The Death of General Turner Ashby, Terror of the Shenandoah Valley; Memphis Falls

June 6, 1862 (Friday)

You do NOT mess with Sir Percy Wyndham and his ridiculous facial hair.

The head of the Valley Army under Stonewall Jackson had reached Port Republic, while its tail was just south of Harrisonburg. Though Jackson had beat one Federal division under General James Shields to Port Republic, an entire corps of troops under General John C. Fremont was in close pursuit.

Morning was spared the horrors of war, as Jackson’s cavalry commander, General Turner Ashby, prepared a defense just south of Harrisonburg. The sun rose over a beautiful late spring day. Not even Federal cavalry ventured too close. Seeing that the wagons they were guarding were well on their way to Port Republic, Ashby, along with Jackson’s second-in-command, followed.

Very detailed map of the ground between Harrisonburg and Port Republic.

In the mid-afternoon, Union Col. Percy Wyndham, a British soldier-of-fortune who had fought with France, Italy and Austria before joining with the United States, took notice that Ashby was resting his men and watering his horses. Wyndham, who had plagued the Rebels with surprise attacks in the past, planned another. Believing that the Rebels only numbered around fifty, he led companies from three different cavalry regiments towards a crossroads three miles outside of town.

On a ridge, just beyond a swampy stream, Wyndham spotted Ashby’s men and ordered a charge. Nobody listened. Some of the men had broken off after passing the crossroads, as it seemed too much like a trap to continue. And so, with the heat and passion of battle possessing Wyndham, and Wyndham alone, the British colonel drew his saber and charged, leading not even the colors. Ashby’s men charged, captured the lonesome mercenary, scattering his troops.1

The sunk sank low towards the horizon before the Federals made another appearance. Fresh cavalry, as well as the Pennsylvania Bucktail infantry regiment, passed through Harrisonburg and turned east, following Ashby’s rear-guard.

Rather very large map showing troop positions throughout Virginia on this day.

Keeping an eye upon the Federals, Ashby moved his command a mile closer to the town, which was where he first spotted the Bucktails. Having sprung a trap upon Wyndham without even trying, Ashby rode to General Ewell, asking for some infantry to purposely snare the oncoming enemy. Ewell gave him two regiments, the 1st Maryland and the 58th Virginia, accompanying them to the field, as Ashby hid them in the woods south of the road.

He kept his cavalry on the road itself, occupying a ridge in plain view. They were the bait. But something went wrong. The Bucktails were closer than Ashby believed and when the the 1st Maryland was getting into line, they were met with a volley that reeled them back, nearly sending them into a rout. The Union fire then focused upon the Virginians, who returned the compliment, but fired too high. With this slight reprieve, the Marylanders rallied, but the Virginians were beginning to break.

Turner Ashby’s horse had been shot out from under him, but he was unharmed. Calling out to the crumbling Virginians to follow him, Ashby drew his sword, and perhaps his pistol, and charged the Union position. As happened with Col. Wyndham, nobody followed.

The memento mori of Turner Ashby.

Thirty yards from the enemy, with bullets flying around him, Turner Ashby was hit. The ball entered his right side, just above the hip, and exited under his left arm. The projectile tore a path through Ashby’s body, and without a word, he fell dead.

General Ewell quickly took control, ordering the 1st Maryland to charge into the flank of the Bucktails. They were joined by another Virginia regiment as well as the reformed 58th. The Federals gave way through the darkness, leaving the field to the Rebels.2

Turner Ashby’s body was borne by four of his cavaliers, each wearing faces wet with tears, towards Port Royal.

Around 9pm, Jackson learned of the loss. He had been talking with the captured Col. Wyndham at the Kemper House near the town, when he received a knock on the door and a voice asking him to step outside. Wyndham was ushered away and Jackson spent the night alone trying to figure out how exactly to go on without Turner Ashby.3

When Jackson wrote his official report seven months later, he remembered Ashby, extolling “that 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 purposes and movements of the enemy.”4

__________________

Memphis Falls to the Union, but at a Cost

Battle of Memphis

Confederate Memphis had been mostly abandoned by the infantry, but the Mississippi River before it was still defended by the Cottonclad River Defense Fleet. Rather than wait to be attacked by the Federals, commanded by Captain Charles H. Davis, they elected to meet them.

Upon catching sight of the coming Rebels, Captain Davis, aboard his flagship, the USS Benton, ordered all of his five ironclads and four rams to advance against the eight converted river steamers. For fifteen minutes, they fired at each other from nearly two miles off, as the Rebels sat in a double line opposite Memphis.

Col. Charles Ellet, Jr., commanding the Union rams, saw an opportunity to prove the prowess of the ships he built. To his brother, Alfred he signaled that the Monarch should join the Queen of the West in a rush towards the enemy ships.

As the slower ironclad gunboats looked on, the two rams cut through the water towards their targets. Col. Ellet’s Queen hit and sank the CSS General Lovell, but was taken out of the action by the CSS General Beauregard. The Monarch went for the General Price, but the Beauregard made a move to cut her off. Being the faster ship, the Monarch slipped by, leaving the Beauregard on a course that sheered off the wheel of the Price.

The Union gunboats blasted away as the Monarch turned and rammed the Beauregard, which limped to the Arkansas shore. In quick succession, the CSS Little Rebel was beached by the Monarch, riddled by the gunboats and abandoned. Soon, other Rebel ships, like the General Bragg and the Jeff Thompson were thrown upon the shore and blown up by their crews. The CSS General Sumter was grounded, but was saved by the Union forces and would later be resurrected.

The fastest ship of the day was the CSS General Van Dorn, which was able to escape, even out-pacing the Monarch, which, along with the USS Switzerland chased her for ten miles before pulling back. In just over an hour, the fight was over.5

During the battle, Col. Ellet was wounded, but at the time it wasn’t believed to be very serious. The mayor, having little choice in the matter, surrendered his city. After seeing a white flag on the Memphis shore, Ellet sent his son, Charles Rivers Ellet, and three others, into the city to raise the United States flag over the Post Office.

Charles Rivers Ellet

As the younger Ellet made his way through the building, up the stairs, and onto the roof to run up his flag, an angry mob-like crowd surrounded the Post Office. They were enraged and tried to get into the building to throw Ellet off the roof. From another building, shots were fired, but none hit their mark. Eventually, the crowd dispersed to see what was happening at the waterfront.6

Col. Charles Ellet, Jr., still aboard his Queen of the West was wounded. Four days later, a doctor removed the ball from his leg, but blood poisoning had already set in. On June 18th, as he was being transported back up the river, Col. Ellet died.7

Memphis was, however, under Union control. The Mississippi River was under the Stars and Stripes everywhere but Mississippi.

Charles R. Ellet raising the flag over Memphis.


  1. Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 1996. []
  2. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. []
  3. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p712. []
  5. Thunder Along the Mississippi by Jack D. Coombe, Castle Books, 2005. As well as “Operations of the Western Flotilla” by Henry Walke in Century Magazine, Vol. 29, 1885. []
  6. Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee by A. R. James, H. W. Crew, 1912. []
  7. Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All by Chester G. Hearn, LSU Press, 2006. []
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2 thoughts on “The Death of General Turner Ashby, Terror of the Shenandoah Valley; Memphis Falls

  1. According to the account I’ve read, Memphis Mayor John Park attempted the same farce that had happened at New Orleans. He declined to give a formal surrender, claiming that he was a civilian and there was no military authority at hand. (The commander of the Confederate River Defense Fleet had abandoned his grounded flagship and decamped into the nearby woods.) This time, however, the Union fleet had embarked a quantity of infantry, and the city was occupied in short order.

    Apparently, Colonel Ellet was the only Union casualty of the day.

    1. That’s more or less true. I probably should have gone into more detail over how the “surrender” took place.

      Two letters came from the mayor’s office on this day in response to two letters demanding the surrender:

      “The civil authorities of this city are not advised of its surrender to the forces of the United States government, and our reply to you is simply to state respectfully that we have no forces to oppose the raising of the flag you have directed to be raised over the Custom House and post-ofiice.”

      and

      “Sir: Your note of this day is received and contents noted. In reply I have only to say that as the civil authorities have no means of defense, by the force of circumstances the city is in your hands.”

      Finally, after a third demand, the Mayor replied:

      “Sirs: Your communication is received and I shall be happy to coiiperate with the colonel commanding in providing measures for maintaining peace and order in the city. Your most obedient servant, Jno. Park, Mayor.”

      While not a formal surrender, it’s a bit better than the fellow at New Orleans.

      Thanks yet again for keeping me straight,

      Eric

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