Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Review of Dyson - "THE AMBUSH OF THE ISAAC P. SMITH: Family Ties and the Battle on the Stono January 30, 1863"

[The Ambush of the Isaac P. Smith: Family Ties and the Battle on the Stono, January 30, 1863 by Gary L. Dyson (Author, 2016). 8 1/2" x 11" softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, bibliography. 95 pp. ISBN:978-1-365-44116-5. $18.94]

Gary Dyson's The Ambush of the Isaac P. Smith is a dual focus study, part history of one of the most dramatic military actions of the entire 1861-65 Siege of Charleston and part biographical treatment of the lives and Civil War careers of two Union naval officers (Acting Assistant Paymaster Frederic Calvin Hills and Acting Ship's Master John Wyer Dicks). Both major features of this slim but rather impressively informative volume are well presented.

A shallow-draft, propeller-driven river steamer, the Isaac Smith was launched in 1850 and intended for New York state's Hudson freight and passenger trade. In September 1861 she was purchased by the U.S. Navy and armed for blockading duty along the South Atlantic coast. Dyson's account of the converted vessel's early service in the waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida is solid, as is his discussion of the significance of Stono inlet and river to the Charleston defenses. The Confederates needed to vigilantly monitor and block enemy access to the Stono as it led to Charleston's vulnerable back door, while on the other side the Union Navy wanted to close the waterway to blockade running traffic while also maintaining its own ability to use the river for amphibious operations against the Cradle of Secession.

By late 1862 and early 1863, the Smith was one of the vessels that regularly patrolled the Stono. In a shining example of intraservice cooperation, the Confederate Signal Corps and army were together able to establish a pattern of enemy operational behavior on the Stono and exploit this intelligence by hatching and coordinating a daring plan to capture the gunboat. Numerous field batteries were borrowed from the siege lines and quickly emplaced in camouflaged positions along both banks of the Stono. The trap was sprung on January 30, 1863 and achieved complete surprise, with the resulting artillery crossfire forcing the battered Smith to surrender. As tends to happen in war, the operation did not unfold as originally planned, but it is perhaps a testament to its designer(s) that the ultimate goal was achieved even after important plan elements went awry.

Dyson ably weaves numerous letters and other firsthand accounts of the action into his narrative, which is also supported by numerous maps. These archival reproductions provide a detailed picture of the winding course of the Stono as well as important features of the surrounding landscape. The author's own map alterations clearly depict the locations of the batteries involved in the fight while also tracing the doomed movements of the Smith.

The individual featured in Dyson's first book, A Civil War Correspondent in New Orleans: The Journals and Reports of Albert Gaius Hills of the Boston Journal (2012), is the brother of Paymaster Hills of the Smith. The "family ties" referred to in the subtitle to Ambush are those of the author's wife, who has family connections with both the Hills brothers and John Wyer Dicks. The book provides brief biographical sketches of the lives of Hills and Dicks prior to the Stono affair, while also vividly recounting their grim prisoner of war experience through Hills's own letters and those of shipmates. In common with many other Civil War participants, the hardships of prison broke the health of both men, but their shared suffering also forged a close bond between the two officers, one that led to Hills marrying Dicks's daughter.

The book also includes some supplementary information in the form of additional short biographies, a crew roster and casualty list for the Smith, and some additional documents having to do with the fate of the three black sailors captured during the battle.

Gary Dyson's tactical account of the Stono battle featured in The Ambush of the Isaac P. Smith is a thorough one, perhaps the finest one available. It's a valuable resource for those wanting to conduct further research on the affair or just read more about the military events of the Charleston siege. The book also offers a fitting tribute to the wartime service and personal sacrifice of two lesser-known U.S. naval officers. Recommended.


  1. Thank you, Drew, for reviewing little-noticed, but fascinating, books such as this one and others(including your recent review on "The Battle of Lewisburg.") Such intriguing small battles are largely forgotten and would have been overlooked by most of us had you not brought them to our attention. Your reviews remind us how bottomless the study of the Civil War truly is.

    1. Thanks, John. Frustration at coming across so many interesting sounding book titles (new and old) but not being able to find any information about them (not even content descriptions, let alone reviews) was a major impetus in starting this site.


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