Brigadier General Turner Ashby Jr. “Black Knight of the Confederacy”

Turner Ashby, Jr. was born at Rose Bank Plantation in Fauquier County, Virginia, to Turner Sr. and Dorothea Green Ashby.[1] As a child he often played in the waters of nearby Goose Creek. His father died when he was young, and Turner was raised by his mother. In later years, he bought a residence near his childhood home and named it Wolfe's Crag. His father had fought as a colonel in the War of 1812, and his grandfather Jack Ashby served as a captain during the American Revolutionary War.[2]

Ashby was privately educated. Prior to military service he was engaged in business and farming, enjoying modest success at both.[1]

He was also known throughout the Shenandoah Valley for his strict adherence to a Code of Chivalry. Once a young male guest at a party given by Ashby was insulted and goaded into a duel with a rejected rival for a young lady's attention. Though totally unskilled in firearms, the youth accepted the challenge and the duel was set to be immediately fought with pistols at a nearby grove. When word of the altercation reached Ashby in the next room, he barged through the door and approached the more experienced challenger. In his low, gentle voice he asked "What is the time fixed for our meeting?" The prospective duelist responded, "I am to fight [him] immediately." Ashby replied, "I beg your pardon, but he has nothing to do with this affair. He came to my house tonight as my guest. When I invited him to come the invitation was Turner Ashby's word of honor that he should be treated here as a gentleman. I am sorry to have to explain these points of good breeding to you, but you have shown your ignorance of them by insulting my guest. The insult is mine, not his, to resent. He is here under my protection. If you are not prepared to make a proper and satisfactory apology at once, both to my guest and to me, you must fight Turner Ashby and the time and place agreed upon will answer as well as any other. What do you say, sir?" Now fighting a duel with a young man wholly unacquainted with the use of firearms and dueling was one thing; fighting a duel with Turner Ashby in a rage was very well understood to be quite another, and a much more serious thing, and his realization of this difference brought a complete change to the challenger's mind...and he signed the pair of written apologies.[3]

An accomplished horseman at an early age, Ashby in his 20s organized a 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. Ashby made the statement that the Civil War really began with John Brown's insurrection. Ashby was an avid follower of politics and ran for the state legislature, but was a Whig (the minority party in Fauquier County) and follower of Henry Clay, and was not elected. After the start of the Civil War, though he'd disapproved of secession, when it became obvious that Virginia would secede, 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 Virginia Militia command of Colonel Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. He was responsible for guarding fords across the Potomac River and bridges from Harpers Ferry toPoint of Rocks, Maryland. His command assisted Maryland men with Confederate sympathies to pass into Virginia, and they disrupted railroad traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and interfered with the passage of boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Ashby suffered a personal loss when his brother Richard was killed during an engagement with a Union patrol along the Potomac in June 1861. Ashby, convinced of the rumors that his brother had been bayoneted while trying to surrender after he had a chance to examine his corpse, came to hate Northerners and became obsessed with revenge.

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. When the commander retired in February 1862, Ashby assumed command of the entire regiment on March 12. Ashby organized the first Confederate horse artillery, named Chew's Battery, as part of this regiment. The 7th did not participate directly in the First Battle of Manassas, but Ashby aided the Confederate cause by screening the movement of Johnston's army 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 October 1861 he led an attack on Harpers Ferry, a Union held armory, but was defeated by Union Colonel John W. Geary in what became known as the "Battle of Bolivar Heights".

By the spring of 1862, the 7th Virginia Cavalry had reached the enormous size of 27 infantry and cavalry companies, much larger than a typical Civil War regiment. Stonewall Jackson, in overall command of the Shenandoah 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 backed down. Jackson continued to resist Ashby's promotion to brigadier general, due to his informal military training and consequent lack of discipline.[4] Nevertheless, Ashby's promotion came through on May 23, 1862, and he received his promotion and general's star in a ceremony at the Taylor Hotel in Winchester, Virginia.[5]

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 him:

“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 factors in the success of Jackson's legendary Valley Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. However, there were instances in which Ashby failed Jackson. 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 Maj. Gen. 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 lack of discipline.

As Jackson's army withdrew from the pressure of Maj. Gen. 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 his horse being shot and Ashby charging ahead on foot.[6] After only a few steps, he was shot through the heart, killing him instantly.[7] (The origin of the fatal shot has been lost to history. Soldiers of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, the "Bucktails", claimed credit, but some accounts blame it on friendly fire.) His last words were "Charge, men! For God's sake. Charge!" waving his sword, when a bullet pierced him in the breast and he fell dead."[8]

Stonewall Jackson's remarks:

“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, next to the body of his younger brother Richard Ashby, who had died at Harpers Ferry in a skirmish with Union soldiers in 1861. The Turner Ashby Monument can be found in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at the spot where Ashby was fatally shot in the Battle of Harrisonburg at Chestnut Ridge.[9

There is a tie to the naming of prominent Page County, Virginia businessman Major Ashby Roudabush (August 22, 1861 – February 16, 1916). It seems that early in the war then Lieutenant Colonel Turner Ashby was riding with his regiment near one of the family's mills. Ashby saw the new child and asked if the boy had yet been named. When he learned that it had not, he pronounced that the boy be named "Major Ashby", for the boy could not outrank him.




First Battle of Kernstown

First Battle of Winchester

Second Battle of Winchester

Battle of Snickers Farm

Battle of Rutherfords Farm

Battle of Berryville

Battle of Ceder Creek or Belle Grove

Great Train Raid of 1861

Romney Expedition

Battle of Goods Farm