Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Civil War Chronicle: Joseph Ashbrook

This is a slightly expanded version of my article that appeared in the April issue of the Powelton Post.

            In December, 1860, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Southern Literary Society held a debate on the question “Has any State a right to secede?”  Twenty year-old Joseph Ashbrook was assigned to the team to argue the negative.  Twenty months later, he enlisted in the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry to fight to save the Union.
            Ashbrook was born in Philadelphia.  His father was a successful grocer with a corner storefront at S. 2nd and Queen Sts.  The family lived above the store.  (His brother Edward later lived at 3612 Hamilton St. 3603 Baring St. and his brother Lewis at 740 N. 40th)  At age 15, Joseph became a clerk in a stock brokerage firm.  He was 22 when he enlisted in the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
             The 118th, known as the “Corn Exchange Regiment,” was formed in August, 1862.  It was a volunteer Philadelphia regiment financed by the Corn Exchange.  It was first put into service in the Battle of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  At that battle, the Union forces pushed the Confederates back across the Potomac.  When they attempted to pursue across the river, the Confederates counterattacked and nearly annihilated the 118th with 282 casualties out of 800 men.  The History of the Corn Exchange Regiment , the 118th PennsylvaniaVolunteers states that: “A few minutes before the retreat [Ashbrook] was shot in the stomach…. he sought a place to lie down. In doing this he fell half-way down the bluff…. Sergeant Ashbrook, although disabled…, reached the river…. With difficulty he gained the slimy, half-submerged dam… was again shot, the ball passing through his left thigh. His wounds were so serious that for some time his recovery was doubtful. After an absence of five months he returned to the regiment…. He had not entirely recovered, but was induced to return by the offer of a second lieutenancy in recognition of his gallantry at Shepherdstown.”
            After his return, the 118th fought at Chancellorsville, again suffering high casualties.  They were involved in the Battle at Gettysburg, but didn’t suffer huge losses.  In 1864, Ashbrook was brevetted major for his heroism in the Battle of the Wilderness.  The 118th was later involved in numerous campaigns including the final pursuit to Appomattox.  By then, Ashbrook had become the Ordnance Officer for the 1st Division, Fifth Army Corps.  In that position, he was in charge of receiving and disposing of the arms surrendered by Lee’s army.
            The History of the Corn Exchange Regiment singles Ashbrook out and states that “Major Ashbrook was of that class which fitted him to be ranked among the strong men of the times; of culture, with attainments, of fine soldierly bearing, his presence commanded respect and his courage admiration.”
            After the War, Ashbrook married Catherine Sinclair and became First General Agent for the Provident Life & Trust Co.  In 1875, the Ashbrook family moved into a new home at 3614 Baring St.  He continued to rise within Provident until he became Vice President and Insurance Manager in 1906.  He was largely responsible for the large growth in Provident’s life insurance business and for its reputation for integrity and the professionalism of its agents.  Joseph died in 1918.  His wife, Catherine, sold the house in 1925.  Their sons both went to the University of Pennsylvania. William, joined Provident as Agency Secretary.  Donald earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Penn.
            In the 1860s, the population of Powelton was very small and few men enlisted from Powelton.  (I have identified some interesting cases and will devote future articles to them.)  However, the 1890 census recorded more than 100 Poweltonians who had served during the War.


  1. Elizabeth Ashbrook BowesJune 18, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    I was pleased to discover this very interesting article about my great-grandfather Joseph Ashbrook and would like to share it with my sisters.

  2. I have a great deal more information about him that I would be happy to send to you. e-mail me at with your e-mail.

  3. I too found this article interesting. I am a great granddaughter of Joseph Ashbrook, named for his wife.

    Catherine Sinclair Ashbrook Winer

  4. I have recently purchased a volume inscribed thus: "From Thos. Sinclair December 1872 Joseph Ashbrook Philada." The book is titled NOTES, EXPLANATORY AND PRACTICAL, ON THE SECOND EPISTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS AND THE EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS by Albert Barnes, (Revised Edition, published 1872)... a real Treasure....