Turner Ashby (1828–1862)


Turner Ashby was a Confederate cavalry general who served under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 during the American Civil War (1861–1865). An expert horseman whose dead mounts were kept as romantic relics, Ashby was arguably the Confederacy’s most renowned combat hero before his death in 1862. His competency for high command and potential for growth are still debated among military historians, but it’s clear that his presence in the Shenandoah Valley was a powerful catalyst to the Confederate military effort there during the war’s first year. Indeed, his presence resonates even now, as many Shenandoah localities celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on June 6, the day of his death.

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.)

Turner Ashby's Flag

Ashby first tasted notoriety in 1859 when, as captain of a volunteer cavalry troop, he led his men to Harpers Ferry in the aftermath of the John Brown raid. Two years later, he returned to Harpers Ferry, this time leading a quasi-official force of Virginians who responded to secession by launching a surprise attack on the federal arsenal there. Such was his popularity in the lower Shenandoah Valley that by June he was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 7th Virginia Cavalry and mustered into Confederate service.

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.

The Hoof of Turner Ashby's Horse

By the spring of 1862 Ashby had superseded Angus W. McDonald as colonel and commander of the 7th Cavalry, which thanks to Ashby’s aura had grown into a loosely organized and undisciplined collection of twenty-six companies. Moreover, Ashby’s cavalry, which operated independently for the first year of the war, was now co-opted into Jackson’s Army of the Valley. By and large, Ashby served Jackson well in the latter’s illustrious Valley Campaign, a stunning masterpiece of deception, movement, and quick striking that is often credited with discomfiting Union general George B. McClellan’s attempt to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond and thus end the war.

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.
Turner Ashby leads a vigilante mob against John C. Underwood, of Clarke County, who has spoken out against slavery at the Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Underwood 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.
April 17, 1861
In response to Virginia's secession from the Union, Turner Ashby leads Virginia militia to Harpers Ferry in an attempt to capture the federal arsenal.
June 17, 1861
Turner Ashby is commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 7th Virginia Cavalry and mustered into Confederate service.
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.
June 6, 1862
Confederate forces under Richard S. Ewell move from Harrisonburg south toward Cross Keys. In a skirmish with Union troops under John C. Frémont, the thirty-three-year-old Confederate cavalry general Turner Ashby—a dark-complected, myth-encumbered figure who is known as the "Black Knight of the Confederacy"—is killed.
June 6, 1866
Memorial services in Winchester establish the anniversary of Turner Ashby's death as Confederate Memorial Day in the lower Shenandoah Valley.
October 1866
Turner Ashby's remains are reinterred with those of his brother Richard at the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Winchester.
  • Anderson, Paul Christopher. Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
  • Avirett, James B. The Memoirs of General Turner Ashby and His Compeers. Baltimore, Maryland: Selby and Dulany, 1867.
  • Carmichael, Peter S. “Turner Ashby’s Appeal.” In Gary W. Gallagher, ed. The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Tanner, Robert G. Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1996.
APA Citation:
Anderson, Paul. Turner Ashby (1828–1862). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/ashby-turner-1828-1862.
MLA Citation:
Anderson, Paul. "Turner Ashby (1828–1862)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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