Turner Ashby (1828-1862)

Turner Ashby, Jr. (October 23, 1828 - June 6, 1862) was a Confederate cavalry general in the American Civil War. He achieved prominence as Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's cavalry commander in the Shenandoah Valley and might have been one of the most famous cavalry commanders of the war had he not been killed in battle in 1862.

Ashby was born in "Rose Bank", Fauquier County, Virginia. His father, also named Turner Ashby, had fought as a colonel in the War of 1812, and his grandfather served as a captain during the American Revolutionary War.

An accomplished horseman at an early age, Ashby in his twenties organized a vigilante cavalry company of his friends known as the Mountain Rangers. The Mountain Rangers were absorbed into the Virginia Militia in 1859 following John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry; they performed guard duty at Charles Town during Brown's trial and execution.

After the start of the Civil War, but before the secession of Virginia, Ashby persuaded Governor John Letcher to order the militia to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. When secession was approved, Ashby made his move, but U.S. forces burned most of the arsenal buildings and 15,000 small arms before he could arrive.

At Harpers Ferry, Ashby was assigned to the command of Colonel Jackson and was responsible for guarding fords across the Potomac River and bridges from Harpers Ferry to Point of Rocks, Maryland. His command assisted Maryland man with Confederate sympathies to pass into Virginia and they disrupted railroad traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the passage of boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Ashby suffered a personal loss when his brother, Richard, was killed during engagement with a Union patrol along the Potomac in June, 1861.

On July 23, 1861, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston appointed Ashby lieutenant colonel of the 7th Virginia Cavalry. Due to the illness of the regimental commander, Ashby had effective control of half of the regiment, which he operated separately, and when the commander retired in February 1862, Ashby assumed command of the regiment on March 12. Ashby organized the first Confederate horse artillery, named Chew's Battery, as part of his regiment. His Regiment did not participate directly in the first battle of Bull Run, but he assisted the Confederate cause by screening the movement of Joseph E. Johnston to the Manassas area. The Union had hoped that Johnston's forces would be pinned down by Major General Robert Patterson, but Ashby's screen allowed Johnston to move freely without Patterson's interference.

In the spring of 1862, the 7th Virginia had reach the enormous size of 27 infantry and cavalry companies, much larger than a typical Civil War regiment. Stonewall Jackson, in overall command of the Valley, tried to correct the situation by stripping Ashby of his cavalry forces, ordering them to be assigned to two infantry brigades. Ashby threatened to resign in protest and Jackson back down.

Jackson continued to resist Ashby's promotion to brigadier general due to his lack of discipline and formal military training. Nevertheless, his promotion came through on May 23, 1862, although it was not permanently confirmed by the Confederate government before he died in June.

Ashby cut a striking figure, called by many the "Black Knight of the Confederacy". He generally rode horses that were pure white or pure black. A civilian in the Valley named Thomas A. Ashby (no relation) wrote about an encounter with the Black Knight: "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 (68 to 73 kg). 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."

Ashby's vigorous reconnaissance and screening were strong factors in the success of Jackson's legendary campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. However, there were instances in which Ashby let Jackson down. At the First Battle of Kernstown, Jackson attacked a retreating Union column that Ashby had estimated to be four regiments of infantry, about the size of Jackson's force. It turned out to be an entire division of 9,000 men and Jackson was forced to retreat. At the First Battle of Winchester, as Union forces under Nathaniel P. Banks were retreating, Ashby failed to cut off their retreat because his troopers were plundering captured wagons. It is possible that the Union forces could have been substantially destroyed if it were not for this oversight or lack of discipline.

As Jackson's army withdrew from the pressure of John C. Frémont's superior forces, moving from Harrisonburg toward Port Republic, Ashby commanded the rear guard. On June 6, 1862, near Harrisonburg, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry attacked Ashby's position at Good's Farm. Although Ashby defeated the cavalry attack, a subsequent infantry engagement resulted in Ashby being shot through the heart, killing him instantly. (The origin of the fatal shot has been lost to history. Soldiers of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry claimed credit, but some accounts blame friendly fire.)

Stonewall Jackson's report of the engagement sums up the man: "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 was buried at the University of Virginia Cemetery, but in October, 1866, his body was reinterred at the Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia.