- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Many Southerners remember him as a chivalrous cavalry commander, a knight. Some Northerners might say he was a guerrilla and undisciplined marauder.

His name was Turner Ashby, general, Confederate States of America. At the start of the Civil War, when the South needed inspiration and role models, Ashby became a hero, warrior, even legend.

As the war began, all of Virginia, it seemed, wanted a fight. Ashby obliged. “An officer should always go to the front and take risks in order to keep his men up to the mark,” he said.

One observer of Ashby in battle remarked that he “regards nothing: shot, shell, rain, hail, snow … are all apparently the same to him. He will quit a meal at any time for a chance at a Yankee.”

Ashby’s men seemed to reflect the personality of their leader.

“Not only will they, in direct conflict, continue to show themselves equal to the enemy in the ratio of one to five,” wrote an observer of Ashby’s cavalry, “their spirit … will arouse and animate them to deeds of daring, which will carry terror and dismay to the hearts of the invaders.”

Ashby’s men were a mixture of landed aristocracy and woodsmen, sometimes within the same skin. Ashby himself was high-born, brought up on a country estate named Rose Bank. He had been schooled by private tutors.

Yet Ashby was, in a sense, a woodsman. He carried his hunting horn with him into battle, and he slept under deerskin robes. He understood, above all things, great horseflesh and accomplished horsemanship. He certainly was dashing.

Henry Kyd Douglas described Ashby “galloping over the field on his favorite war horse. Eager, watchful, he was fascinating, exciting, inspiring. … Altogether he was the most picturesque horseman ever seen in the Shenandoah Valley — he seemed to have been left over by the knights.”

Mountain Rangers

Ashby hated Yankees. While in his mid-20s, in 1853, he came to despise the low-paid Irish laborers brought to Northern Virginia to help build the railroads. The Irish drank too much, fought too much and sometimes refused to work. Ashby also thought that their Yankee overlords were useless.

Ashby formed a cavalry troop of sorts, called the Mountain Rangers, to make sure the Irish laborers didn’t get out of line. The Rangers patrolled the Manassas Gap rail line and other construction projects. His activities, although not unheard of at the time and condoned by the governor, were tempered only by good judgment and vague knowledge of the law. In one sense, Ashby served as the self-appointed leader of a loosely licensed and organized posse.

When John Brown seized the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, Gov. Henry A. Wise of Virginia called for a force to make an early end to border incursions by undesirables. Turner Ashby reconstituted his role as leader of the Mountain Rangers.

During Virginia’s secession crisis, Ashby activated the Rangers for the third time, this time in uniforms Ashby decided should be “gray cloth made in the State of Virginia.”

On his own

In one of the first major actions of the Civil War in Virginia, Gov. John Letcher was persuaded to allow Ashby to attack and capture Harpers Ferry.

Gen. John D. Imboden recalled: “The movement to capture Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and the fire-arms manufactured and stored there was organized at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond on the night of April 16th, 1861. Ex-Governor Henry A. Wise was at the head of this purely impromptu affair.”

Before Ashby could act, however, the Federals withdrew, burning the arsenal. So Ashby immediately proceeded to defend the northern border of Virginia, fending off Union raiders and conducting cross-border skirmishes of his own. He defended ferries and bridges, sought out and killed interlopers and provided reports and intelligence.

Soon Ashby commanded two companies of cavalry, 200 infantrymen and six guns. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson attempted to gain control over the young cavalier, then operating under orders only from the governor and the Confederate War Department. However, when Jackson ordered Ashby to report to J.E.B. Stuart, Ashby refused.

Never deferential to West Point-trained “book soldiers,” Ashby made this defiance his hallmark. He almost always resisted the control and coordination of higher authority, preferring — in fact usually insisting upon — keeping control over the men he recruited.

Two promotions

Ashby became an irregular. He proved a difficult, tenacious foe to the Union and a pain in the neck to the Confederate leadership. The Southern newspapers and the folks at home loved him.

As officers and leadership changed, Ashby remained defiant. His initial wartime understanding that he was to raise troops and command them never faltered. He refused Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s direction to report to Stuart, writing, “I was to receive all orders from you direct, and was to make reports to you direct.”

On July 23, 1861, the Confederate War Department officially appointed Ashby a lieutenant colonel and second in command of the 7th Cavalry, CSA. Although technically he was required to report to Col. Angus W. McDonald, he remained on detached duty. When ordered to serve in the command of McDonald, Lt. Col. Ashby again resisted.

He considered McDonald to be among the academy-trained, tired and elderly or otherwise worthless officers found during the early stages of the war. Ashby used his political allies masterfully to unseat McDonald. He insisted that men he recruited expected to serve under his command and not under the direction of some interloper.

When McDonald retired in February 1862, Ashby became the 7th Cavalry’s colonel.

Bungled estimate

The Confederate War Department allowed Ashby great leeway because he was successful in the field, killing Yankees and delighting newspapermen and their readers at home. By March 1862, Ashby’s 7th Cavalry had ballooned into 27 companies, plus artillery, a force nearly three times the size of a typical regiment. At one point, Gen. Robert E. Lee himself commented, “I did not know before that Colonel Ashby’s command embraced more than cavalry.”

However like Ashby himself, his cavalry lacked organization, discipline and military correctness. Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor wrote, “He was without capacity or disposition to enforce discipline on his men.”

In March 1862, at Kernstown, Jackson needed the intelligence only Ashby and his cavalry could provide.

Jackson anticipated that his 3,400 men could handily defeat Union Col. Nathan Kimball and his force at Kernstown. Ashby reported that Kimball’s force numbered just 3,000 men — but the true figure was about 8,500.

For Jackson, faulty intelligence from his cavalry chief, Turner Ashby, led to a defeat.

Infuriated, Jackson tried to strip Ashby of his cavalry. Ashby resigned his commission, threatening to organize an independent command. Jackson quickly backed down, explaining in a letter to 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 nevertheless continued to object to Ashby’s anticipated 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.” The Confederate War Department made Ashby a brigadier on May 23, 1862.

Appalling spectacle

On May 24, 1862, at Middletown, Va., Ashby’s men fell upon Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ supply trains, which were stacked up on the Valley Pike. Henry Kyd Douglas said “all sorts of mixed-up fighting ensued.” He wrote of “a bleeding pile” of Union troops, “a roaring, shrieking, struggling mass of men and horses, crushed, wounded and dying.”

Jackson called the scene at Middletown “a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction.” During at least this one event, the undisciplined nature of Ashby and his men had dire results. Some Confederate cavalry apparently chased down fleeing Union troops and slaughtered them.

As Federal wagons spilled forth whiskey, meat and other stores, 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.” 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. “Had the cavalry played its part in this pursuit … but a small portion of Banks’ army would have made its escape to the Potomac,” Jackson said in his official report.

His last fight

As Jackson’s army retreated south and east from Harrisonburg toward Port Republic, Ashby’s cavalry delayed and frustrated Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s advance in the valley. On June 6, 1862, two miles south of Harrisonburg, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, led by Sir Percy Wyndham, attacked Ashby’s position.

Ashby’s troops inflicted heavy losses on Wyndham’s cavalry, but Ashby became dismounted. Always a risk taker to the point of rashness, he continued the fight on foot. He was felled by a bullet from a Pennsylvania Bucktail. Turner Ashby, the gallant knight of the chivalrous South, probably died instantly.

Jackson wrote to 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, originally buried at the University of Virginia, was reinterred in 1866 at the Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester. He is buried with his brother Richard, who was killed earlier in the war.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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