Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Confederate ambush and capture of the USS Isaac Smith

One hundred and fifty years ago this afternoon, Acting Lieutenant Francis S. Conover skippered the USS Isaac Smith up the Stono River outside Charleston, South Carolina.  The Smith was among the many vessels acquired by the Navy early in the war to work inside the shallow waterways.  Her armament included a 30-pdr Parrott rifle and eight 8-inch Dahlgren guns - rather formidable for 450 ton vessel.  Conover's mission entailed what had become a routine survey of the river, while looking for any new Confederate activity.  Little did Conover know, the Confederates had been very active along the Stono.

In late January, General P.G.T. Beauregard approved a plan forwarded by Brigadier General Roswell Ripley to setup an ambush of Federal gunboats operating on the Stono.  Ripley would wait until the gunboat passed up the channel.  Then using concealed batteries Ripley's men would open up a cross fire to surprise and disable the Federal ship.  Beauregard allocated five rifled 24-pdr guns from the district's siege train.  On John's Island, Major J. Welsman Brown, from the 2nd South Carolina Artillery, commanded two rifled guns.  On the opposite bank, Captain John Gary, 15th South Carolina Heavy Artillery directed three guns near Thomas Grimball's plantation.  So as the Smith made its way around the bends of the Stono, it fell into a trap.

In his report of the action, Conover wrote:

About 3 p.m. of that day I got underway form my usual anchorage in Stono Inlet, with orders from Lieutenant-Commander [George] Bacon, of the USS Commodore McDonough, to proceed up Stono River for the purpose of reconnoitering, as we were constantly in the habit of doing.  A little after 4 I anchored opposite what was known as Tom Grimball's plantation, about 4½ miles from the inlet, and although the signal quartermaster was at the masthead as usual, as well as one or two of the officers, nothing suspicious was seen in any direction.  

From his perspective Gary observed:

Between the hours of 3 and 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the 30th ultimo the gunboat Isaac Smith made her appearance and anchored off Mr. Thomas Grimball's, some 500 yards distant from my batteries.  After waiting some twenty minutes and the Abolitionists showing no disposition to land I ordered my batteries to open fire, which they did in handsome style and apparently with great precision.

 On the receiving end, Conover reacted:

While at anchor, and at 4:25 p.m., a battery upon James Island, of three 24-pounder rifled guns, some 600 yards distant, and masked by a thick clump of trees, opened upon us.  I immediately got underway and cleared for action, and in less than two minutes after the first gun was fired at us we were replying.  At the same time, however, other batteries upon John's Island, on the opposite side of the river and below us, delivered their fire.  I saw immediately that we were trapped, and that my only course was to get the vessels below the battery if possible, and fight them with a more even chance of success.  For upward of a mile, on account of a bend in the river, we were obliged to receive the raking fire of between twenty and thirty guns without being able to reply, except occasionally with our pivot.  As soon as our broadside could be brought to bear, we opened upon the enemy with shell and grape, at from 200 to 400 yards distant.  At one time I had hopes of getting by without any serious loss, but a shot in our steam chimney effectually stopped the engine, and with no wind, little tide, and boats riddled with shot, we were left entirely at the mercy of the enemy.

The USS Isaac Smith under fire
As the Smith drifted downriver, Brown's guns were about to enter the melee:

In a short time a furious cannonade began up the river, but with what effect I could not see, as the trees obscured the view.  Soon, however, the boat rounded the point into sight, evidently crippled, but keeping up a running fight with the shore batteries above my position on each side of the river.  I was about to order my guns to open upon her when I perceived that she had a white flag flying, in token of her surrender.

Brown held his fire, and prepared a party to receive the surrender.  At nearly the same instant, the McDonough appeared steaming upriver towards the fight.  After exchanging fire with Brown's battery, Commander Bacon saw no opportunity to save the Smith and retired.  Conover reported eight killed and seventeen wounded, including himself.  The Confederates suffered one man mortally wounded.

 The loss of the Smith proved an embarrassment to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and Rear Admiral Samuel DuPont.  (And even more embarrassment awaited the Federals the next day in the waters around Charleston.)  The Confederates recovered the Smith and towed her upriver to Fort Pemberton.  Under new owners, the Smith became the CSS Stono.  After service in the Charleston squadron, the Stono was outfitted as a blockade runner with a load of cotton. While attempting a run in June 1863, she wrecked off Sullivan's Island, near Fort Moultrie.  Confederates later burned the wreck when abandoning Charleston at the end of the war.

The site of the ambush and capture of the Smith is near the present day Charleston Executive Airport, along the Stono River.

(Sources for this article include ORN, Series I, Volume 13, pages 560-5 and OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 199-204.)

No comments:

Post a Comment