General Turner Ashby of the Mountain Rangers
"The Black Knight of the Confederacy"
Gen. Turner Ashby was a dashing, colorful horseman who traced his roots to a long line of Virginia country gentlemen. His great-grandfather served with George Washington in the French and Indian War, and his father was a colonel in the War of 1812. Ashby was borm in 1828. Only 6 when his father died, his mother made sure he was properly educated by private tutors. His days as a young adult were filled with horseback riding and hunting. A handsome man with dark hair, he never married. In 1855, at age 27, he formed a cavalry group, the Fauquier Mountain Rangers, from among his friends to police the workers building the Manassas Gap Railroad. Four years later, when John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, Ashby's cavalrymen were among the first militia on the scene.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Ashby was commissioned as a Captain, and he immediately returned with his cavalry company to Harper's Ferry to help seize the Federal property there. His command, known as the Ashby Mountain Rangers, became part of the Seventh Virginia Cavalry. The 7th Virginia Cavalry was originally organized by Colonel Angus W. McDonald, Sr., in the early part of 1861. The regiment spent that year operating in the neighborhood of Harpers Ferry and Romney, West Virginia. In June 1861, Ashby was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in command of ten companies. Young men from the best families of western Virginia rushed to join his command. By the spring of 1862, the 7th Virginia Cavalry, was more frequently called "Ashby's Cavalry." In 1862, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel. On May 23, 1862, he was again promoted, this time to the rank of Brigadier General in command of the Ashby Brigade (later known as the Laurel Brigade). Ashby's Cavalry became part of Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
A man of striking personal appearance, General Ashby was about 5' 10" tall, well-proportioned, graceful, and compact, with black hair and eyes, a black beard and a dark complexion. He was a calm, gentle man, not given to drinking or swearing. He often smiled, but rarely laughed, especially after the death of his brother Richard, who died as a result of being severely wounded in an encounter with a Union patrol near Harper's Ferry early in the war. Ashby displayed great coolness and determination in battle. He employed the first battery of horse artillery used in the Civil War. 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. He is sometimes called "The Black Knight of the Confederacy."
Ashby's bravery was renown. During the retreat from Winchester in March 1862, he apparently was the last Confederate to leave town. But Ashby lacked military discipline which led him to several confrontations with Jackson. A reckless cavalier with no fear of personal danger, Ashby met his doom at Chestnut Ridge in Harrisonburg, VA in June 1862, leading a charge against a small group of Union soldiers. Jackson reacted to Ashby's death, saying "as a partisan officer I never knew his superior."
The whole South mourned his passing. His body was wrapped in a Confederate flag and buried with honor at the University of Virgina. Poems and songs were written in his memory. His uncle wrote his biography. So many recruits were drawn to Ashby's cavalry that two other regiments, the 12th Va and 17th Va, were made from the overflow.
In 1863 and 1864, the men of Ashby's Cavalry (now the 7th Virginia)took part in the famous Jones-Imboden Raid into Western Virginia, fought at Brandy Station, the Gettysburg Campaign, the Wilderness, Ream's Station, and Cedar Creek. The 7th Virginia Cavalry was at Appomatox Court House in April 1865.[Find out more about nthe 7th Virginia Cavalry on our Home page.]