Editor’s Note: On April 26,1946, George Ashby died; he was the last surviving New Jersey Civil War veteran. This story, by noted New Jersey historian and author Joseph G. Bilby, is excerpted with the author’s permission from his book “Freedom to All – New Jersey’s African-American Civil War Soldiers” (Longstreet House, ©2001, available at Amazon.com and LongstreetHouse.com).
By Joseph G. Bilby
African American George Ashby was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on January 25, 1844. In 1864, Ashby, then living in Crosswicks, New Jersey, enlisted as a private in the 45th United States Colored Infantry, organized at Camp William Penn outside of Philadelphia between June and August of 1864. He was one of more than 2,900 African American Jerseymen who enlisted in the Union Army. When the regiment arrived in Washington, DC, four of its ten companies were detached for duty in defense of the capital, while the remaining companies, under the command of Colonel Ulysses Doubleday, continued south to City Point, Virginia, where they were assigned to the 10th Army Corps of the Army of the James, then engaged, along with the Army of the Potomac, along the Petersburg/Richmond line.
The 45th regiment fought at New Market Heights, Fort Harrison, and Darbytown Road. In December 1864, the unit was reunited with its four missing companies and transferred to the 25th Army Corps. The 45th took part in the final campaigns of the war in the east, through the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. The regiment was assigned to guard and occupation duty at Petersburg and City Point Virginia until May, when it was ordered, with the 25th Corps, to Texas on a dual mission. The French had invaded Mexico and installed a government in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine and the force was intended to encourage them to leave, as well as to provide an occupying force in the former Confederate state.
Border duty was tough, due to the weather and an initial lack of logistical support. It was very hot. So hot that the overall commander of the expedition, General Phil Sheridan, was quoted as saying: “If I owned Texas and hell, I would rent out Texas and live in hell.” Rations were, when available, limited to salt pork and hardtack. Scurvy ran rampant throughout the 25th Corps until supplies of fresh vegetables arrived in August.
On the plus side, one USCT sergeant major reported that “If our regiment stays here any length of time, we will all speak Spanish, as we are learning very fast.” The 45th was assigned to guard duty along the Mexican border in Brownsville until October, when the regiment returned to Philadelphia and was mustered out of service. During his time in the unit, Private Ashby had risen in rank to corporal and then sergeant and, finally, first sergeant of Company H. The latter rank not only required leadership skills but the ability to read, write and keep records.
Sergeant Ashby was mustered out of the service at Philadelphia with the 45th in November 1865 and returned to his life as a New Jersey small farmer. In 1869 he married Phoebe Cole of Crosswicks and had nine children with her. He moved with his family to Allentown, New Jersey and participated in the town’s 4th of July parade until 1942, when “the sole local survivor of the conflict between the Blues and the Grays” was relieved from that arduous duty and waved a flag from his porch as the parade passed by.
In January 1944, a reporter interviewed the old veteran, who was then celebrating his 100th birthday. Ashby predicted an allied victory in World War II and stated that if he could, he would “enlist all over again.” He took an active interest in the progress of the war and commented on various campaigns. The following year, when he was declared “Allentown’s oldest resident,” he was described as “still in fairly good health.”
When George Ashby died at the age of 102 in Allentown on April 26,1946, he was the last surviving New Jersey Civil War veteran. He had 9 children, 16 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 7 great-great- grandchildren at the time of his death. Ashby received a military funeral complete with color guard and firing squad provided by the Hamilton Township American Legion Post #31 and was buried in the Allentown A. M. E. church cemetery, now the Hamilton Street Cemetery. One of his grandchildren, Harold James Ashby, would go on to become Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey. Sergeant Ashby’s legacy lives on.
About the Author:
Joseph G. Bilby received his BA and MA degrees in history from Seton Hall University and served as lieutenant in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-67. He is assistant curator of the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, a columnist for New Jersey Sportsmen News, a former columnist for the Civil War News for thirty years, and a freelance writer, historian and historical consultant. He is the author, editor or co-author of more than four hundred articles and twenty-two books on New Jersey, the Civil War, and firearms history. Mr. Bilby has received the Jane Clayton Award for contributions to Monmouth County, New Jersey history; an award of merit from the New Jersey Historical Commission for his contributions to the state’s military history; and the New Jersey Meritorious Service Medal from the state’s Division of Military and Veterans Affairs. In 2018, he was awarded the Richard J. Hughes Prize by the New Jersey Historical Commission for his lifelong contributions to New Jersey history.
Bilby, Joseph G. (2001). Freedom to All – New Jersey’s African-American Civil War Soldiers. Longstreet House, Hightstown, N.J., 2001.
Featured image credit: Joseph G. Bilby.