- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

Although Confederate cavalry leader Turner Ashby made substantial if not epic contributions to Gen. Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign, one must look elsewhere than the field of battle to explain his reputation as one of the most feared and admired fighting men of the war.
Ashby entered the service of Virginia on April 19, 1861, as captain of a company of cavalry and rose by rapid promotion (a not uncommon occurrence) to colonel of the 7th Virginia Cavalry and then brigadier general by the time of his death on June 6, 1862. In fewer than 14 months, he reached a post of distinction and established his fame as one of the heroic characters of the age in which he lived.
At the time of his death, few men in either army attracted as much notice in poetry or art as Turner Ashby. Contemporary accounts tell of his "manly character and heroic deeds," his "knightly bearing and chivalric courage." Artists' renderings surround Ashby in a halo of romance.
In his spirit, he came to represent the heroic age of the Civil War, a picaresque, dashing knight-errant. When Ashby died in a skirmish near Harrisonburg, his legend was complete; he became the first general of heroic reputation to fall in Virginia, a cavalier among cavaliers, with his death, like his life, obscured by romanticism.
In "Blood Image," Paul Christopher Anderson does not seek to debunk the legend. Rather, he views Ashby as a living symbol, a vivid representation of what Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley saw as a purpose and meaning of the Civil War. Unlike many who emphasize Confederate myth-making as a function of the Lost Cause, Mr. Anderson argues that Ashby's emotional force as a symbol was borne by images and ideas current in Southern culture before the outbreak of the war images that Ashby himself strove to achieve and maintain.
The antebellum Southern way of life demanded the maintenance of public images, and Ashby met that demand in at least four ways: as the ideal horseman, the family defender, the romantic savage and the partisan warrior.
The link in Southern imagination between man and horse was the vital energy in Ashby's image, its irreplaceable source. Fox hunts, horse races, horse shows and ring tournaments were all popular in antebellum Fauquier County.
The importance horses played also came to be tied into the sinews of an idea of home. In Ashby's Virginia, horses embodied a social value system that one historian has described as the cult of chivalry: a systematic, preternatural devotion to good manners, hospitality, family lineage, personal integrity, independence and military prowess. The war reinforced and pushed that image beyond the bounds from which it sprang, and hyperbolic words such as "gallant," "knightly" and "chivalrous" describe Ashby's military feats at a time when Southern institutions and liberties were challenged by an invading force.
On June 26, 1861, the Valley cavalry was stationed along the upper Potomac River near Romney. Orders arrived to arrest a Union sympathizer suspected of passing secrets to Federal forces posted across the river in Cumberland, Md. Ashby passed the task to his brother, Richard, who set out with 10 troopers. As Richard approached the enemy outpost, he fell into an ambush. The Confederates galloped off, and while the others jumped a cattle guard safely, Richard was thrown to the ground. Alone, he fought but was overcome; his enemies rifled his pockets, stole his spurs and left him on the ground to die.
Turner searched until he found his brother under some bushes, blood-spattered and mangled. Richard died several days later. Consumed with the melodrama, Confederate newspapers championed him as Sir Lancelot, and on the day of his funeral, it was said that Turner broke a sword over his brother's grave and swore to avenge him.
Thus, an image was created in the mold of what the Valley Confederates wanted a beacon to light up their conceptions of themselves and to help them cast aside their fears. Ashby vaulted into a hero's position not merely because of his military skills. He became an idol because he helped shape and then symbolized an ideal of family protection.
In their myth-making, Valley storytellers fantasized that the horsebacked knight-protector of antebellum Southern ideals should win the war. Paradoxically, the bloodlust, vengeance and uncontrolled violence, which exceeded the bounds of chivalry, became part of the war, part of family protection and an essential ingredient of Ashby's chivalric presence.
The antebellum Southern admiration of partisan fighting is traceable to the Revolutionary War. Partisan fighting was seen as a distinctive weapon, "a thorn in the flesh of the invader," according to the Richmond Dispatch. However, as pointed out by Mr. Anderson, who teaches at Clemson University, it also certified vengeance as a legitimate motive to kill and expanded if not undercut the chivalric ideal.
Savagery deserved retaliation, but retaliation in the Valley mind could never be savage; thus, Ashby sallied forth to protect his family, a chivalrous and natural reaction that romantic Southerners practiced amid the pageantry of tournament days.
The manner in which Ashby's force of horsemen came into being was unique. All had a strong familial quality; nearly all grew up and lived in the Valley and, freed from the bonds of regular army discipline, energized their devotion to Ashby. The lack of discipline (Jackson said of Ashby that it was "a calamity to see him promoted to general") meant that his men could not be counted on unless he fought with them.
These paradoxical strains of freedom and prowess; indiscipline; autonomy; fighting not as soldiers in a cause, but as neighbors and social icons, converged in the knight ideal, at once a cultural archetype and an anachronism in a modern destructive war. Ashby was a knight rather than a solider, a Valley man fighting in defense of his homeland.
He was a son of privilege who came to prominence while in command of other prosperous men. That this son of privilege struggled to maintain his position but lost is a fundamental part of the symbolic Ashby. When he died, the young Confederacy was entering upon the glorious days of 1862. As said Ashby's regimental chaplain, "The army was full of hope, the people were full of hope and those who painfully survived those hopes both civil and military, must recognize the dispensation of a kind of Providence which did not allow Ashby to outlive hope."
Mr. Anderson not only captures the man and his age, but gives us cause to reflect upon the circular energy of those images.
Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at the George Washington University School of Law.

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