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