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A champion of internal improvements in North Carolina, William Ashe was born on September 14, 1814. His parents were Samuel and Elizabeth Shepperd Ashe of Rocky Point, a small plantation community on the lower Cape Fear River in Pender County. He attended Washington College in Hartford, Connecticut, and studied law under North Carolina Judge John de Rossett Toomen. He married Sarah Ann Green in January 1836 and, a few days later, was admitted to the state bar. Soon after, he was elected county solicitor. He soon after left the duties to farm on his rice plantation.
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Despite abandoning the law profession, Ashe remained involved in politics for the rest of his life as a member of the Democratic Party. New Hanover County elected him to its state senate seat in 1846. During this term, he worked to secure appropriations for railroads, particularly for ones that would connect the western part of the state with North Carolina’s port in Wilmington rather than ports of Virginia and South Carolina. The route for which he advocated, Charlotte to Goldsboro to Wilmington, became the North Carolina Railroad. In 1848 Ashe was re-elected to the state senate and subsequently won election to a seat in the U.S. Congress, where he continued to focus on internal improvements. He became president of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad in 1854. In that position he inaugurated the first interline freight service to Wilmington and arranged for steamships to carry North Carolina products to New York ports where they could be sold in world markets. An outspoken supporter of secession, in 1861 he was asked by President Jefferson Davis to take control of the Confederate government’s transportation between New Orleans and Richmond. In 1862, Davis commissioned him as a colonel in the field with the authority to raise his own infantry, artillery, and cavalry.
Shortly after receiving the assignment, Ashe heard that one of his sons had been captured. He commandeered a hand car to make a trip home in hopes of finding out more information. As he traveled home, an unlighted train struck him during the night. He passed away three days later on his birthday on September 14, 1862. Ironically, the very thing that Ashe had worked so hard to bring to life took his own. He was buried in the family cemetery at "The Neck" near Rocky Point.
William S. Powell ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 56-57—sketch by James M. Clifton
Samuel A. Ashe, Stephen B. Weeks, and Charles L. Van Noppen, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial times to the Present (1905)—sketch by Samuel A. Ashe