Turner Ashby was born on October 23, 1828, in Fauquier County. His father, who died when Ashby was young, had fought in the War of 1812, and his grandfather served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Ashby, however, had no formal military training. On the eve of the Civil War, he had settled into an unremarkable life as a merchant and farmer in his boyhood home of Markham. (Little is known about these years, and what is available often comes from eulogistic and exaggerated tales told by entranced biographers.)
The critical point in Ashby's life and career was the death of his younger brother Richard, who was mortally wounded in a Union ambush near Kelly's Island on the Virginia border with Maryland on June 26, 1861. From then on, according to his overheated admirers, Ashby was driven by a grim vengeance that bordered on bloodlust. Stories of his deeds became legends, fancy became fact. Those stories were not all myths—Ashby thrived and even thrilled in combat—and they became the source of a mesmerizing aura that was all the more powerful because it quelled fears while it idealized hopes. Young men began flocking to him, seeking in Ashby's afterglow something of his cavalier image. To call Ashby the "Knight of the Valley," as many did in 1861, was simultaneously to obscure the brutality of partisan war on the Maryland border and cast it in familial terms as a chivalric defense of home.
Ashby's fame grew as the campaign unfolded, notwithstanding two incidents that speak to his strengths and weaknesses. The first, a serious mistake in reconnaissance preceding the Confederate defeat at Kernstown in March 1862, suggests Ashby's limited mastery of formal military operations. Ashby thought of his duty in far too simple terms: he sought out the enemy and fought them. He was neither an administrator nor a disciplinarian. The second incident, that April, found Ashby at odds with Jackson, who tried to correct those problems by removing Ashby from command so that his disorganized troopers could be properly trained. Ashby reacted to Jackson's impersonal methods by resigning and speaking openly if vaguely about challenging Jackson to a duel. The affair's resolution says much about Ashby's inspirational, personal charisma. Ashby's cavalry would follow no other leader, a fact Jackson recognized by restoring him to command and, according to one observer, "backing square down." Just a month later, and over Jackson's strident objections, Ashby was promoted to brigadier general.
Ashby was killed at the tail end of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign during a skirmish near Harrisonburg that June. His remains were reinterred after the war in the Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester, where, as testament to the ways in which Ashby came to symbolize the Confederate defense of home, he was laid with his brother Richard in one grave.
October 23, 1828 - Turner Ashby is born at Rose Bank in Fauquier County.
June 1853 - Turner Ashby helps suppress a riot among Irish laborers on the Manassas Gap Railroad and sometime thereafter organizes the Mountain Rangers, a local volunteer cavalry troop.
1856 - Turner Ashby leads a vigilante mob against John C. Underwood, of Clarke County, who had spoken ill of slavery at the Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; he is attacked in several major national newspapers.
October–December 1859 - Turner Ashby leads the Mountain Rangers to defend Harpers Ferry and the northern Virginia border with Maryland in the aftermath of John Brown's raid.
June 26, 1861 - Turner Ashby's brother Richard is mortally wounded in a Union ambush near Kelly's Island on the Virginia border with Maryland.
March 12, 1862 - Turner Ashby is promoted to colonel and commander of the 7th Virginia Cavalry.
October 1866 - Turner Ashby's remains are reinterred with those of his brother Richard at the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Winchester.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: April 21, 2009 | Last modified: August 1, 2014