Turner Ashby

        Born October 23, 1828, at Rose Bank, near Markham in upper Faquier County, Virginia, Ashby demonstrated his horsemanship talents at an early age by winning top prizes at jousting tournaments. While in his mid-twenties, Ashby organized his friends into a cavalry company known as the Mountain Rangers to protect his neighborhood from ruffians accompanying the construction crews of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in mid-October 1859, Ashby’s company mustered into the Virginia militia to perform guard and picket duty at Charles Town during the Brown trial and execution.

        When the War erupted sixteen months after Brown’s execution, Ashby figured prominently in the plot to capture the Harpers Ferry arms factory and weapons’ warehouses. Certain of Virginia’s secession vote, Ashby and his brother Richard, along with former governor Henry A. Wise and other conspirators, persuaded Governor John Letcher to order Virginia militia to Harpers Ferry. When the Old Dominion seceded on April 17, Ashby immediately led forces in that direction. Unfortunately for the Virginians, as they awaited reinforcements on Bolivar Heights two miles west of Harpers Ferry, vigilant U.S. regulars torched the arsenal at 10:00 P.M. on April 18, destroying fifteen thousand small arms. Ashby led his cavalry into town too late to save the arsenal, but his men did help extinguish fires in the armory buildings.

Turner Ashby's Family Coat of Arms        While serving at Harpers Ferry during the spring of 1861, Ashby came under command of Colonel Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson assigned Ashby to guard Potomac River fords and bridges from Harpers Ferry to Point of Rocks, Maryland. While in this capacity, Ashby’s command assisted Maryland men across the river to join the Confederacy and interrupted Baltimore and Ohio Railroad traffic and the passage of boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In addition, Ashby convinced Jackson and Jackson’s successor at Harpers Ferry, Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, that he should be lieutenant colonel of the newly organized 7th Virginia Cavalry. On July 23, 1861, Ashby received his official appointment as second in command of the Seventh Cavalry, but he soon exercised control over half the regiment, conducting independent operations away from the regiment’s ailing commander, Col. Angus W. McDonald. When McDonald retired in February 1862, Ashby became the 7th Cavalry’s colonel on March 12.

        During the summer and early fall of 1861, Ashby’s mission was to protect the border counties of the lower Shenandoah Valley and to systematically destroy the B & O Railroad between Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, the Confederate War Department had authorized Ashby to raise additional cavalry companies and to organize the first Confederate horse artillery (Chew’s Battery). By March 1862, Ashby’s Seventh Cavalry had ballooned into 27 companies – nearly three times the size of a typical regiment. Such a large force proved impossible to organize and administer, and Ashby’s ignorance of drill and discipline further reduced his cavalry’s efficiency.

        To correct this unpalatable situation, Jackson, in late April, stripped Ashby of his cavalry and ordered it to report to two infantry brigadiers. Ashby submitted his resignation and threatened to organize an independent command. Jackson quickly backed down, explaining in a letter to Gen. Robert E. Lee, “if I persisted in my attempt to increase the efficiency of the cavalry it would produce the contrary effect as Colonel Ashby’s influence, [which] is very popular with his men, would be thrown against me.” Jackson continued to object, however, to Ashby’s promotion to brigadier general, once stating, “he has such bad discipline and attaches so little importance to drill, that I would regard it as a calamity to see him promoted.” Despite Jackson’s reservations, Ashby became a brigadier on May 23, 1862.

Turner Ashby - The Black Knight of The Confederacy        Although Ashby failed Jackson’s discipline tests, the cavalry commander’s incessant scouting and screening missions accounted for much of Stonewall’s stealth and success during the cross-country movements of the Shenandoah Valley campaign. Yet on two occasions Ashby blundered. The first occurred at Kernstown, when Ashby misinformed Jackson, reporting that a retreating Union column consisted of only four companies of infantry. Jackson subsequently attacked on March 23, and when he encountered James Shields’ entire division of nine thousand men, Stonewall was forced to retreat in his only defeat of the War. Ashby’s second failure occurred following the defeat of Nathaniel P. Banks at Winchester on May, 25. As the routed Federals fled north toward the Potomac, Ashby failed to cut off the Union retreat, primarily because his companies were scattered and many of his troopers were plundering captured wagons. As a disappointed Jackson noted in his official report, “had the cavalry played its part in this pursuit… but a small portion of Banks’s army would have made its escape to the Potomac.”

        General Ashby’s final role in the Valley campaign occurred as Jackson’s army retreated south and east from Harrisonburg toward Port Republic. As the Confederates’ rear guard, Ashby had frustrated and delayed Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s advance in the main valley. On June 6, 1862, however, two miles south of Harrisonburg, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, led by Sir Percy Windham, rashly attacked Ashby’s position on Chestnut Bridge. Ashby annihilated Wyndham’s cavalry, but the affair soon produced an infantry engagement. While Ashby was leading the Confederate infantry into action, a bullet from a Pennsylvania Bucktail pierced his heart, killing him instantly. Jackson wrote to General Imboden: "Poor Ashby is dead. He fell gloriously. I know you will join with me in mourning the loss of our friend, one of the noblest men and soldiers in the Confederate army."

Turner Ashby's Resting Place        Though Ashby had lacked skills in military organization and ignored drill and discipline, his scouting abilities, equestrian skills, and reckless daring earned him the sobriquet “White Knight of the Valley” (in some sources – “Black Knight”), as well as much praise and respect. Stonewall Jackson’s report of the Harrisonburg engagement provided an appropriate eulogy for him: “As a partisan officer I never knew his superior; his daring was proverbial; his powers of endurance almost incredible; his tone of character heroic, and his sagacity almost intuitive in divining the purposes and movements of the enemy.” Ashby, originally buried at the University of Virginia cemetery, was reinterred at the Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester on October 1866.

 Turner Ashby - by Thomas A. Ashby

Turner Ashby in Southern Poetry

Report of Col. Turner Ashby, Seventh Virginia Cavalry, of the Battle of Kernstown, Va., March 23, 1862

Recommended Reading on Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson & the Shenandoah Valley Campaign!

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"He will quit a meal at any time for a chance at a Yankee... perhaps killed more of them with his own hand than any man in the State" - a Confederate cavalryman on Turner Ashby

"We learned to look for Ashby's shells as regularly as for our breakfasts" - a Federal officer on Ashby.

On May 24, 1862, at Middletown, Va., Confederate cavalry Gen. Turner Ashby's men fell upon the Union supply trains of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks. The wagons contained whiskey and other liquor, and some of Ashby's men went on a bacchanalian cavort. An officer attempted to "persuade them to abandon this disgraceful employment and return to their duty." Gen. Stonewall Jackson accused the troopers of "abandon[ing] themselves to pillage." A year later, Jackson, a teetotaler, still blamed Ashby for letting the bulk of the Union force escape while his cavalry wallowed in whiskey and frolic. Jackson noted in his official report: "Had the cavalry played its part in this pursuit ... but a small portion of Banks's army would have made its escape to the Potomac."

         

 

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