He had what so many covet: a “good job.” His bank clerk position was entry level to be sure, but Frank Wells’ abilities and family connections would undoubtedly help him move up the ladder.The 20-year-old Connecticut resident,however,could not ignore the clarion call of patriotism, and he joined the Union Army as a second lieutenant of Company I, 13th Connecticut Infantry,on January 29,1862.He was appointed first lieutenant on February 20.
On March 23, the regiment departed from New York on board the ship City of New York bound for Ship Island,off the coast of Mississippi, a staging area for Federal troops.The new surroundings must have felt remarkably strange to the young New Englander.“The portion on which the encampments are is entirely of sand.…The other end of the island is wooded with swamps,and alligators are all around sunning,”he observed.
On May 4, 1862, after the Navy had opened the southern Mississippi River to Union control, the 13th proceeded to Louisiana. On May 16,Wells was appointed commissary of the 1st Brigade and detached from the regiment.At some point during the summer of 1862, he wrote home about his situation:“I am located in New Orleans.We have easy time of it.We have a nice house with everything necessary to a well-regulated establishment.…When I was with General Phelps, I earned my pay, but it seems like cheating now….A bed is a luxury, isn’t it? I hadn’t had my clothes off in a long time before I came here.”
On October 24, the regiment started up the Mississippi by boat. A few days later,after his first brush with combat,he wrote home. “This is the kind of picnic I like best— marching all day through an enemy’s country, seizing anything we want as we pass through these rich plantations and playing ‘Yankee Doodle’ as we go through the villages—and sleeping at night in the open air with a big fire so near you as to burn one’s boots…I never saw as fine a country as this is all along the Bayou,but I am not so enthusiastic about the reception they give us.I don’t think I am more particular than most people, but there are far pleasanter sounds for me than the whistle of shells and minie balls.We had a nice brush at Napoleanville,eight miles back of here, and skedaddled a rebel battery supported by a tolerable force of infantry.”
On April 13 and 14, 1863, the 13th took part in the Battle of Irish Bend.In a letter to his father written on the evening of April 14, Wells wrote,“We drove the rebels from their positions at about two this afternoon…I can’t particularize about the conduct of the men—they stood like veterans minding the shots no more than they would white beans, and stood a raking fire of muskets for fifteen minutes (which is a hard test for any soldier).”
Afterward he observed the more melancholy aspects of war:“A battle is not a bad thing to read about or to see,but after the excitement is over and the maimed and bleeding forms of the brave fellows who were wounded or killed are all that tell the story and one thinks of the sad hearts in many a home, it is rather unpleasant.”
In May the 13th joined the attack on the Confederate Mississippi River strongpoint at Port Hudson, La.The assaults of May 27 and June 14 were unsuccessful, and cost the Union many casualties.Wells came through both assaults without a scratch,but he noted, “A bullet took a little piece out of the tail of my coat, and that is quite as severe a wound as I want for the present.”
On June 15,the Union command called for volunteers to lead the next attack.Wells and nearly all the officers and many men of the 13th volunteered for this hazardous duty. The assault was never made, as the Union capture of Vicksburg made the surrender of Port Hudson inevitable.
In the months following the siege,Wells spent some time sick in the hospital and then on recruiting duty.In January 1864,he reenlisted as a veteran and was promoted to captain of Company B.That spring,the regiment took part in the Red River campaign,where Wells again escaped injury.
The 13th returned to New Orleans early in July.The reenlisted veterans were then sent home on furlough, but Wells was detailed to take charge of other men who were transferred to the 12th Connecticut Infantry in the Eastern theater under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan.
Captain Wells and his contingent journeyed to Maryland, and on August 1 he wrote to his sister from Monocacy: “It is almost, not quite, worth losing a veteran furlough to be able to go on a campaign on Union soil for the first time….The people along the rail road show what seems to us accustomed as we are to the scowling Creoles of Louisiana,an immense degree of interest,giving apples to the men,helping them to get water and asking lots of questions which pleases the men greatly….”
With Sheridan’s Army of the Valley at Halltown, just outside Harpers Ferry, he wrote to the assistant adjutant general of the 19th Army Corps on August 8 to ask again for a furlough.He got sick again,however,and was sent to an Annapolis hospital before he was granted the coveted reprieve.
Wells rejoined his regiment in September just as the army was preparing to attack the Confederates at Winchester,Va. Afew days later he wrote to his father.“I left the hospital and by driving an ambulance myself all night from Harpers Ferry to Berryville,[was able] to reach the army at noon the day before the battle near Winchester.Was marching at two the morning of that glorious day and was in the first line that charged the rebels;it was an awful fight and the ‘Johnnies’ were stubborn….Yesterday there was another fight [Fishers Hill] but although the ‘proceeds’ were good it was not so sanguinary.Nineteen pieces of artillery,a good many prisoners and the utter demorilization of the rebel army are enough for one day.I thank my stars I was on my pins in time for the first victory that the Union army has had in the Shenandoah Valley.”
Finally,on October 18,Wells was granted a five-day leave of absence in lieu of his missed veteran’s furlough.Before he left,however,early on the morning of October 19,the Confederates mounted a major surprise attack at Cedar Creek. After being driven from the field in the morning, the Federal troops rallied later in the day and counterattacked and routed the Confederates. It was Wells’ last major fight.
On December 11,Wells was made acting assistant adjutant general for Brig.Gen.Frank Molineux. On February 24, 1865, following the 19th Army Corps’transfer from Virginia to Savannah,Ga.,Wells was made acting aide de camp on the staff of Brig.Gen.H.W.Birge,a division commander for the 19th Army Corps.
After news of the end of the war reached him,Wells mused:“What a comfort that no [offer of a] Conway Bank [clerk’s position] or [a girl’s] pretty eyes seduced me from my path of duty and made me leave the army before our final triumph….It is worth something to have had a few words with General Grant and a few more with General Sherman….” Undoubtedly, his position as aide de camp to General Birge brought Wells into contact with top military leaders.
Wells also had the opportunity to see Jefferson Davis,who had been captured near Irwinville, Ga., when he went with General Birge aboard the ship in the Savannah River on which Davis and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens were being held.Wells recorded what he saw,including a manifestation of the rift that existed between Davis and Stephens.
“About three o’clock…I went aboard the Emilie and steamed out to the Standish, the boat on which Davis and his party came from Augusta….My first glimpse of Davis was through the cabin window. He was engaged in the very natural occupation of buttoning his suspenders and pants.Allow me to testify that he did it very much the same as common men do the same thing.Vice President Stephens…expressed himself as sorry that he was to be taken north in the company with Davis as he (Stephens) had no desire to flee from the power of the Federal Government and did not wish to be confounded in the mind of the people with Davis and the other renegades.As they were going on the gangway from one boat to the other,I heard Davis say to his wife ‘Now,my dear,we have to walk the plank.’…I have seen a good many distinguished men and talked to them since I have been in the army,but it was a special treat to fix my eyes on Jeff Davis for a half hour and try to imagine how he would look when he is being hung.” Davis, however, was imprisoned for two years and then released.
Postwar duty in Georgia left Wells with much time to think back on the past several years.He wrote:“Alone in my room tonight—as I spend many of my evenings. I read some, write a little, smoke and look into the open fire more.An open fire is great company, as is my old pipe.I remember when I stood smoking it on the quarterdeck of the City of New York and saw the glistening spires of the thickly studded masts fade away in the distance.I remember too,very well,my first bivouac and the soldier who sat beside me and how I envied him as he filled his pipe and said,‘I smoked that at Bull Run.’—and again it is clear when I knocked the ashes out and put the old pipe in my pocket as the order to advance told that the battle of ‘Irish Bend’ had begun….Goodness, I did not really know I had written so much about my pipe and myself—the pipe deserves it, I don’t.”
On April 25, 1866,Wells and his regiment mustered out of the Army at Fort Pulaski,Ga.Wells returned to the banking business and eventually rose to the position of bank president at Brewster, N.Y. On June 22, 1867, in a retroactive action by the War Department,Wells was “appointed to be Major by brevet in the Volunteer Force,Army of the United States,for gallant and meritorious services at Port Hudson,La.to date from March 13, 1865.”
At a veteran’s reunion speech in 1879 he stated:“I found it hard work while at Hartford to convince some of the old men of our company that I possessed a reasonable amount of fear while in battle. I think some of them thought I had no fear….Now, the truth of the matter is no one had a greater desire to live or a more full appreciation of the effect of a bullet than I did, but I never could see the necessity of getting excited or keeping my tongue still just because a generous shower of bullets were whistling around our ears. I had the thing solved down to a mathematical accuracy before the fight begun and never forgot it.To begin with,I thought, in quite a hot engagement, only about one man in four is usually hit at all. Of those hit, not more than one in seven is ever killed.”
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.