An insightful, detailed, and invaluable account of daily life in the Union Navy
On May 18, 1862, Henry Willis Wells wrote a letter to his mother telling her in clear terms, “I am fighting for the Union.” Since August 1861, when he joined the US Navy as a master’s mate he never wavered in his loyalty. He wrote to his family frequently that he considered military service a necessary and patriotic duty, and the career that ensued was a dramatic one, astutely and articulately documented by Wells in more than 200 letters home, leaving an invaluable account of daily life in the Union Navy.
Wells joined the navy shortly after the war began, initially on board the Cambridge, attached to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which patrolled the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He witnessed the Battle of Hampton Roads and the fight between the ironclads CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor. Next, the Cambridge assisted in the blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina. In one instance, the warship chased the schooner J. W. Pindar ashore during her attempt to run the blockade, and Confederate forces captured Henry’s boarding party. After a short prison stay in the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, his Confederate captors paroled Henry. He travelled back to Brookline, and soon thereafter the Navy Department assigned him to the gunboat Ceres, which operated on the sounds and rivers of North Carolina, protecting army positions ashore. Henry was on board during the Confederate attempt to capture Washington, North Carolina. During this April 1863 attack, Henry was instrumental in the town’s defense, commanding a naval battery ashore during the latter part of the fight.
His exceptional service gained him a transfer to a larger warship, the USS Montgomery, again on the blockade of Wilmington. Later the service assigned him to the Gem of the Sea, part of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. Through his hard work and professionalism, he finally earned his first command. In September 1864, he became the commanding officer of the Rosalie, a sloop used as a tender to the local warships. Later he commanded the schooner Annie, also a tender. At the end of December 1864, however, the Annie suffered a massive explosion, killing all hands, including Wells. He was twenty-three years old when his life and career ended tragically. Wells’s letters document both his considerable achievements and his frustrations. His challenges, triumphs, and disappointments are rendered with candor. I Am Fighting for the Union is a vital and deeply personal account of a momentous chapter in the history of the Civil War and its navies.