This letter was written by 19 year-old Aaron Biddle Watts (1845-1930) of Philadelphia from the U.S.S. Malvern — a former Confederate blockade runner named Ella & Anna that was captured in November 1863, renamed, and later became the flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The Malvern was Admiral D. D. Porter’s flagship at the capture of Fort Fisher in January 1865. She also transported President Lincoln up the James River to Richmond after the evacuation of the city in April 1865.
Aaron enlisted in the navy at Philadelphia in September 1863. It seems that Aaron remained in the service after the Civil War. In April 1873, he visited a Naval Hospital in Philadelphia seeking treatment for syphilis. At that time he was a sergeant in the marines. In 1881, while serving aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, he sought medical treatment in a hospital at Newport, Rhode Island for conjunctivitis — probably suffering with cataracts. At that time Aaron claimed that he had been in the service 19 years and that since his last enlistment he had traveled chiefly to Key West, Pensacola, Aspinwall (where his eyes were exposed to the glare of white water and sand). He claimed also to have had many bouts of malarial fever while at League Island.
Aaron’s parents were James R. Watts (1800-1874) — an unskilled laborer — and Rebecca ____ (1808-Aft1865) of Philadelphia. In the 1850 Census, Aaron (age 4) and his parents are enumerated in Spring Garden Ward 6 of Philadelphia. His siblings included: Jacob Watts (b. 1836), Martha A. Watt (b. 1838), William Watt (b. 1841), and James Watt (b. 1843).
We learn from the letter that Aaron did not hold a very high opinion of his father who apparently divorced his mother after 1860 and married another woman named Catharine 17 years his junior. In the 1870 Census, James, Catharine, and a daughter named Mary (born in 1860) are enumerated in Newton Township, Camden County, New Jersey and predictably, next to James’ name appears the words, “no occupation.”
In 1885, Aaron married Elizabeth (“Bettie”) Anna Taylor (1852-1905) in Washington D. C. while employed as a laborer at the Naval Yard. In 1897, he was employed at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington D. C.
Aaron wrote the letter to his sister, Martha A. [Watts] Nuneviller (1837-1897) who resided at 2132 Sharswood Street in Philadelphia’s 47th Ward with her husband David Mann Nuneviller (1828-1912). David was employed as a carpenter. It appears that Aaron’s mother resided with the Nuneviller family at the time also.
In the letter Aaron tells us he has seen his brother, Jacob B. Watts, a sailor on the U.S.S. Vanderbilt in Norfolk. A search of service records tells us that Jacob enlisted at the age of 22 in the U.S. Navy at Philadelphia in 1859, giving his prior occupation as “printer.” After the Civil war, in 1869, he served on board the U.S. Steamer Juanita. A quick search also suggests that brothers James and William were also in the Navy.
Addressed to Mrs. Rebecca Watts, in care of Mrs. Martha Nuneviler [Nuneviller], Sherwood [Sharswood] St. above 21st, Philadelphia
U. S. Flag Ship Malvern
Off Hampton Roads, Va.
June 4th 1865
My Dear Sister,
I received your most welcome letter today of the 30th and I am very glad to hear that you are all well. Yours found me in the enjoyment of the same good blessing. The letter of the 30th is the first one that I have received from you since we left Washington and that is 4 weeks tomorrow. I did think that you all must be dead or had the notion of not writing.
Dear sister, we have been up to Norfolk Navy Yard a getting one of our boilers repaired and while there, the steamer Vanderbilt came in that port. She had in tow the ram Columbia. Jacob is on the Vanderbilt. I went on board of her to see him. It was the first time that I saw him for over two years. He looks very poorly. He has been sick. He said that he wrote to you lately and had not heard from you. His vessel has went back to New York again. She took the Monitor in tow with her. ¹
Martha, I think that we are a going to have a great time on board of this ship. The Secretary of the Navy [Gideon Wells] and Secretary of War [Edwin M. Stanton] and several other gentlemen and ladies is coming on board. We are a going to visit all of the Southern Ports that we captured.
Dear Sister, you spoke in your letter about me and Emma Middleton being sea-crossed together. I have not received a letter from her for over a month and have not wrote one to her. Martha when you write, let me know what part of Camden that father lives and whether he is working yet or not. I guess his wife thinks that she did not make much in marrying him.
I will now bring this letter to a close hoping to hear from you soon again. Give my love to David and the rest of your family [and] a kiss to the baby.
From your most affectionate and loving brother, — Aaren B. Watts
Please to write soon and address as before.
¹ A history of the Vanderbilt states that she towed the uncompleted Confederate ram Columbia from Charleston, South Carolina, to Norfolk in May, and then towed the river monitor Onondaga from Norfolk to New York in June.