Turner Ashby - by Thomas A. Ashby
Although a boy of but twelve years of age at the time of my trip with my father to Winchester, I vividly recall an incident that occurred on that occasion. Among the officers and soldiers awaiting orders who filled Taylor's Hotel, where we were entertained, my father recognized Colonel Turner Ashby, whom he knew well. I shall never forget the impression I there received of that daring and variously estimated military hero.
Colonel Ashby had just dismounted from a magnificent white horse, - a noble animal, subsequently well known to the people of the Valley by his courageous death, - and was standing on the pavement in front of the hotel, holding the bridle rein. The horse was steaming with perspiration from his long travel that morning, but he stood, champing his bit, with head erect, and eyes full of spirit and fire, while his master, calm and erect, seemed absorbed in thought. My father went up to the Colonel, greeted him cordially and introduced me. He took my hand gently and spoke to me most kindly.
At this time Colonel Ashby had but recently been promoted to the rank of Colonel, which promotion gave him command of all the cavalry companies assembled in the Valley. He was just entering upon a career that soon made him an heroic character in the history of the Civil War. Dressed now in Confederate gray, with gilt lace on his sleeves and collar, wearing high top-boots with spurs and a broad-brimmed black felt hat with a long black feather streaming behind, his appearance was striking and attractive. He stood about five feet eight inches in height and probably weighed from 150 to 160 pounds. He was muscular and wiry, rather thin than robust or rugged. His hair and beard were as black as a raven's wing; his eyes were soft and mahogany brown; a long, sweeping mustache concealed his mouth, and a heavy and long beard completely covered his breast. His complexion was dark in keeping with his other colorings. Altogether, he resembled the pictures I have seen of the early Crusaders, - a type unusual among the many men in the army, a type so distinctive that, once observed, it cannot soon be forgotten.
I remember that during the interview he remarked that he had ridden that morning on horseback between 30 and 40 miles, visiting outposts and camps of different companies under his command. Despite that fact, he showed no evidence of fatigue, nor did the gallant horse that bore him! I afterward learned that it was no uncommon circumstance for him to ride 70 to 80 miles a day, using two mounts. His horses were the best to be had, and they were cared for with a most loving affection by their master. While on that visit to Winchester I heard also for the first time the name of Colonel Jackson, then in charge of the Virginia troops at Harper's Ferry. He was known at that time only as an eccentric professor who knew little of warfare beyond the drilling and disciplining of soldiers. Colonel Jackson was soon promoted to the rank of brigadier-general and given the command of the brigade that subsequently became celebrated as the Stonewall Brigade, - so named because of the title its commander won at the battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861.
Turner Ashby, the third child of Colonel Turner Ashby and Dorothea Green, was born on October 23, 1828, at Rose Bank, a picturesque home across Goose Creek, about one hundred and fifty yards from Markham Station, Fauquier County, Virginia. He was the fourth in line of descent from Captain Thomas Ashby who moved from Tydewater, Virginia, and settled at the foot of Ashby's Gap, Fauquier County, about 1710. Four generations of Turner Ashby's family had served in our country's wars, - the Colonial Wars, the War of the Revolution, and the War of 1812. There was a strong military bias in the Ashby family and this, no doubt, had much to do with the military spirit that was so firmly implanted in Turner Ashby's nature.
While not trained to military service he early developed a love for the soldier's life, and while quite a young man he organized one of the best cavalry companies in the State of Virginia. He was selected as the captain of this company and gave it an efficiency that gained for it a wide distinction before it was called into active service in the Civil War.
The country around Markham is one of great natural beauty, of fertility, and healthfulness. The foothills of the Blue Ridge surround Markham on all sides, dividing the landscape into valleys and elevated plateaus, covered with forests, grazing fields, and rich farm lands.
The old and distinguished Colonial families early moved up to this section and founded a community of rare intelligence, refinement, and good breeding. There were before the war few sections of Virginia which could show such a citizenship of culture and independence as was found around Markham.
It was among these people that Turner Ashby was born and raised. It was in this pure atmosphere of comfort and refinement that he developed those characteristics of courtesy, manliness and courage which were so fully exemplified in his after life.
As a young man he was noted for his gentleness, modesty and love of outdoor sport. He had great love for the horse and the hound. In the wild chase for the fox over field and fence and in his fondness for the tournament he was noted for being one of the most graceful and skillful riders in the South. As he grew to manhood he became famous as the most successful tournament rider in Virginia and when he appeared in the list the spirit of chivalry was never more beautifully illustrated than in the Knight of the Black Prince, which character he usually assumed.
When the John Brown Raid occurred, in the fall Of 1859, Turner Ashby, with his company of cavalry, was among the first volunteer troops to arrive on the scene, and it was on this occasion that he first demonstrated his military daring and skill.
He remained on duty at Charlestown with his company until after the execution of John Brown. It was on this service that he made the acquaintance of Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, whom he followed in the war between the States, and it was here, too, that he laid the foundation for that relationship with Stonewall Jackson that lasted until his death.
The day after Virginia seceded from the Union Turner Ashby marched to Harper's Ferry with his company, which was one of the first volunteer companies to reach that place. He was assigned at once to outpost duty along the Potomac, and took command of the bridge across the river at Point of Rocks. Here he assembled a battery of artillery, - under Captain Imboden, - and a number of infantry and cavalry, with which he successfully guarded the border line of the State until Harper's Ferry was evacuated.
Within less than sixty days he had developed such a keen insight into military affairs that, upon the recommendation of Colonel Angus McDonald, he was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the Seventh Virginia Cavalry, then commanded by McDonald. His entire active military life was associated with this regiment, which contained the flower of the best blood of the northern counties of Virginia and of Maryland.
Soon after his assignment to the Seventh Virginia he was ordered with his regiment to do duty in Hampshire County and along the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Harper's Ferry and Cumberland. Upon his promotion to the lieutenant-colonelcy his brother Richard Ashby was made captain of his old company.
Dick Ashby, as he was affectionately called, was three years younger than Turner. For several years he had lived in the then far West, where he had had numerous adventures with the Indians and with the rough civilization of that unexplored country; but had returned to his old home just before Virginia seceded. Dick was a larger and handsomer man than Turner, full of fire and daring and cheerfulness of spirit, and was also more demonstrative and showy in social life. In June, 1861, he was sent with a small squad of his company to arrest some Union men who were giving trouble as informers. On this expedition he ran into a company of Federal cavalry on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, near Hancock, Maryland. Being largely outnumbered, he was forced to retire along the track of the railroad. He was riding an indifferent horse that fell in attempting to jump a cattle-stop. Dick, being dismounted, took refuge in the stop, where, refusing to surrender, he fought single handed and alone. He was soon desperately wounded and left for dead. Among other wounds he had received a bayonet stab in the abdomen, which caused his death some eight days later near Romney, to which place he had been taken by his brother Turner, who had come to his rescue and had found him lying by the side of the railroad in an exhausted condition.
The death of Dick was a great sorrow to Turner, for the two brothers were devotedly attached to each other. Turner became another man after Dick's death. His life was consecrated to the cause of the South, and he dared and risked all in the service of his country.
Colonel McDonald was advanced in years and in feeble health. He soon resigned the command of the Seventh Virginia Cavalry to Turner Ashby, who became its leading spirit. He was soon placed in charge of all the cavalry under Stonewall Jackson, and until the close of his earthly career was Jackson's right hand.
The popularity of the cavalry service attracted the young riders of the Valley counties to that branch of the service, and before the close of a year there were 26 companies in the Seventh Virginia, under the command of Turner Ashby. The large additions to the regiment made the work of organization and discipline exceedingly difficult and were embarrassing to the efficiency of the service, which kept the cavalry in constant motion and in almost daily contact with the enemy. These companies were often widely separated, so that a compact regimental organization was impossible; in fact, at no time during the campaign of 1862 were all these companies united for a combined attack upon the Federals.
During the fall and early winter months of 1861 Turner Ashby was on the go day and night, covering a wide territory that extended from the Shenandoah at Harper's Ferry along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as far west as Cumberland, Md. He and his detached companies were busy destroying the railroad and the dams of the canal along the Potomac between Cumberland and Point of Rocks.
The activity and physical endurance of Ashby were fireside talks in his camps. His restless and energetic spirit allowed no time for repose and no doubt, contributed in a measure to the want of organization and discipline of the companies coming to his command; for Turner Ashby was not a strict disciplinarian by nature. He was a leader, and he relied on his men to follow him. The necessities of the situation, the surroundings, and the character of the men who made up his command made an efficient organization an almost impossible task; for at that time of the war the cavalry service was poorly equipped with military saddles and the comforts of the camp, was armed with double-barrel shot guns and old pistols and rifles, and many of the men were without sabers or had those of a very indifferent kind. In good horsemanship these men excelled, and this fact added to the dash and fury of the charge, the vigorous assault and worry of the enemy, unprepared for the cavalry methods of warfare, gave them a decided advantage.
Turner Ashby was probably the first officer in the army to use both cavalry and artillery on the advance and in the retreat against infantry. His tactics and strategy were so unorthodox that he confused his opponents and held them in check by their ignorance of his strength and purpose.
In the summer of 1861 Ashby added to his command a battery of horse artillery, commanded by Captain R. P. Chew, a young graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.
This battery was in almost daily service and was most efficient both in attack and in defense. It undertook to fight infantry or cavalry, was on the firing line at one moment, then would suddenly change position to another hill and resume work, with vigor and daring. Ashby and his cavalry operated entirely in the northern counties of Virginia until Jackson evacuated Winchester, March 12, 1862. When Jackson retired south of Strasburg General Shields entered Winchester and pushed forward to Strasburg. Shields had in his command 11,000 men and 27 guns, while Jackson had not more than 4,500, including infantry, cavalry, and artillery.
At this time Banks had under his command, including Shields' division, some 40,000 men operating in the counties of Berkley, Jefferson, Clarke, and Frederick. The division under Sedgwick had been sent to join McClellan in front of Richmond, and the division under Williams had begun its march toward Manassas, March 20, 1862.
It was necessary for Jackson to make an advance on Shields, who had now withdrawn from Strasburg to Winchester. The object of this movement was to force the recall of the Federal troops to the Valley and prevent their union with McClellan. The strategy of Jackson worked well; for as soon as he had advanced as far north as Kernstown the division under Williams returned to the Valley to protect Shields and to make impossible an invasion of Maryland by way of the Valley.
On March 22, 1862, Ashby, with 280 cavalry and 3 horse artillery guns, struck the pickets of Shields one mile south of Winchester. A skirmish took place, in which Shields was wounded with a shell. Jackson hurried his command from Woodstock, and on the 23d arrived at Kernstown, five miles south of Winchester. A general engagement was brought on and the battle of Kernstown was bitterly fought. Jackson, whose force was largely outnumbered by that of Shields, was compelled to withdraw in the late afternoon.
In the battle of Kernstown Turner Ashby, - with less than half of his command together with Chew's battery, - won his first laurels, protecting Jackson's right wing with such courage and obstinacy that he saved the infantry on the left from rout, and enabled them to retire in order from the field.
Colonel Chew, who commanded the artillery, speaking of Turner Ashby, says: "I have always believed his audacity saved General Jackson's army from total destruction at the battle of Kernstown. Ashby boldly moved forward with his command, consisting of a few companies of cavalry and my three guns, and protecting his men from observation by woods and ravines, opened on them with artillery, and withstood the fire of the enemy's artillery, sometimes as many as three or four batteries. When the enemy moved forward he dashed upon them with his cavalry. Had the enemy known our strength, or had he not been deceived by the audacity of the movement, they could have swept forward upon the turnpike, turned Jackson's right flank, and cut off his retreat by way of the turnpike. They, however, made little effort to advance and we remained in our position until Jackson retired to Newtown."
After the battle of Kernstown Jackson retired slowly up the Valley. He had accomplished a brilliant strategic movement in forcing the Federals to concentrate their forces in the Valley. During this retreat, - a retreat that has become famous in the history of the Valley campaigns, - Jackson's rear was ably protected by Ashby's cavalry and Chew's guns; and no commander enjoyed greater distinction than did Turner Ashby.
The subsequent operations of Ashby and his cavalry were confined to the Valley and ended with his death on June 6th, 1862. In the great work that Jackson did in defeating Milroy at McDowell and Banks in the Shenandoah Valley Turner Ashby ably seconded his chief and shares with him the great distinction that that campaign brought to Jackson and his men.
The last time I saw Turner Ashby was the morning following the battle of Front Royal, May 23, 1862. My father and I were riding over the battlefield of the evening before, and as we were returning in the direction of home we met him riding in the direction of Winchester, and passed him on the road. He was mounted on a handsome black stallion and was going at a brisk pace, pressing forward to join his command. He made a hurried salute and rode on. He had been to the village to pay the last tribute of respect to Captain Sheetz and Captain Fletcher, two gallant officers of his command, who had been killed the evening before in an engagement at Buckton.
Two weeks later Turner Ashby fell, leading the Fifty-eighth Virginia Infantry, in a small engagement near Harrisonburg. He had that morning routed and captured Sir Percy Wyndham, a boastful Englishman, colonel of the First New Jersey Cavalry, who had planned to capture Ashby and who wound up by being a prisoner in Ashby's hands. The day was perhaps the most brilliant in his life and he had found great satisfaction in capturing the boasting Englishman. In the evening of the same day, having undertaken to lead the infantry in the charge on the Pennsylvania Buck Tails, - a regiment of some distinction, - he advanced in front of his men, and fell dead from a wound in his heart.
A great deal has been written in prose and verse about Turner Ashby. One of his biographers (Avirett) has eulogized his memory; another (Thomas) has described him as the "Centaur of the South." His deeds and his virtues have been extolled beyond measure. Could he come back to this earth and read what has been written about him, his modesty would be shocked and his pride would be wounded.
That his career was phenomenal is true. In less than fourteen months he had been promoted from the position of captain of a small volunteer company of cavalry to the rank of brigadier-general. He had won his promotion by untiring energy, courage, and devotion to duty. He possessed many of the qualities of the soldier: Courage, energy, coolness, and resourcefulness. His judgment was clear and his character was forceful. If his past was an indication of his future, greater honors and distinctions awaited him. In so short and active a career no man could have made better use of his opportunities. Without military training, he soon grasped the essential principles of military operations and played the drama of war with the skill, delicacy of movement, and inspiration of the born soldier.
At the age of 32 he was leading the quiet life of the country gentleman in an atmosphere of refinement and quiet repose. With his horses and hounds and the social life of the farm, he had easy duties and no great responsibilities. At the age of 33 he was in command of large bodies of men, in daily excitement and anxiety, intensely impressed with a sense of duty to his country, moving rapidly from place to place with restless energy, and at all times striving to measure up to the requirements of his position. During this one year he aged rapidly, changing from the simple life of the young civilian to the larger sphere of the hardened soldier. When death came to him he was in the prime of life, surrounded by a halo of glory. The cause of his country was prospering, and he escaped that sorrow and humiliation of spirit that came later to many of his comrades.
In giving this brief sketch of the life of Turner Ashby and of his brother Dick, I may say a few words in regard to the personality of these two men, so unlike in many respects, yet so blended in spirit, motive, and in ties of affection that they were one in action and in devotion to the cause for which they gave up their lives.
As a man Turner was as modest as a woman; the soul of honor, courage, and manliness, while his ideals were high and his devotion to the South gave full play to all his emotions and sentiments. It was these qualities that gave to his character a type of heroism that has brought more distinction to his name and greater satisfaction to his family than his military record. He was at all times a gentleman, a loyal friend and an affectionate relative; gentle in manner and thought, reticent in speech. While always genial and companionable, he was a man of few words, free from gossip and anecdote, and a good listener rather than a fluent talker. Whether in the social life of camp, on the march or on the firing line, he never harangued or gave utterance to wordy exclamations. His mind was intent, rather serious, and filled with a keen sense of responsibility. He led the charge with the wave of his hat or of his sword and the clarion cry: "Come on, boys. Give it to them!" giving this command or that as the situation presented itself. He directed by action rather than by command; losing sight, in a manner, of the higher functions of the commander of men by means of written instructions and explicit details, he was carried away by his own spirit of dare and do, and relied upon his men to follow him instead of forcing them into action. With this heedlessness of danger and with the eager desire to do personal service as an actual combatant, he exposed himself to many unnecessary risks and failed at times to get the most efficient service from his men.
His personal achievements were phenomenal and perhaps attracted more attention than did the work of his command. He was always in the front; and in the charge or in the fray he was alive with fire and energy. He used his pistol and sword with vigorous effect, and often he did the fighting he should have required of his subordinates. His love of adventure and of horseback exercise led him to go by himself on long and hazardous scouting rides, and he also often made his rounds of inspection alone.
Ashby's horses were as well known in the army as the man who rode them. A coal black stallion and a pure white one were his usual mounts. These two noble animals entered into the spirit and excitement of their master's life with all the energy and fire of their rider. They swiftly and safely bore him from place to place and gave a picture of knightly prowess that was an inspiration to the men of his command.
There was a singular admixture of military ability and of chivalric bearing in Turner Ashby; and when these two qualities met they were often antagonistic; and his skill as a commander was often overmatched by his chivalrous instincts.
He was too deeply intent upon his individual prowess, - too easily influenced by the excitement and danger of battle to give to the organization and discipline of his command the personal attention that military requirements demanded. His command was too often dispersed and scattered to produce the most effective results. It is marvelous how he accomplished as much as he did. His success must be attributed to a small band of men who clung to his person, followed his leadership and dared to do what he recklessly did.
Whatever position Turner Ashby made as a soldier, his record rests more on his heroic character, his pure and unselfish nature, and his devotion to duty. In battle he had the courage and daring that no difficulties could overcome. When the battle was over he was the mildest of the mild, the gentlest of the gentle, - tender, thoughtful, and kind to friend or enemy in distress. There were no brutal instincts in his nature. He fought for the sake of conscience, and duty held full control over every passion and ambition. His sweetness of disposition, his manliness of character, the purity of his soul, will ever hold his memory dear in loving minds and hearts.
Dick Ashby, too, was a very handsome man, - large, well-built, and commanding in person. In disposition he was social, lively, and cheerful. His morals and character were built on the gentleman's code. He was a manly man with the courage and dash of the cavalier. He entered into the life of the soldier with the energy and passion of a strong nature, and but for his short military life of less than three months he would, no doubt, have achieved distinction as a soldier. He died from wounds unnecessarily inflicted by a brutal soldier, after he had been shot a number of times and lay prostrate on the ground. It was this act of barbarity that so angered his brother Turner and made him the desperate foe he soon became. Turner never forgave this brutal murder of Dick, but in his revenge he never inflicted cruel punishment upon individuals. In the heat of combat he fought in the open like a tiger; but when the combat was over he was compassionate toward the wounded and the prisoner. After an engagement his first act was to care for the wounded with the gentleness of a woman.
Dick received his mortal wounds on the morning of June 26, 1861. Owing to his great vitality he lingered eight days and died at the home of Colonel George Washington, six miles north of Romney. Turner was in constant attendance during his illness and did all a loving heart could do to soothe the pains of his dying brother.
After Dick's death Turner Ashby wrote the following words to his sister:
"Poor Dick went into the war like myself, not to regard himself or our friends, but to serve our country in this time of peril. I know your Ma and Mary will all be too good soldiers to grudge giving to your country the dearest sacrifice you could provide. . . . His country has lost the services of a brave man, with a strong arm, which he proved to her enemies in losing his life. . . . I had rather it had been myself. He was younger and had one more tie to break than I. I had him buried in a beautiful cemetery at Romney. . . . I lose the strength of his arm in the fight and the companion of my social hours. I mean to bear it as a soldier, and not as one who in this time of sacrifice regards only his own loss."
Turner Ashby was killed on the evening of June 6, 1862, - eleven months after Dick's death. He was buried in the cemetery of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. In the fall of 1866 the bodies of Turner and Dick Ashby were re-interred in the beautiful Mt. Hebron cemetery at Winchester, Va., where they now sleep, surrounded by their companions in arms and eight hundred and fifteen other soldiers, who are covered by a mound, above which rises a monument to the "Unknown Dead."