Stonewall’s Cavalry Chief
In an army not lacking for larger-than-life heroes, Confederate cavalry leader Turner Ashby had already become a legend by the time of his premature death in June 1862.
As Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry chief in the Shenandoah Valley, the Virginia-born Ashby naturally took on some of the glamour of the South’s most-vaunted warrior. Like others around Jackson, he grew in stature from close proximity to the famous Stonewall, whose star shone brightest in the Valley Campaign of 1862.
But Ashby was very much his own man, as his subsequent quarrel with Jackson revealed. Following the Battle of Kernstown in March 1862, Jackson took steps to chasten Ashby for the undisciplined state of his cavalry. In particular, Jackson was nettled that Ashby had let some of his horsemen wander fruitlessly around Kernstown on the mistaken notion they would not be needed until the next day.
Dividing Ashby’s regiment in half, Jackson assigned a part to each of his two infantry commanders. It was his intention, said Stonewall, to have “the cavalry of this district more thoroughly organized, drilled and disciplined.”
Surprised and mortified, Ashby considered challenging Jackson to a duel–indeed, only Jackson’s superior rank prevented the two men from coming to blows. Instead, Ashby announced his intention to leave the army.
But if Jackson had thought he was disciplining Ashby, he was wrong. The hard-riding horsemen of Ashby’s 7th Virginia immediately let it be known that if their longtime leader left the army, they would leave with him. Their loyalty went back to the formation of the regiment as a body of mounted rangers two years before the start of the war. It was a tribute to Ashby’s hold over them that the notably fractious cavalrymen would not serve under anyone else.
Jackson quickly reinstated Ashby to full command, thus averting a calamitous mutiny. In the ensuing weeks, the cavalry served gallantly as a spearhead of Jackson’s marauding army, although the abstemious Stonewall occasionally had to turn a blind eye to his looting and carousing horsemen.
Ashby was promoted to brigadier general in late May 1862. Jackson noted that “as it seems you are now to command a brigade, perhaps the country may now hope for less exposure of your person.”
It was well-considered advice, but Ashby–as usual–did not heed it. Instead, on the afternoon of June 6, 1862, while leading a counterattack during a skirmish with Union cavalry around Harrisonburg, Va., Ashby was killed instantly by a bullet to the heart.
Impetuous, undisciplined, but brave to a fault, Ashby became even more of a legend after his death. Said a grieving Jackson: “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 movements and purposes of the enemy.”
Such a description might have fit Jackson himself.
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