South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust

The Capture of the Isaac P. Smith

January 30, 1863


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The USS Isaac P. Smith joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in the fall of 1862 and was used to patrol the Stono River. The gunboat was formerly a steamship working the Hudson River in New York, transporting cattle on the lower deck and passengers above. Utilizing a propeller rather than a paddle wheel, the ship could run up to twelve knots. At the outbreak of the war, the Federal government commandeered all available ships, converting some to gunboats and others to transports. With its light draught and quick speed, the Isaac P. Smith was a perfect candidate to outfit as a gunboat. The top staterooms were stripped away, and the ship was armed with eight 8-inch Columbiads guns, four to a side, and a 30-pound Parrott gun on the bow. It was one of fifteen warships involved at the Battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861.


In the fall of 1862, the Isaac P Smith was still part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and anchored at Stono Inlet between Folly Island and Kiawah Island. In January 1863, the ship made daily patrols up the Stono River to reconnoiter the river and the James Island and John’s Island shorelines. On its patrols, Lieutenant F. S. Conover, the ship’s captain, would steam up river just close enough to fire on Confederate Fort Pemberton, near the Wappoo Creek.


After firing on Fort Pemberton, Conover usually steamed back down the Stono River and anchored near the Paul Grimball Plantation on the western shore on John’s Island. Often, the ship’s officers would go ashore and amuse themselves with target practice on charcoal figures drawn on the Grimball barn.


Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Joseph A. Yates, First South Carolina Regular Artillery, stationed on James Island, grew increasingly irritated with the arrogance of the Smith’s patrols. His first plan to end the Union navy’s dominance on the Stono was to load armed troops onto approach barges and, using muffled oars, approach the Smith at night using the element of surprise to overtake its crew and seize command of the ship. However, Yates abandoned these plans in favor of a bolder attack that would take careful planning and execution. He discussed his plan with Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley, who forwarded the idea to General Beauregard. Initially, Beauregard thought the success of Yates’s plan was unlikely, but in late January, he approved the mission.


Yates organized a “siege train” composed of three companies under the command of Captain F. H. Harleston and was placed on the eastern shore of the Stono River on James Island at Thomas Grimball’s Plantation, each armed with a 24-pound rifled gun.  Two companies from the 20th South Carolina Volunteers commanded by Captain John C. Mitchel were assigned to act as sharpshooters.


Yates placed two 24-pound rifled guns further south on Battery Island. On the John’s Island shoreline at Legare’s Point Place, Major J. Welsman Brown, 2nd SC Artillery, established a battery with two rifled guns and sharpshooters from a Georgia battalion. These batteries were constructed in the night to prevent their detection, keeping them covered with brush in the day. During preparations, Yates had his men running cold camps with no campfires or hot rations that could be detected by the enemy. The batteries were all in place by January 28, 1863.


Major Charles Austin Jr. was given command of several field guns and a detachment of sharpshooters dispatched to the west shore of the Stono River on Paul Grimball’s Plantation on John’s Island. Austin had gun platforms built in abandoned slave cabins and planned to place his field guns behind a garden wall under a grove of live oaks and another hidden in the carriage house. The Stono Scouts, commanded by Captain B. L. Walpole, acted as the signal service for the operation.


On Friday, January 30, rather than the traditional morning run up the Stono River, the Isaac P. Smith was taking on supplies from a “beef boat” at Stono Inlet. Yates and his men became distressed as the day passed without any sign of the Union gunboat. Finally, at 3:00 pm, Lieutenant-Commander George Bacon, the senior officer at the Stono Inlet and the captain of the the Union gunboat USS Commodore McDonough, dispatched the Isaac P. Smith up the Stono River. The gunboat was normally manned with a crew of 56 men, but on this day Lieutenant Conover made the trip with 119 officers and men aboard. As was his usual practice, Conover had a runaway slave familiar with the waters of the Stono to pilot his ship. Sailors perched in the crow’s nest of each of the Smith’s three masts serving as lookouts. Conover himself was scouting both the James and John’s Islands shorelines, looking for any activity.


Lieutenant John H. Gardner rode along the shoreline to alert the awaiting Confederate batteries, though by that time, the Isaac P. Smith was already abreast of the Grimball Plantation before the gunners could get into position. Only by crawling through a ditch behind a cassina hedge could the Confederates get into position. The Union gunboat passed them heading upriver before they could get ready. Surprisingly, none of the lookouts spotted the Confederate troops and field guns at Paul Grimball’s Plantation.


All of the Confederate batteries on both shores allowed the Federal ship to pass without firing.

Instead of moving all the way to fire on Fort Pemberton, Conover anchored just above Paul Grimball’s Plantation at 4:00 pm – well within the range of the Confederate field guns. Yates waited twenty minutes to see if a landing party would depart the ship for John’s Island. After no such landing appeared imminent, the guns at Grimball Plantation, 600 yards away on James Island, opened fire.


The quick cannon fire could be heard miles away in Charleston. The Smith fired a broadside, but with the bend in the river, Conover had no bearing on any of the Confederate batteries. He ordered the crew to slip the cable to the anchor and to fire up the boiler to make a quick departure. Once the steamship was better positioned, she opened fire with grapeshot, canister, shot, and shell from both sides of the ship. The Union sharpshooters engaged as well. At that moment, the John’s Island batteries opened fire, placing the Isaac P. Smith in a crossfire.


The Confederate guns were finding their mark, and sharpshooters were picking off sailors aboard ship. The effective placement of the Confederate batteries left the Union ship in a box receiving crossfire from all directions for almost a mile. The Isaac P Smith made it as far as Legare’s Point Place before the pilot was killed, and one artillery round left a hole in the steam chimney. The Smith’s boiler was hit three times, and its power was gone.


Conover considered blowing up his own ship to prevent its capture, but with wounded men all over the deck and left with a defenseless ship, he had no choice but to hoist a white flag of surrender up the rigging. Conover would later write, “With the fire of some thirty guns … and a large body of riflemen concentrated upon us, with the shot tearing through the vessel in every direction, and with no hope of being able to silence such a fire, I deemed it my duty to surrender.”


The surrender occurred before the Confederate guns at Legare’s Point Place opened fire. Brown, in his report, noted:


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.


At 4:40 pm, Lieutenant-Commander Bacon could hear of firing of heavy guns on the river and got underway as soon as possible, hoping to rescue the Isaac P. Smith. Bacon reported that “The firing from the batteries was from heavy guns and very rapid.” When the Commodore McDonough got abreast Legareville, Bacon could see the Isaac P. Smith a quarter mile above the bend in the river. Seeing the surrender, Bacon considered either attempting to tow her off or trying to sink the disabled ship with his powerful bow gun to prevent its capture.


A lookout on the Commodore McDonough spotted a heavy battery on their starboard side, “near the bend in the river and a short distance back.” Bacon reported that his engines were then stopped and reversed just as he found himself in a crossfire of his own from three Confederate batteries. Confederate Major Brown reported, “I opened my guns upon her with good effect. She replied, but without damage to us, and retreated down and across the river.”


The Commodore McDonough opened fire with her three rifles and her 9-inch gun on Confederate batteries on both shores and continued to her firing until after sundown. A grape-shot from the retreating ship hit a gun at Legare’s Point Place but did not damage the gun, nor injure the artillery crew. As he moved back toward Stono Inlet, Bacon fired multiple shells into Legareville, a John’s Island summer village on the western shoreline, hoping to create a fire in the village. With the elevating screw disabled on his 100-pound gun and having only nine rounds left for his rifled guns, Bacon moved his ship out to the bar.


The Isaac P. Smith suffered twenty-five casualties, while only one Confederate artilleryman was lost. Conover was amongst the wounded as a minie ball grazed his forehead leaving a slight contusion. The wounded and remaining crew of the Isaac P. Smith were removed and taken prisoner. Lieutenant Colonel Yates invited his officers to join him as he took dinner that night in the wardroom of the Union gunboat. Yates reported to General Beauregard:


I never enjoyed a meal more fully than that I took in the Smith’s ward room…She has good beef, which we had not had for months, fresh vegetables, some luxuries, including a little wine, and luxury of luxuries, a table with a white tablecloth and plenty of dishes.


On January 31, the steamer Sumter towed the Isaac P. Smith to Fort Pemberton. Later, the captured prize was taken farther up the Stono River to the Wappoo Creek to be pulled into Charleston. The guns from the Union gunship were distributed to Confederate batteries on James Island. Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley sent Lieutenant Conover’s sword and the flags from the Isaac P. Smith to General Beauregard.


The Union gunboat was refitted and christened as the CSS Stono under the command of Captain Henry J. Hartstene, providing guard duty in Charleston Harbor. The capture of the USS Isaac P. Smith is the only time a warship was captured by ground forces only.


Conover was held prisoner in Columbia, South Carolina, and released in a prisoner exchange in May. On May 7, 1863, Conover finally was able to file a report while in Annapolis. He opened his report offering, “With the deepest regret I have the honor to report to you that on Friday, January 30, the steamer Isaac Smith, under my command, was captured by the rebels.” He reported the casualties from the ship. Additionally, he noted eleven men who “behaved particularly well” and three crewmen who “behaved badly” during the attack.



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