The Civil War had many well-known cavalry leaders. JEB Stuart, Wade Hampton, Phil Sheridan and Nathan Bedford Forest were all household words by the war’s end, and many others were almost as popular, especially in the South. One name that was very popular at the time but has since faded from the nation’s memory is Gen. Turner Ashby.
Prior to the late 1850s, Ashby was a fairly wealthy businessman and planter. He was an accomplished horse rider, and in the mid-’50s he organized a company of mounted volunteers to police the Manassas Gap rail line, and to keep the railway’s workers from causing trouble. This irregular force was eventually absorbed into the Virginia state militia, and in 1859 Turner Ashby led it to Harper’s Ferry to aid in the capture of John Brown’s men. Two years later he would return to Harper’s Ferry, attempting to capture the federal stores and munitions there for the state of Virginia, the day before Virginia officially seceded from the Union.
Once serious fighting began, Ashby and his men were placed under the command of Stonewall Jackson, and they were responsible for guarding fords and bridges over the Potomac River. His troopers did not take part in the fighting at First Manassas, but their screening activities helped conceal Confederate troop movements and win the battle. Ashby was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 7th Virginia Cavalry two days after the battle.
Ashby played an important role during Jackson’s Valley Campaign during the spring of 1862, although that role was sometimes controversial. At Kernstown in March, he informed Stonewall Jackson that he faced only about 3,000 Union troops. In fact, there were 9,000 troops opposing Jackson, and the misinformation brought about one of Stonewall’s few defeats. At other points in the campaign, his men were either surprised by Union forces or were distracted from achieving their goals.
While he was well-known in many Virginia counties from Rockingham to Prince George, Turner Ashby had no formal military training, and this may have been the source of his problems with superiors during the war, especially with West Point graduates like Jackson and Stuart. Jackson considered him undisciplined. At one point, Jackson tried to take away half of his command, and he opposed the lieutenant colonel’s promotion to brigadier general.
Turner Ashby was killed in battle on June 6, 1862, outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. He had been an aggressive and popular commander, and Jackson was kinder toward him after death than he had been during the campaign. In many ways he represented a cavalier ideal that no longer fit the evolving nature of cavalry warfare. Many loved him though, and he was mourned throughout Virginia.