The Death of Ashby (Mostly From the Bucktails’ Perspective)

After recovering from his Dranesville wound, Col. Thomas L. Kane returned to the Bucktails in their winter quarters (1862) where he began working on his Instructions for Skirmishers which was a new concept for tactics employed by riflemen.  Upon its completion and approval, Gen. George B.  McClellan ordered Colonel Kane to drill four companies of the Bucktails on these new tactics.  Companies, C, G, H and I were selected.

Chestnut Ridge near Harrisonburg
Chestnut Ridge near Harrisonburg

Basically, the old European-style tactics now in use, called for the men to march in lines towards the enemy.   Kane’s new tactics called for the men, on the offensive, to advance individually, using trees, rocks, buildings, etc.  for cover as much as possible.   On the defensive, use these same trees, rocks, buildings, etc.  to hide behind and make slow, deliberate and accurate shots at a specified target.  Let the enemy advance in lines, in the open, being the easy target.  The former tactics were developed when the weapons were “smooth-bore and effective only at short range.  The latter tactics of Kane took into account the longer effective range of the relatively new “rifled-barrels.”

His men “were qualified, off-hand marksmen before the war; their drilling and discipline, of course, added materially to their effectiveness, they seemed to thoroughly understand the value of close, careful, slow shooting…”

Most of these men were hunters, farmers, lumber-jacks, and outdoors men who had a rifle in their hands since they learned to walk and “have been inured to hardship from infancy, and thrive better under exposure than in a life of ease.  In these counties (where they originated) a bounty is paid for wolf-scalps, a circumstance which has made these men the best possible shots.  The world contains no better marksmen than these men.”

While the Bucktails drilled, General McClellan maneuvered his Army of the Potomac to advance on Richmond in what became known as the Peninsula Campaign.  He was hoping to draw reinforcements from the Union troops in western Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley to augment his supposedly outnumbered army.

Meanwhile, Confederate Gen.  “Stonewall” Jackson, not co-operating with McClellan, maneuvered his army to try to keep as many Union troops in the Valley and away from the Peninsula as possible.  He started his Valley Campaign while teaching his men his tactics on the job.  “All old Jackson gave us was a musket, a hundred rounds, and a gum blanket, and he drove us like hell.”

Lt. Col. Thomas L. Kane
Lt. Col. Thomas L. Kane, 13th Pennsylvania Reserves

“In this one month (May 8 to June 9, 1862) Jackson and his little army became immortal in military history.  In that time he had defeated four separate armies.  He had relieved Staunton of (Generals) Milroy and Schenck, had driven (General) Banks beyond the borders of Virginia and held (General) McDowell with 35,000 troops from going to join McClellan, had defeated (Generals) Banks, Fremont and Shields in turn, had broken into pieces their triple combination, and had driven the Federal Administration in Washington to the verge of nervous prostration.  In thirty days his army had marched nearly four hundred miles, skirmishing almost daily, fought five battles, defeated four armies, two of which were completely routed, captured about twenty pieces of artillery, some four thousand prisoners, and immense quantity of stores of all kinds, and had done all this with a loss of less than one thousand killed, wounded and missing.”

The four companies of the Bucktails, now familiar with Kane’s tactics, were detached from the regiment and the rest of the Pennsylvania Reserves to became part of Gen. George D. Bayard’s “Flying Brigade,” along with the 1st New Jersey Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (originally formed as part of the Reserves) and a small artillery detachment.

Not too many of the men were happy about this turn of events.  “The reason we have for this, is, that we are a rifle regiment, and they have a right to divide it, in order to have a scouting party in two divisions.  We do not know whether the division is permanent, or not.”

As the news of Jackson’s success in the Valley reached Washington, orders were put into motion to send “The Flying Brigade” to the Shenandoah Valley.

During this campaign, Jackson’s infantry, because of their many fast-paced marches and then going into battle, earned the nick-name foot-cavalry.  The four companies of the Bucktails also became foot-cavalry but they did not receive the notoriety of their Southern counterparts.

“In twelve successive days, during seven of which we were constantly engaged with the enemy, we marched nearly twenty miles a day, and counting flank marching and service in fight, exclusive of foraging, an estimate of about 30 miles more.”

Gen. Turner Ashby
Gen. Turner Ashby

Without tents, blankets, or regular rations, Kane’s battalion out marched and wore down all the horses of Bayard’s cavalry.

From Chaplain Henry R.  Pyne (1st New Jersey Cavalry), “Keeping up with the cavalry through all is heavy marching.  Kane’s gallant Bucktails stepped out actively beside us…”

The chase is joined several miles north of Harrisonburg, Virginia where the pursuing Union column is stopped by a rain swollen river.

Meanwhile, even in the mud, Jackson’s men slowly retreated, now unharrassed by the “Flying Brigade.” At the Confederate camp this evening, Capt.  “Sandy” Pendleton of Jackson’s staff asked Turner Ashby, who just received his promotion to Brigadier General, if he will operate less recklessly now that he was a general.

Ashby replied that “he was not afraid of the balls that were shot directly at him for they always missed their mark.  He only feared those random shots which always hit someone for whom they were not intended.”

June 5 – During the night, the river receded as fast as it rose.  By 10 a.m., the bridge was replaced and the pursuit resumed.  During a light rain, 18 miles were covered but the rear guard of Jackson was still several miles beyond the lead Union elements.  I Camp for the night was one mile south of New Market.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s column left the Valley Pike just south of Harrisonburg and headed for Port Republic.  He hoped to battle both of the Union columns trying to stop him near Port Republic.

June 6, 1862 – Skirmish at Harrisonburg

“The ‘Flying Brigade,’ on the move as the sun rose, had to close the gap between themselves and Jackson’s slowly but steadily retreating army.  The fast pace, the lack of sleep and food, and now, the muddy roads, took a toll on the Bucktails.  Their stragglers (perhaps an unkind term considering the conditions) were not catching up with the main body during each night’s halt.

On the Confederate side, early in the morning, “Ashby seemed all energy and life.  He appeared to be most fully impressed with the arduous and important duties of Jackson’s trust.  General Ashby was ordered to guard the east flank of the army with a body of cavalry against any incursions that might be made by Shields, then moving up the east bank of the south fork of the Shenandoah; and at the same time to protect the rear of Jackson from any attack that might be made by the Federal cavalry under Bayard, then operating with Fremont.”

Ashby’s rear guard retreated slowly during the day with only minor skirmishing.

The Death of Turner Ashby at Good's Farm (Harrisonburg)
The Death of Turner Ashby at Good’s Farm (Harrisonburg)

However, a member of the rear-guard told us it was not an easy march.

“As soon as we left the turnpike our troubles began, and during the day we did not progress more than three or four miles, owing to the soft conditions of the roads, which became quagmires as soon as the trains moved over them, forcing us to take to the fields, which were but little better.  The army was literally floundering in the mud, and the persistency of the enemy, who closely followed us, made our rear a post of miserable discomfort.

In the late afternoon, the Confederate cavalry troopers rested themselves and their horses several miles southeast of Harrisonburg while Ashby and some of his staff were in Harrisonburg visiting a family whose one daughter was a romantic interest of a member of the staff.  As they said good-bye and mounted their horses, Ashby looked up the street.

“Look! there is the head of the enemy’s column.  Ride at a quick trot, four abreast.

We are leading to an ambush, they suspect, and will not follow too closely.  As soon as over the hill, gallop to the command.”

As Ashby and his men cleared the town, the family watched as “with a great clatter the Bucktails–a fine Pennsylvania regiment that had chosen as their emblem the buck tail, and with it decorated their hats–thundered down the street.”

The daughters “watched with keen interest from behind the curtain as the fine-looking Bucktails dashed by, laughing secretly, for they fancied an ambush in the green meadow beyond, where their friends, the boys in gray would win a victory.”

It was about 2 p.m.  when the remnants of the “Flying Brigade” reached Harrisonburg and “passed on beyond and a little to the left of the town and camped in a piece of woods about half a mile from town.  After stacking arms the Colonel told us to scatter and get something to eat.  We had not drawn rations on our whole trip, and lived off the country, for the Johnnies had burned and torn up the bridges so that our wagon train could not keep up with us.”

Shortly thereafter, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry was ordered to follow the route of the Confederate retreat and develop the situation.

General Bayard pondered whether these orders were wise or not.  “…the horses

staggering in the ranks from exhaustion, and the men having been without rations other than fresh beef, for two or three days” were equally exhausted.

Three miles later, following the Port Republic Road, the Union cavalry headed towards the resting Confederate troopers.

Ashby ordered his men to mount up and follow him, planning to meet the Union charge with a countercharge.

“Ashby hurled his squadrons with such force and dexterity upon the line of the enemy as to sweep everything before them.  The tide of the attack was almost instantly met, stemmed, and reversed.”

The Company I Flag, 13th Pennsylvania Reserves. The battalion became known as Kane’s Rifles. Source: Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, Harrisburg, Pa.

The 1st New Jersey troopers, forced to retreat from Ashby’s attack, suffered about 30 casualties, including the capture of their commander, Sir Percy Wyndham.  Reaching the safety of the Union lines, the survivors told of the ambush.

Colonel Kane wanted to try to rescue any wounded troopers left on the field.  He asked for and received permission from General Fremont for the attempt.

“Just forty minutes, I’ll give you, Colonel,” said General Bayard as he pulled out his

watch, “Peep through the woods on our left, see what is in them, and out again when the time’s up.”

The Bucktails and the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry moved out.  “We were to proceed with caution, as skirmishers, recover if possible the dead bodies of the cavalrymen and find out what they failed to do.”

However, the Confederates saw the advancing Pennsylvanians.  Capt.  Henry W.

Wingfield (58th Virginia Infantry) explained, “General Ashby came up, led us back some miles to attack a party of the enemy.  We made the attack…”

Meanwhile, the Bucktails “went into a corner of a piece of woods.  The underbrush and all the small timber had been cut off, leaving nothing but the large timber, and some of that had been cut.”

Sgt.  Enoch Barnum (13th Reserves, Co. C), described meeting the Confederates.  “We were counting off, ready to deploy and scour the woods to see if there were any rebs there, when there was a volley of musketry fired at us from the thick underbrush in front of us.  Had they shot low enough, they might have killed all of us the first fire.  Two or three were killed as it was, but most of the bullets went over our heads.”

Corporal Booth, on the 1st Maryland skirmish line, was also glad the advancing 58th Virginia was firing high.  “My position was decidedly uncomfortable; we were between the two lines and subjected to the fire from both.  Fortunately for us, the 58”, in their confusion.  were firing too high to do execution.  If the Bucktails had been in the tree tops, I think it likely they mostly would have been killed.  As it was, they remained on terra firma, and with great coolness and deliberation kept up a most effective fire.”

Surviving the initial Confederate volley, Sergeant Crapsey explained, “We took cover behind the trees & went at them Indian fashion.”

This was one of Kane’s new tactics, advance individually, slowly, using all available cover and shoot only at visible targets.  Sergeant Barnum “saw a stump a short distance in front of the company, and ran and got behind it.  I would duck my head down behind the stump and load, then raise up and shoot over the top of it.”

The fighting was hot, heavy and close, less than 150 feet and lasting less than 90 minutes.  Colonel Kane, wounded in the leg, had some of his men prop him against a tree so he could continue to command.  Pvt.  Martin Kelly (13th Reserves, Co. G) unselfishly gave up his life by stepping from behind his tree to draw fire, thus exposing the enemy’s positions to his comrades.  He was killed instantly by a Confederate volley.

After the 1st New Jersey Cavalry was repulsed, “a few of the officers remained on the field, and were spectators of that magnificent fight of the Pennsylvania Bucktails, in which that battalion, unsupported, checked and even drove the whole of Ashby’s infantry into the woods.”

The deadly, accurate fire of the Bucktails forced the 58th Virginia to pull back and regroup.  In a very short time, Ashby had the regiment reformed and advancing again, but now accompanied by the 1st Maryland.

Col.  Bradley T.  Johnson (1st Maryland) explained, “The right companies and colors went in on a run, the left companies catching up, they closed with the Bucktails, who were strongly posted behind a worm fence full of undergrowth and briars, and drove them out, and as they ran across the open field, poured a most deadly fire into them, which melted them away like frost before the sun.”

Four other members of the regiment described the attack.  From Sommerville Sollers, “The regt.  charged the celebrated Buck Tail Rifles of Penn. commanded by Lt.  Col.  Kane.  They were protected by a stone fence, & it was when advancing up a steep hill to the charge, that our ret.  suffered so much.  But the brave boys never faltered & not a shot did they fire until within 30 yards of the enemy.”

From Pvt.  John E.  H.  Post, ” We rushed headlong into the shower of bullets from the Yankees concealed behind a fence.  In this charge my best friends fell by my side; but on we went.  But the Yankees never flinched till we got within 10 feet of them and then away they went and we brought them down by the dozens.”

From Washington Hands, the regiment continued to charge “until they were within twenty paces of them, poured into their ranks so destructive a volley that the survivors broke and attempted to reach their main body.  In this but few succeeded, as they were compelled to recross an open field, about 400 yards wide, and all the while subjected to our fire, which was delivered with the utmost coolness and precision.”

From J.  William Thomas, “Our brigade then advanced, expecting to take them by surprise, they were on the lookout and had ready three regiments and a battalion (the Pennsylvania Bucktail Rifles), one of their crack regiments.  They fought well, but when we charged, they ran.” He continued in his diary, “The firing was terrific, but our little battalion stood manfully and charged with a will.”

On the Bucktails^ side, Pvt.  Wallace W.  Johnson (13th Reserves, Co. C) had a theory why the Confederates advanced more confidently.  “…they had by this time discovered that the little handful of troops they were contending with seemed to be ‘going it alone,’ and were not only not receiving any re-enforcements, but their numbers were growing less under the crushing fire of musketry from the overwhelming force against which they were so valiantly striving.”

Capt.  Leander W.  Gifford (13th Reserves, Co. C) supplied one answer why they were trying to hold their position against such odds.  “Our orders were ‘If you engage the enemy, hold your position at all hazards, and reinforcements will reach you.’ Never did mortals look more wistful for that promise to be fulfilled; but none came, and the Confederates began flanking us to the right and left, forming a semi-circular human wall on the brow of the elevations surrounding the wooded valley in which we were desperately holding our position against overwhelming odds, while deadly missiles of lead were pouring like hail over and among us from the front, left and right, and no tongue can tell, nor pen describe, the stubborn determination displayed to hold the position in obedience to orders, until the last moment, when nothing but retreat could save us from complete annihilation or capture.”

Later that night, in a hospital, an unknown wounded Bucktail officer was asked, “Why didn’t you come out when you found they were in such force against you?” To which he replied, “Why you see I was told to deploy with some men as skirmishers, and before we had moved 30 yards we were abreast with a whole regiment of rebels.  It was no use, of course, to fight; but as for retreat, I knew the Colonel wouldn’t hear of it, so we went in.”

Just as the Bucktails started to pull back, they made the Confederates pay a heavy price.  From Colonel Johnson, “The fight, short as it was, had cost us dearly.  Ashby’s horse fell at the first fire, immediately jumping to his feet, he half turned round to the Fifty-Eighth, in front of whose second company he was brandishing his right hand with his pistol, ordering them to charge.  The confusion was such that they did not obey him, and he fell, a ball entering his right side just above his hip and passing diagonally upward, came out under his left arm, showing that the ball was fired by some one lying down.  Though in front of the Fifty-eighth, he was not more than thirty yards from the enemy, who were lying flat behind the fence.  The opinion of Lieutenant Booth, who saw him fall and was closer to him than anyone, is that a shot from the Yankees killed him.”

Sergeant Crapsey described the Bucktail retreat.  “…we had to run for life for they had flanked us & were like to capture us & we had to run through an open field & we had showers of bullets sent after us.  The rebels were within 5 rods of me when I climbed the fence.”

From Capt.  Charles Taylor (13th Reserves, Co. H), “We kept their center at bay but their flanks being unopposed pressed forward and unobserved by us, coming down through the bushes, gave us a raking crossfire.  The situation was hopeless, our men broke cover and ran–Kane was wounded, in the leg, rather early in the fight, but I was not aware of it.  However, being second in command and not seeing him, I made a last effort to rally the men behind a fence that we might check the enemy somewhat by one good volley and before he recovered, effect our escape.  I succeeded in forming about 20 men behind the fence and, as the enemy advanced, cheering, gave him a volley which had the desired effect.”

Returning to Sergeant Barnum at his stump, now wounded in the left thigh and left shoulder.  Seeing he was about to be flanked on both sides, he decided to retreat.  “You cannot form any idea of my surprise when, upon getting up and looking around, I found that our men who were able to get away were all gone and out of sight…”. Only the dead and badly wounded remained.

Using his rifle as a crutch, Barnum limped a retreat as fast as possible, Confederate bullets flying all around him added to his speed.  An unknown cavalry trooper, seeing his plight, rode to his rescue, pulled him onto his horse and rode out of further danger.

“It was a good thing for the Rebels that they outflanked me from my stump, for as there was no one there to give me orders to retreat, I would have stuck to them until I killed the whole brigade.”

This was not only a costly fight for the Confederates, but for the Bucktails as well, suffering seven killed, 45 wounded (seven of whom also died), and six captured.  Among the captured were Colonel Kane who, with two wounds, did not try to retreat and Captain Taylor who returned to Colonel Kane to try to help him escape.  Both of these men were captured by an orderly-sergeant of the 58th Virginia, in “one of the most gallant acts I have witnessed.”

Kane thought the casualties were greater.  In his words, “hardly a dozen of the command escaped.”

That night, after his capture and before learning of the death of Ashby, Colonel Kane talked to Capt.  James R.  Herbert who commanded the 1st Maryland skirmishers.

“I have today saved the life of one of the most gallant soldiers in either army – General Ashby – a man I admire as much as you do.  His figure is familiar to me for I have seen him often enough in our front.  He was today within fifty yards of my skirmishers, sitting on his horse, unconscious of the danger he was in.  I saw three of them raise their guns to fire, but I succeeded in stopping two of them and struck up the gun of the third as it went off.  Ashby is too brave to die that way.”

Later, after the war, Kane talked to a writer on the war, “Deal justly with the memory of Ashby.  He must have been a noble fellow, a brave soldier, and a gentleman.”

On the Confederate side, General Ewell told Colonel Johnson, “Colonel, you must carry a buck tail on your colors as your trophy, for you won it on Friday.”

Many of the Marylanders already wore captured buck tails on their hats which was probably what attracted Ewell’s attention.

“Company D was passing at the moment, and Colonel Johnson called out to William H.  Ryan, a tall, long-legged boy, who had one, ‘here Ryan, give me that bucktail.’ Ryan brought it.  “Now you tie it to the head of the colors yourself and your trophy shall be the trophy of the regiment.”

General Orders, no.  30, Headquarters, Ewell’s Division.  “In commemoration of the gallant conduct of the First Maryland Regiment on the 6th of June, instant, when, led by Col. Bradley T.  Johnson, they drove back with loss the Pennsylvania Bucktail Rifles in the engagement near Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Va., authority is given to have one of the captured bucktails (the insignia of the Federal regiment) appended to the color staff of the First Maryland Regiment.

By order of Major-General Ewell:

James Barton

Assistant Adjutant-General

This fight involves a controversy in this portion of the Bucktails’ history.  “Who killed Ashby?” A display in the museum of the McKean County Court House credits Cpl.  Frederick C.  Holmes, Company I, as does Samuel Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers.  The regimental historians believed someone else fired the fatal shot.  One Confederate officer at the scene of the battle stated Ashby was shot twice.  Doctor Hunter McGuire, Jackson’s chief medical officer, examined Ashby’s wounds and concluded they were the result of friendly fire.  Another Confederate officer at the battle stated that the fatal ball was fired by someone who was lying down.  Corporal Holmes was already wounded and lying on the ground when he supposedly shot Ashby.  Perhaps both candidates hit their mark.  How many of the other Bucktails aimed at Ashby and thought they killed him?

Holmes died of his wound, the regimental historians’ candidate wanted to remain anonymous; so unless some new evidence comes to light, we will never know for sure who killed Ashby.

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.