Turner Ashby was a Confederate cavalry general who served under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 during the Civil War. A soldier by descent, he was the son of Colonel Turner Ashby, who fought in the war of 1812, and the grandson of Revolutionary War Captain Jack Ashby.
An expert horseman, Ashby was arguably the Confederacy’s most renowned combat hero before his death on June 6, 1862. His presence in the Valley was a powerful catalyst to the Confederate effort there, and his presence resonates even now, as many Shenandoah localities celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on June 6.
According to accounts, Ashby displayed great coolness and determination in battle. Galloping over the battlefield, alert and eager, on his black stallion or his favorite white horse, he reminded many who saw him of a medieval knight.
General Thomas E. “Stonewall” Jackson declared that he “…never knew [Ashby’s] superior as a partisan leader.” Ashby was killed in a skirmish on Chesnut Ridge near Harrisonburg, Virginia, on June 6, 1862, the eve of the climactic battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic.
On that fateful day, Ashby and his men were fighting a rear guard action against the Yankees in an attempt to buy time for General Richard Ewell to set his defenses. In a skirmish with Federal troops, Ashby’s horse was shot out from under him, but undaunted, he drew his pistol and called: “Charge, men. For God’s sake, charge!” and proceeded to lead the cavalry charge on foot. After taking only a few steps, he was hit in the chest with a musket ball and died instantly. He was 33 years old.
Many say that the critical point in Ashby’s career was the death of his younger brother in 1861. From then on he was driven by a vengeance that bordered on bloodlust.
Like the main character in the historical fiction novel Shades of Gray, Ashby and his deeds became legendary, creating a mesmerizing aura that was all the more powerful because it contained fears while it idealized hopes.