J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Turner Ashby Day

On this date in 1862, Confederate Colonel Turner Ashby met his fate at the Battle of Good’s Farm. Ashby’s grandeur so captivated the South that he was compared to a knight, a pirate, and a crusader. He was a superb horseman and a daring soldier under the command of Stonewall Jackson. He customarily rode a beautiful white horse, regardless of the additional danger. He was third generation military. His grandfather, Jack, fought as a captain in the Revolutionary War, and his father served as a colonel in the War of 1812. As was the case with most Southern gentry at the time, Ashby was an accomplished horseman. His favorite pastime was fox hunting, and he competed frequently in jousting tournaments, almost always placing first.

When Virginia left the Union on April 17, 1861, Ashby persuaded Governor John Letcher to order the state’s militia to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers’ Ferry. Arriving too late, Ashby found most of the buildings and the 15,000 small arms located in the arsenal burned by Union troops. Ashby’s Rangers remained in the area, patrolling the fords of the Potomac River, and bridges spanning from both Harpers Ferry and Point of Rocks, Maryland. The Rangers disrupted the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and obstructed the passage of boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, otherwise known as the grand old ditch.

Ashby was an adventure seeker, and commonly went on scouting rides and inspections alone. His appearance was striking, setting him apart from other soldiers. Along with his tall stature of 5’-10”, Ashby had a thick black beard reaching down to his chest, a swirling long mustache to match, mahogany brown eyes, and a dark complexion. His demeanor was quiet, and his manners befitted the position he held within an old Virginia family.

Like many cavalrymen of his day, he was attracted to gaudy trappings, and could be seen donning gauntlets. He secured a brass spyglass on one side of his saddle and a fox hunting horn on the other. To enhance his appearance, he always rode either a coal black horse or a pure white horse named Tom Telegraph. They were the finest horses the vicinity had to offer, and bestowed upon Ashby the knightly prowess that inspired his men to give him the moniker, the Black Knight of the Confederacy.

When Ashby lost his brother in June 1861, he became even more daring. Of Ashby’s troopers, a Federal cavalry officer complained, “They leap fences and walls like deer; neither our men nor our horses are so trained.”

On several occasions, the phantom-like Colonel Ashby on his snowy white horse could be seen sitting atop a hill above the Federals, provoking them. The bluecoats rode furiously to catch him. Ashby patiently waited until they were close. He then casually cantered off and disappeared before they arrived, only to reappear on another distant hill crest.

On June 6, 1862, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry attacked Ashby in an attempt to capture him. After Ashby’s horse was shot out from under him, he charged toward his foe on foot, but was shot through the heart. Turner Ashby died instantly. He was thirty-three years old. Because of his remarkable reputation and service record, he was deeply mourned by the Southern people. His body was wrapped in a Confederate flag and taken to the Frank Kemper House in Port Republic for viewing. 

General Jackson, who was one of the mourners present, reacted to Ashby’s death by saying, “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.”

Turner Ashby was buried with honors at the University of Virginia. He became a legend in his own time, and so impressed people that the thought of him brought back fond memories. To this day, many Shenandoah localities celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on June 6, the anniversary of Ashby’s death.

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