A Survivor’s Tale
James Ashworth was born in 1836 in the town of Bury in Lancashire, a rural county in northwest England along the Atlantic coast / Irish Sea. He emigrated with his parents to the U.S., and the family settled near Holmesburg, northeast of Philadelphia. He moved to Frankford, graduated from Philadelphia High School, and entered the transoceanic shipping business, working for a firm that operated cargo packets to Liverpool, England.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Ashworth accompanied General Robert Patterson’s force down to Maryland as a civilian volunteer. He took up a musket and fought a Rebel raiding party that was attempting to wreck the C+O Canal near Williamsport but was arrested by the citizens the next day as a rebel spy and put on trial.
Ashworth’s life was spared when some of the Pennsylvania soldiers happened into town, learned of the spy charges, entered the courtroom, and testified to his loyal patriotism and volunteer service in the skirmish at Dam #5. He was acquitted and released, and then returned to Philadelphia.
In August 1862, he raised a group of volunteers that became Company I of the new 121st Pennsylvania Infantry. They joined the Army of the Potomac shortly after the Battle of Antietam. Ashworth and his comrades saw their first action at Fredericksburg in December. After the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, he became quite sick and had to return home to recuperate.
His health improved to the point where he could rejoin his regiment on its march toward Pennsylvania in June 1863. In the fighting west of Gettysburg along McPherson’s Ridge, we was wounded not once or twice, but ELEVEN times! He struggled for life behind enemy lines and was finally stabilized by Confederate doctors.
When the Rebels departed on July 5, Ashworth was left behind in a temporary field hospital in Gettysburg. After he was stable enough to be moved, Ashworth and several other patients were loaded into railroad cars and taken to Hanover Junction, where doctors examined the wounded soldiers. He was well enough to continue the journey and was placed on a northbound train to York, where he spent months recuperating in the U.S. Army Military Hospital. He was one of the few men at Gettysburg who survived so many life-threatening wounds.
Ashworth never fought in a battle again, but his survival tale was not yet over. He returned home to rest and recover and was commissioned as a colonel before being reassigned to the Veteran Reserve Corps as a captain. Ordered to a post in New Orleans, he embarked on a steamship, which wrecked off the coast of Florida. He and other survivors were rescued by a U.S. Navy gunboat and finally taken to Louisiana. After serving at various posts until the end of the war, Captain Ashworth was ordered back to York, where he was in charge of discharging convalescent patients. When the hospital closed, he was assigned a similar position in Baltimore.
Ashworth later worked for the Freedman’s Bureau in Louisa, Virginia, before resigning from the army and returning to the shipping company he worked for before the war. President Grant rewarded his loyal service with a position as a Federal tax assessor. His health failing due to the lingering effects of his war injuries, Ashworth resigned in February 1882. He moved to Florida, hoping the warm weather would help him, but he died in Gainesville less than a month later.
English-born James Ashworth survived a potential death sentence for spying, a severe illness, eleven wounds at Gettysburg, and a shipwreck off the coast of Florida, the same state where ironically he would finally expire years later from those war wounds. His fascinating story is just one of nearly 14,000 men who were treated at the U.S. Army Hospital in York.