By John E. Carey
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.”
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.
Anderson, Paul C. “The Sword of Turner Ashby and the Images and Ideals of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1998; Ashby, Thomas A. Life of Turner Ashby. New York: Neale, 1919; Bushong, Milard K. General Turner Ashby and Stonewall’s Valley Campaign. Verona, VA: McClure, 1980; Cochran, Darrel. “First of the Cavaliers: General Turner Ashby’s Brief Glory.” Civil War Times Illustrated 25, no. 10 (1987): 22–28; Cunningham, Frank. Knight of the Confederacy: General Turner Ashby. San Antonio, TX: Naylor, 1960; Ecelbarger, Gary L. We Are in for It! The First Battle of Kernstown. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1997; Kerwood, John R. “His Daring Was Proverbial.” Civil War Times Illustrated 7, no. 5 (1968): 18–30; O’Toole, John T. “The Revenge of Turner Ashby.” Civil War 58 (August 1996): 40–44; Patterson, Richard. “Schemes and Treachery.” Civil War Times Illustrated 28, no. 2 (1989): 38–45.