hills, circa 1863. Author’s collection.

By Gary L. Dyson

The gunboat Isaac P. Smith was one of many civilian vessels purchased by the United States Navy early in our Civil War to quickly bolster the fleet. Shallow draught ships were needed for the control of coastal rivers and waterways and deny the Confederacy vital supplies and transport opportunities. The Smith was soon engaged along the east coast with its first crew, including Acting Master John Wyer Dicks. John was the Executive Officer on the Smith and had been a ship’s master for over 30 years.

After months of tedious but dangerous patrolling of Florida rivers, the Smith’s crew was broken up before repairs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but John remained as the XO. As part of the second crew he was joined by Acting Assistant Paymaster Frederic Calvin Hills, a former bookkeeper who was sent to a war zone barely two weeks after receiving his commission. As the Smith was redeployed to the hostile coast of South Carolina, John and Frederic experienced together service, a violent battle, and prisons of war that forged their relationship as comrades and as father and son in law. The January 30, 1863 battle on the Stono changed their lives forever, and since these two men were my wife’s 2nd and 3rd great grandfathers, their survival affected her future too.

An Annoyance to the Rebels

Officially arriving at Port Royal on October 12th, 1862, by the 27th the Union gunboat Isaac P. Smith had reached her duty station on the Stono River in South Carolina. She had spent the summer of 1862 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for much needed repairs after surviving a hurricane, The Battle of Port Royal, and routine yet dangerous river patrols in Florida. The Smith’s commander, Lt. Francis Conover, kept the chain of command informed of the movements and activities of Confederate troops on James and Johns Islands, commenting within a few days of arrival of the existence of numerous suspected enemy tents and evidence of fresh earthworks near Light-house Creek.

About the same time of the Smith’s arrival a story appeared in the Charleston Courier about a seaman deserter from the ship. Lt. Conover made no mention of any desertion but others did in post battle reports. This desertion occurred during one of many forays of the Smith’s crew for shelling targets of opportunity, digging sweet potatoes, commandeering cattle, raiding private property, and target shooting for entertainment. Other Union gunboats patrolled the river too, but the Smith gained a reputation for being particularly guilty of mischief, and by the beginning of 1863 the Confederate command in Charleston had had enough. Constant river patrols became a matter of routine for the Smith which eventually led to her letting her guard down in the face of a determined enemy.

An Elaborate Plan

As January, 1863 drew to a close, a Confederate plan to ambush a Union gunboat patrolling the Stono began in earnest. On about the 20th Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard ordered Brigadier General Ripley to prepare plans for just such a surprise. Beauregard suggested that an attack be made from the river itself using boats with muffled oars so as to approach a vessel, board it and overwhelm the crew. General Ripley believed it would be best to place guns on the west side of the river and in hidden positions, so that they might be brought to bear on a Union gunboat suddenly and by surprise. Ripley decided to give this task to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph A. Yates of the First South Carolina Artillery. Beauregard also ordered that three guns be placed at the Thomas Grimball plantation on the east or James Island side of the river, and two more at Battery Island, and that as many rifled siege guns from the Siege Train be used as practicable on Johns Island.

1858 map of the Stono River created by the United States Coastal Survey showing the Thomas Grimball farm on James Island, Paul Grimball farm on Johns Island, Legare Point Place just south of Paul Grimball’s, and Battery Island further south on James Island. Library of Congress.
1858 map of the Stono River created by the United States Coastal Survey showing the Thomas Grimball farm on James Island, Paul Grimball farm on Johns Island, Legare Point Place just south of Paul Grimball’s, and Battery Island further south on James Island. Library of Congress.

Although the plan seemed simple enough, getting all the required firepower into the desired positions was no easy task in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The Charleston defenses had already been weakened to provide manpower and equipment for Confederate armies in Virginia and westward. Batteries used for the Stono ambush would weaken them even more if only temporarily. Nevertheless batteries and some infantry support were allocated to take positions on both sides of the Stono. Signal corpsmen were assigned to warn Confederate commands when the Smith began heading upriver. Lieutenant Colonel Yates was assigned overall command of the operation and assumed direct command of the forces on Johns Island.

On Tuesday, January 26th Rebel forces began to move. James Island positions were commanded by Captain John Gary and Major James Welsman Brown. Captain Gary commanded three 24 pounders placed on the Thomas Grimball Farm and hidden by a row of slave cabins. Major Brown commanded two 24 pounders on Battery Island that had been labored into place by hand and on a bad road, there not being enough horses available for the task.

The guns to be placed on Johns Island were more numerous but lighter in weight and caliber. Lieutenant William H. Chapman’s postwar interview placed the batteries of Webb (4 howitzers) and Schultz (4? Napoleans) at Paul Grimball’s, and Stanley (4 howitzers and 1 Parrott), Harleston (James rifled guns and Napoleans), and Smith (4 howitzers) in order at Legare’s Point Place. Most of the guns placed on Johns Island would be exposed to enemy fire when they were brought into the fight, but until that time they would be hidden as best as possible with just a couple of Austrian caissons out in the open between some buildings. Chapman described the positions of all the guns posted on Johns Island as the result of a meeting between Lieutenant Colonel Yates and Major Charles Alston:

“Soon after Major Alston’s return from Col. Yates quarters he ordered Webb’s and Shultz’s batteries to move up to Grimball’s house. Smith’s and Stanley’s batteries were ordered to move on to Col. Yates’s command, which was encamped lower down the road, which ran in the woods along the edge of the open field. Upon reaching Grimball’s house Major Alston placed his guns in the positions previously selected for them. To the rear of the dwelling house there was an open field running to the river. Capt. Webb was placed with his howitzer under a large live oak at the water’s edge, his piece having a clear field for firing down the river. A little to his right, and in front, two large Austrian caissons were placed behind the carriage-house in the open field. Capt. Shultz was placed with two Napoleons inside the carriage-house, in the yard, and the doors closed to cover him. When ready for action he was to throw the doors open, run his pieces into the yard, and open fire over the garden fence. The writer’s piece was placed to the right of the carriage-house, between it and the dwelling, and looking directly over the garden fence and down the river. Capt. Webb had two other howitzers outside the enclosure at the dwelling, and below it, with such cover as could be found near the water’s edge. Capt. Shultz also had his Napoleons placed in like manner, while below these guns, Col. Yates’s batteries. Stanley’s, Harleston’s and Smith’s, continued the line to Legare’s Point Place.”

Signal Corpsman Augustine Smythe had a more general description of where guns would be before the ambush:

“At Grimballs on Johns lsI., & at Legare’s lower down the river, we had concealed our guns, some in stables, some behind bushes, & one in the basement of Legare’s house.”

The Battle on the Stono

The opportunity for ambush that the Rebels were waiting for happened on January 30th. The gunboats Isaac P. Smith and Commodore McDonough were at anchor at the Stono Inlet that morning, just as they were most mornings while assigned to their patrolling duties. Today would be the Smith’s turn to venture upriver and see if the Rebels were active in the area. For most of the day the gunboats stayed in place, loading supplies, receiving mail, and possibly even target shooting on Cole’s Island, but at about 3pm the Smith hoisted its anchor and started steaming upriver. The Smith had been watched all day, and Rebel signalmen were positioned to alert the commands of Yates and Gary. Brown would see her without any need for signalmen at his Battery Island post. By 4 or 4:30 PM the Smith dropped anchor just opposite Thomas Grimball’s and a waiting game began. Captain Gary had been curious why the batteries on Johns Island hadn’t opened by fire by now, but he took the initiative and decided to open fire.

The Isaac P. Smith dead in the water from a sketch in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 28, 1863.
The Isaac P. Smith dead in the water from a sketch in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 28, 1863.

On the Isaac P. Smith Petty Officer Dorton described the opening shots:

“At 2:30 pm up anchor steamer up Stono River. At 3:30 pm anchored abreast of “Grimball’s Plantation.” At 4 pm the report of gun and the simultaneous crash of a shot passing through the ships side threw us all in a momentary confusion, I say momentary for a second shot brought us to our senses.  The order of Port watchman the port Gallery, starboard with up anchor” was quickly obeyed, and in less than 15 minutes our port battery had silenced the masked battery which opened on us from James Island so unceremoniously, one has the gratification of seeing one of these guns and caissons knocked high in the air.”

Under way and steaming downriver to escape this fire, the Smith approached the bend of the river by Paul Grimball’s and Legare’s Point Place. The fire from the batteries at both of these points was constant and accurate, and the deepest part of the channel was only 100 yards from the shore.  The Smith’s return fire was so close to the riverbank that some of her fire sailed over its intended targets. Not just the Rebel batteries were firing on the Smith. There were companies of sharpshooters picking off crew as well as the guns, proof of the closeness of the path taken by the Smith in navigating the river.

Somehow the Smith absorbed the punishment of this fire at so close a range and almost cleared the last of the batteries along Johns Island. Major Brown’s guns still lay ahead at Battery Island, but there were only two of them there, and ammunition was beginning to run short for the Rebel gunners. When it appeared that the Smith might actually survive this gauntlet there was suddenly a cloud of steam seen arising from her, and she stopped dead in her tracks. A round had found her steam engine and she could go no further.

Petty Officer Dorton continued to describe the scene in his journal:

“Oh heavens! I shall never forget the sight, the gun deck was flooded with human blood, the groans of the dying and wounded was indeed heart wrenching, in less time than it takes me to describe, we had 11 dead and 17 wounded, some of them mortally and scattered over the deck, we got abreast of the last battery steaming at full speed when a shot fired from one of the upper batteries pierced our steam chest and thus [totally] disabled us, the Gun deck immediately filled with steam, the vessel stopped and we were at the mercy of the enemy, who took advantage of our situation and poured a most galling fire of musketry and grape & canister in to us. The Captain seeing no way to get clean ordered the flag to be hauled down and surrendered in order to stop the unnecessary bloodshed.”

From Paul Grimball’s Lt. Chapman recalled “a cloud of steam was seen to escape through her smokestack. A few seconds later a white flag was run up and the firing ceased—a rifled shot had cut her steam drum, and her power was gone.” This shot that disabled the Smith’s power plant was attributed to 2nd Lt. Eldred S. Fickling of Captain Harleston’s Company D, First South Carolina Artillery. Lieutenant Charles Inglesby, acting as Adjutant, reported years after the war that he had stood behind the gun that Fickling himself sighted, and immediately after the gun was fired the plume of steam rose from the Smith.  Captain Harleston’s Battery was the next to last in line according to Lt. Chapman, so the killing shot was fired from Legare’s Point Place, also noted in Col. Yates’ report as well. At Legare Point Place Augustine Smythe also observed:

“She passed without material harm by all the batteries, but one, & we gave her up as lost, when a well-directed shot from Legare burst her steam pipe & she had to stop & surrender. Col. Y. immediately started us scrambling for steamers to tow her up to town & we did not stop until 4 next morning when everyone left. As soon as the boat stopped, we hailed her & ordered her to send a boat ashore as we had none to board her with. Luckily one of her boats was unhurt, & in this the 1st. Lieut. came & surrendered the ship saying that the Capt. was too badly wounded to surrender himself. This was false, for he came up afterwards with             only a scratch on his head. Had this boat been injured, as the others were we could have had no communication with her.”

Lieutenant Conover saw that he had no other choice but to surrender his ship. Wounded and dying men littered the decks and there was no relief in sight at the moment. The Smith was a sitting duck now for the Rebel batteries and few guns were left to return fire. The ship’s boiler had taken a hit that could not be repaired while under fire.  Abandoning ship wasn’t possible with the ship’s boats destroyed. Reports after the battle indicated that a deserter from the ship the previous fall had indeed informed Confederate authorities where best to target the Smith and may have even been present during the battle. The gunboat Commodore McDonough had heard the sounds of guns up the river and steamed towards the Smith in an attempt to perform a rescue or destroy her so she wouldn’t fall into Confederate hands, but the two guns on Battery Island under the command of Major Welsman Brown forced her to turn back. Her commander, Lieutenant Commander George Bacon, did not want to risk losing his ship too.

Aftermath of the Battle
A sketch of the Charleston Jail from Harper’s Weekly, February 18, 1865.
A sketch of the Charleston Jail from Harper’s Weekly, February 18, 1865.

The captured Isaac P. Smith was repaired in Charleston and outfitted eventually as a blockade runner, but wrecked just four months after the battle and burned to the waterline when Charleston was evacuated in 1865.  The surviving crew of the Smith was ferried to Johns Island with its one remaining boat. Eight crewmen had been killed and 16 were wounded. The survivors became prisoners of war and were marched to the ferry at Church Flats on the Stono before boarding railcars that would take them to Charleston. At Charleston they were marched through the streets to the taunts of civilians and sent to the Charleston Jail.

After a few days the enlisted crewmen (white) were sent to Libby Prison in Richmond for parole and eventual exchange. The officers were sent to the Columbia Jail for three months as an example to the Lincoln administration that these would be treated as insurrectionists following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Three free black crewmen of the Smith were held for the duration of the war and not exchanged, and at least two of them were indeed held as POWs until April, 1865

Acting Master John Wyer Dicks and Assistant Paymaster Frederic Calvin Hills had both been wounded during the Stono battle. Their ships’ physician had been sent away from Charleston Jail so neither had access to medical care, and Hills also contracted malaria during his stay at the Columbia Jail. They were finally exchanged with the other officers of the Smith in May, 1863. Both continued their US Navy service into 1864 with different commands, but both were also discharged in 1864 due to the effects of their wounds and captivity.

Although the crew of the Smith had been separated following the Stono battle and captivity, John and Frederic continued to remain close. They had served together patrolling the Stono River, fought and suffered together in combat and as prisoners of war, and survived the war to return to their families. Their relationship must have been like that between a father and son, especially so soon after John’s only son to live past infancy had died in 1860. In October 1865 they became related as father and son-in-law. Frederic married John’s daughter Marianne and the rest as they, is history.

Marianne Dicks (Hills), 1859. Author’s collection.
Marianne Dicks (Hills), 1859. Author’s collection.

Henry Dorton Diary. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.

Augustine Smythe letter. Charleston, South Carolina. February 5, 1863. The South Carolina Historical Society Archives, Addlestone Library, College of Charleston. Charleston, SC.

Wm. H. Chapman, Late 1st Lt. Palmetto Guard Artillery, Charleston News and Courier, October 12, 1885

Gary L. Dyson is a retired Environmental Specialist  and a former Marine. He is a genealogist and the author of “The Ambush of the Isaac P. Smith, Family Ties and the Battle on the Stono, January 30, 1863” and “A Civil War Correspondent in New Orleans, the Journals and Reports of Albert Gaius Hills of the Boston Journal.”   He has a BS in Natural Resources Management from Oregon State University. and is also a board member for the Frederick County Civil War Roundtable.

The James Island Bugle shares news about the James Island, South Carolina and brings you stories about people, places and events. We are all all-volunteer, no profit news site. If you would like to contribute, write us at jamesislandbugle@gmail.com.


One thought on “A Stono River Story: The Ambush of the Isaac P. Smith

  1. I’m always learning more about the battle and the participants, and am eager to pass that information on to those interested in this important battle.


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