Abner Read was born in Urbana, Ohio to Ezra Read and Nancy Read (née Clark). Abner's brother Daniel Read served as the President of the University of Missouri. His other brother, Nathaniel Read, would later serve as an Ohio Supreme Court Justice. A third brother, Ezra Read, would go on to become a well respected doctor in Terre Haute, Indiana and the father-in-law of Ambassador Bayless W. Hanna. Abner Read studied at Ohio University, but left that institution a year before graduating to accept a warrant as a midshipman, effective 2 March 1839. Assigned to Enterprise, he departed New York City in that schooner on 16 March 1840 and proceeded to South American waters where he served first in Enterprise and then in Delaware until the latter sailed for home early in 1844.
Following a year of study at the naval school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Read was promoted to passed midshipman on 2 July 1845. Dolphin then took him to the Atlantic coast of Africa where she operated against slavers through the summer of 1847.
Next ordered to Fredonia, the promising young officer departed New York in that storeship on 9 January 1848 and proceeded to Veracruz where she arrived a week after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. His vessel promptly began issuing supplies to the warships of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's squadron and continued such duty until heading home in June.
Fredonia again left New York on 11 December 1848, bound for California. Gold recently had been discovered there, greatly increasing the importance of and the interest in that newly acquired territory. The ship proceeded south along the Atlantic coast of the Americas, rounded Cape Horn, reached San Francisco Bay on 31 July 1849, and operated on the west coast during the most tempestuous year of the gold rush. She got underway homeward on 4 July 1850, and reached New York on 7 January 1851.
Leave and a tour of duty in Union, the receiving ship at Philadelphia, ensued before Read reported to the side-wheel steamer Saranac in the autumn of 1853. She took him to the Mediterranean, but he left that ship while she was still in European waters and returned to the United States for duty at the Portsmouth Navy Yard.
Meanwhile, Read had been rising in rank. He received his commission as master effective 12 April 1853 and was promoted to lieutenant on 6 February 1854.
Read joined the wardroom of the sloop-of-war Falmouth in the fall of 1854, departed Norfolk, Virginia, in her on 16 December 1854, and cruised through the West Indies unsuccessfully seeking information concerning Albany. That sloop-of-war had departed Aspinwall, Colombia, (now Colón, Panama), on 29 September 1854 and had not been heard from since sailing.
Soon after Falmouth returned to New York in August, Read was shocked to be "dropped from the Navy" on 13 September 1855 in compliance with the recommendation of a board of officers charged with carrying "...into execution an act [of Congress] to promote the efficiency of the Navy." He appealed this decision and was reinstated in rank by a board of inquiry in 1858.
His first ship following his return to duty was Supply which departed New York in the autumn of 1858 and took him back to South American waters as a part of Commodore Shubrick's expedition to demand an apology and retribution for the death of Water Witch's helmsman. That sailor had been killed by fire from Paraguayan batteries upon his side-wheel steamer as she explored the Paraná River and its tributaries.
Following the resolution of the dispute between the United States and Paraguay through diplomacy backed by a highly visible display of American seapower, Supply operated off the coast of Africa, along the Atlantic coast of the United States, and in the Gulf of Mexico.
Supply arrived at Pensacola, Florida, on 7 December 1860, just a month and a day after Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, precipitating the secession crisis. Just over a week later, Wyandotte entered the navy yard at that port to have her hull scraped. That screw steamer was short of officers due to the resignation of Southerners, so Read was detached from Supply and assigned to the new arrival. In her he helped to prevent Fort Pickens from falling into Confederate hands. However, while doing so, he became ill and was sent home to recuperate.
Ready for duty again, Read took command of the newly acquired New London when she was commissioned at New York on 29 October 1861. Assigned to the Gulf Squadron, his screw steamer was stationed in Mississippi Sound where she joined screw gunboat R. R. Cuyler in taking the lumber-laden schooner Olive shortly before midnight on 21 November 1861.
In ensuing months, New London took over 30 prizes. Her success was so remarkable that Flag Officer David Farragut felt that he must hold New London in his new command even though she had been assigned to the eastern group when the Navy divided its force in the gulf into two squadrons. "...Lieutenant Read's having made her such a terror to the Confederates in this quarter", he explained, "...that justice to the service required me to keep her...." She was, he maintained, "...absolutely necessary to command the inland passage...."
Read and his ship were ever ready to face up to any challenge which confronted them. When he found "...two rebel steamers ... at Pass Christian..." on 25 March 1862, New London headed straight for CSS Pamlico and CSS Oregon and drove them off to the protection of Southern shore batteries after a two-hour engagement.
Read was promoted to lieutenant commander on 16 July 1862, and on 18 April 1863, he led a boat expedition which landed near the lighthouse at Sabine Pass. It was attacked by a large force of Confederate troops who had been hiding behind the light keeper's house. All but one member of Read's crew were wounded as they raced back to their boat and rowed to New London. Read himself suffered a serious gunshot wound of the eye. Yet, despite his painful injury, he remained on duty until New London returned to New Orleans, Louisiana, late in May for repairs.
While work on New London was still in progress Read was detached from her on 22 June and ordered to relieve Captain Melancton Smith in command of Monongahela. Six days later his new ship headed up the Mississippi River to defend Donaldsonville, Louisiana, which was then being threatened by Southern troops. As its beleaguered riparian fortresses at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson were about to slip from its grasp, the Confederacy was struggling desperately to maintain some hold on the river.
New London spent the ensuing days patrolling the Mississippi between Donaldsonville and New Orleans. On the morning of 7 July 1863, Southern forces opened fire on the ship with artillery and musketry when she was about ten miles below Donaldsonville. A shell smashed through the bulwarks on her port quarter wounding Read in his abdomen and his right knee. He was taken to a hospital at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he died on the evening of the next day.
Farragut and the other officers of the squadron were lavish in praise of their fallen comrade. The admiral said that Read had "...perhaps done as much fighting as any man in this war.... The very mention of his name", Farragut maintained, "was a source of terror to the rebels." On another occasion, the Admiral said, "I know nothing of him prejudicial as a man, but I do know that no Navy can boast a better officer and I deem him a great loss both to the Navy and to his country."
The destroyers USS Abner Read (DD-526) and USS Abner Read (DD-769) were named for him.