Monday, April 27, 2009

No new posts until 2 May

Due to an extraordinarily hectic week, there will no new posts here until this weekend. I should finally be back to a normal posting pattern next week. Thank you for your patience.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fiddler’s Green: Joseph P. Ash

Joseph Penrose Ash was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1839. He was the only son of Caleb L. Ash and Bella Maria Ashmead. Joseph was educated in Philadelphia, and joined the First City Troop of Philadelphia when he was 17. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he “held a responsible business position” in Philadelphia.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, he traveled to Washington, D.C. and joined Cassius M. Clay’s battalion of D.C. volunteers as a first lieutenant on April 18, 1861. Shortly thereafter, he volunteered to make a reconnaissance inside the enemy’s lines across the Potomac, which he accomplished successfully. Partly because of this daring enterprise, President Lincoln appointed him a second lieutenant in the 2nd (later 5th ) U.S. Cavalry on April 30, 1861.

Lieutenant Ash was assigned to Company H, and served with his regiment at Camp Cliffburn near Washington, D.C. through the winter of 1861. Joseph was promoted to first lieutenant on January 15, 1862 and assigned to Company E. He served with the regiment throughout the Peninsula campaign, and was one of the very few officers fortunate enough to come through the famous charge during the battle of Gaines Mill unscathed.

Following the battle of Antietam, he led a squadron of 150 men as part of a larger reconnaissance from Antietam toward Smithfield on October 15, 1862. His squadron led the advance on the way to Smithfield, and the rear guard as the force withdrew under pressure toward Sharpsburg. According to the report of the mission’s commander, Major Curtis of the 1st Massachusetts, “The immediate rear guard was taken from the Fifth Regular cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Ash, and behaved with great steadiness though closely pressed by the enemy’s cavalry in large numbers and annoyed by a concealed musketry fire.” (OR, Series I, Volume 51, part 1, pg 170)

Three weeks later he was commended for his actions while leading his squadron in a saber charge near Little Washington. He was brevetted major in the regular army on November 8, 1862 for conspicuous gallantry at Warrenton, Virginia. Lieutenant Ash was seriously wounded during the encounter, receiving at least three saber cuts and a gunshot wound. General Pleasonton’s report on the engagement noted, “Lieutenant Ash showed great daring, but the results of his charge did not compensate for his loss.” (OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part II, pg 120) Recovery from these wounds kept him away from the regiment and active service until the fall of 1863.

He was appointed a mustering officer on June 3, 1863, and assigned to Trenton, New Jersey. Later that month, he mustered out the 22nd NJ Infantry. He mustered in the 2nd NJ Cavalry and the 33rd NJ Infantry at Camp Parker near Trenton during August and September 1863. Lieutenant Ash was promoted to captain in the 5th US Cavalry on September 25, 1863 and assigned command of Company A.

Captain Ash rejoined the regiment in October, and lost no time getting back into the action. He was slightly wounded in the action at Morton's Ford that same month, and also fought at Bristoe Station. The night before the battle of Bristoe Station, he voluntarily conducted a personal reconnaissance behind the Confederate lines to determine their strength and dispositions. He verified the enemy's main force had retired, leaving only a screen of a cavalry brigade supported by artillery. The information he gathered was forwarded to General Meade, who decided to advance. He spent the winter in camp with the regiment near Mitchell's Station until February 1864.

Captain Ash was a very effective squadron commander, commanding Companies A and E. General Merritt made the following observation in his report of a reconnaissance to Barnett’s Ford the Rapidan river on February 9, 1864. “Captain Ash, of the Fifth Calvary, made a spirited charge with his squadron driving more than his number of the enemy’s infantry out of a peculiarly strong place.” (OR, Series I, Volume 33, pg 140) he was again slightly wounded in this engagement.

A story attributed to General Merritt about Captain Ash in this engagement is quoted in Makers of Philadelphia, page 287. “Captain Ash, in a bold effort to discover the force of the enemy behind their lines on the Rapidan, dashed at full speed along the front of their entrenchments unharmed through a shower of bullets, until the enemy, in admiration of his intrepid courage, ceased firing, and mounted to the top of their breastworks, where they filled the air with their cheers. Captain Ash reined up his horse, raised his hat with a graceful salute to the cheering Confederates, and rode leisurely back to his own lines amid the plaudits of friends and foes.” While possible, the tale seems unlikely, and General Merritt’s reports were characteristically both verbose and profuse in their enthusiasm.

Later the same month, Captain Ash led his squadron of the 5th US Cavalry during General Custer’s diversionary raid toward Charlottesville, where his daring earned the young general’s notice. Custer’s force encountered several batteries of Stuart’s horse artillery, which he incorrectly identified as several regiments of cavalry with artillery support. Sent forward with his sixty men to discover the enemy’s strength and position, he turned the enemy’s right flank and charged. According to Custer’s report, “Captain Ash drove the enemy back very gallantly, and succeeded in capturing 6 caissons filled with ammunition, 2 forges and harness complete, besides destroying the camp of the enemy.” (OR, Series I, Volume 33, pg 162) The two were acquainted, as they had briefly served together as lieutenants during the summer and fall of 1861.

Captain Joseph Ash was killed on May 8, 1864, while trying to rally a regiment of infantry near Todd’s Tavern during the opening phases of the battle of Spottsylvania Court House. According to his division commander’s report, “On the arrival of the infantry, a part of a regiment of Robinson’s division, through apprehension or excitement, fired into the woods to the great danger of the line of battle of the cavalry engaged some distance in front. Captain Ash, together with some of my staff, stopped the firing, and in leading the infantry into position on our skirmish line, was mortally wounded. He died nobly in the discharge of a most important duty; a heroic, patriotic, intrepid cavalry officer, a noble martyr in his country’s service.” (OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part 1, pg 812)

Captain Ash was brevetted lieutenant colonel effective May 8, 1864 for conspicuous gallantry at the battle of Spottsylvania. His body was reportedly buried between two apple trees near the spot where he fell, and his body remained there until the end of the war. He was re interred at St. James-the-Less churchyard, Philadelphia on May 15, 1865, in the burial plot of his uncle, Lehman P. Ashmead.

In his history of the regiment, George Price wrote of Ash, "He was one of the most gallant officers in the regiment, and was conspicuous for dash and intelligence. His brilliant conduct in the presence of the enemy was inspiring, and the regiment suffered a severe loss when he fell in battle."

Captain Joseph P. Ash, a gallant and fearless cavalryman.


Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pg 274

Heitman, pg 173

Henry, Volume 1, pgs 135-136

Morris, Charles, ed., Makers of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: L.R. Hamersly, Co., 1894

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volumes 19, 33, 36, 51, pages as noted.

Powell, List of Officers of the United States Army from 1779 to 1900. New York: L.R. Hamersly & Co., 1900. Pg 167

Price, George. Across the Continent With the Fifth Cavalry. New York: Antiquarian Pres Ltd, 1959.

Wert, Jeffry D. Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Pg 141

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Different Perspective

I would be less than objective in reporting on the Regulars if I didn't include the bad information along with the good. Everyone, of course, didn't admire the Regulars or hold a high opinion of them.

Following the Gettysburg campaign, in October 1863, the 1st New York Dragoons was added to the Reserve Brigade. In their regimental history, published in 1900, I found some less than approbatory commentary about some of the the regular regiments of the brigade at the battle of Bristoe Station on October 17, 1863.

"The cowardly regulars, instead of supporting us in the charge, fell back as soon as the firing began, leaving the (New York) dragoons to contend all alone with three times their number, while those miserable paltroons went into camp without firing a shot. From what we have seen of the regulars they are a foul-mouthed set of blackguards, and our boys are disgusted at being brigaded with such trash." (Bowen, Regimental History of the First New York Dragoons, pg 102)

Then-bugler Bowen was rather unimpressed, to put it mildly. In order to present this objectively, however, a few other things should be considered. This was the 1st NY Dragoons' first fight, as they had left camp to join the brigade only 4 days before. I don't recall any such commentary from the historians of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and they fought with the regulars for the majority of the war. This was the perception of a bugler, and while undoubtedly what he saw, make not be what actually transpired. I'll go back and check the OR, but I don't recall any censure on the regulars from this fight. During which, incidentally, the brigade commander, Alfred Gibbs, was also the commanding officer of the 1st New York.

As to the identity of the regiments involved, it was likely the 1st and 5th US Cavalry. The history of the 6th US doesn't mention it, and I beleieve they were assigned to Cavalry Corps Headquarters at this time. The fight isn't mentioned in the histories of the 2nd US. I don't have a contemporary history of the 1st US Cavalry, but here's the very little mentioned in Price's Across the Continent With the Fifth U.S. Cavalry: "The regiment then rejoined the army at Centreville, and, under the command of Captain Arnold, participated in the engagement at Bristoe Station (where Captain Ash made a daring individual reconnaissance within the enemy's lines), Kettle Run, and in the Mine Run operations,..." (pg 119)

This might make the first sentence of this post disingenuous, but I think the observation and its context are both important. I'll check the OR and post more if there's relevant information, since I'm sure the brigade commander will have an opinion on how his brigade performed in the action.The reader can make his or her own decision.