Tom Telegraph and the Black Knight of the Confederacy

A couple of months ago, while filling up my car at a local gas station, a man approached me after spotting the advertising on the side of my car. He was an elderly man and he asked me several questions about my business. I told him that I specialized in battlefield tours related to Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign. Pleased, the gentleman informed me that his great grandfather had been a Civil War veteran. He told me he had fought with the 7th Virginia Cavalry under Turner Ashby. He also advised me that he possessed a few treasured family heirlooms that marked his great grandfather’s service. Among these items was a collection of horsehairs from the mane of Turner Ashby’s stallion, Tom Telegraph. Sadly, I have not had a chance to observe these items for myself. Being familiar with the story, though, I decided to relate an account of the incident in one of my blogs. Please bear with me.

Turner Ashby, to whom I have referred to on several previous occasions, was a native Virginian. He was born on October 28, 1828, near the town of Markham in Fauquier County, which is located outside of the Shenandoah Valley. Ashby preferred wandering the countryside to attending school classes as a youth. In his early twenties he organized a cavalry company known as the “Mountain Rangers.” The troop was repeatedly utilized to put down bouts of civil disobedience, disorder, and wrangles on the part of Irish laborers working on the Manassas Gap Railroad. His rangers even performed guard duty during the trial and execution of John Brown.

Turner Ashby

Turner Ashby

Ashby was widely renowned for his superb horsemanship, and often joined in equestrian tournaments, many of which he won. When war came to the country in 1861, he joined the 7th Virginia Cavalry and was quickly elevated to command. His friend Henry Kyd Douglas once said of him: “Riding his black stallion, he looked like a knight of the olden time, galloping over the field on his favorite war horse.” As his reputation for bravery grew, he quickly became one of the Confederacy’s first heroes. Many would come to refer to him as the “Black Night of the Confederacy.”

On April 1, 1862, with the 2nd Massachusetts in the lead, Colonel George Gordon’s men pushed across Tom’s Brook, driving Turner Ashby’s cavalrymen before them. It was a running fight with Ashby’s men resisting the advance at several places. The line at Narrow Passage Creek, once believed to be impregnable, was quickly broken. The Federal advance drove on, forcing the Confederates up the valley more than nineteen miles, all the way to Edinburg. When Gordon’s troops arrived there, though, the bridge over rain swollen Stoney Creek had been blazing for more than fifteen minutes. No longer traversable, Gordon and Banks’s offensive ground to a halt. Once again Colonel Ashby, though significantly outnumbered, had outsmarted and outmaneuvered his opponent.

The following day General Stonewall Jackson reinforced Ashby’s force on the south bank of Stoney Creek with a number of soldiers from the Stonewall Brigade. The remainder of his command fell back to Rude’s Hill, some two miles south of Mount Jackson. Stonewall’s newly appointed mapmaker, Jed Hotchkiss, had recently endorsed Stoney Creek as an exceptional defensive position for the army. He had also recommended the high ground at Rude’s Hill. Jackson liked the two positions equally and decided to make use of both of them. He determined he would make his headquarters at the base of Rude’s Hill at the home of Reverend Anders Rude. Jackson now had both a secure forward outpost and an easily defendable fallback position.

Rudes Hill Headq.png

Photo of Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters at Reverend Anders Rude Home.

The two adversaries would face off exchanging pyrotechnics for more than two weeks. On one particular day Turner Ashby rode out to reconnoiter the lines with a young aid. The party immediately came under fire from Union troops and his assistant’s horse was shot out from under him. Ashby encouraged the youngster to remove the saddle from his horse and carry it back to their lines. All the while this was transpiring Ashby remained in the saddle under constant enemy fire. Once his aid had concluded his task, Turner turned his mount and trotted back to the safety of his own lines with nary a scratch.

Turner Ashby had a theory about the accuracy of an adversary’s fire. He had always been indifferent to the dangers of enemy musketry, and once told a member of Jackson’s staff “that only stray bullets worried him. He was not afraid of shots aimed directly at him, since Northern riflemen invariably missed their mark. Hence he felt safest sitting quietly in the open.” The question in the minds of his men, though, was how long would this theory hold up in practice?

For some fifteen days the two forces exchanged potshots while glaring at each other across Stoney Creek. The army commander, General Nathaniel Banks, had a plan though, and it was a good one. Colonel Sam Carroll was tasked with taking a one-thousand-man force around Colonel Ashby’s left flank with the objective of getting to Mount Jackson and cutting off the rebel’s retreat. General Shields would thrust his men across Stoney Creek early the following morning and push on to capture the bridges over Mill Creek and the North Fork of the Shenandoah at Mount Jackson. This had to be accomplished before Colonel Ashby could destroy them. The combined forces would then drive on to capture the works at Rude’s Hill with the objective of destroying Jackson’s Army.

Fortunately for the Confederates, Colonel Ashby had become suspicious of the looming Union attack. Jackson’s cavalry, infantry, and artillery had already begun to retire as Banks forces came crashing across Stoney Creek. Jackson had instructed his cavalry commander to fall back if attacked. He had also ordered Major John Harman, his quartermaster, to destroy all train hardware and supplies in Mount Jackson. Ashby had tasked Captain John Winfield, and a dozen of his men, with the job of burning the bridge over the North Fork. If the plot came together as conceived, General Banks and his men would be stranded on the north side of the Shenandoah.

As planned General Bank’s infantry crossed Stoney Creek at three A.M. on April 17th. Ashby’s token force had already begun its retreat up the Valley pike and was helping set fire to the supplies in Mount Jackson.  When Shields’s vanguard reached Mount Jackson at about 7 a.m., his band was playing the National Anthem, and the only Rebels in sight were at the local hospital. The town itself was cloaked in smoke as the railroad cars and engine house were already in flames.

Turner Ashby had kept in front of Shield’s vanguard, and when he reached the bridge over the North Fork, Chew’s Battery and the remaining rebel cavalry were already rattling over the structure to safety. With Winfield’s tiny detail already tearing up the flooring on the bridge, Ashby turned to torching it by setting fire to a pile of tinder and firewood. Everything was properly staged but time was running short.

Rudes Hill.png

Map Showing Turner Ashby’s Ride on Tom Telegraph

Shield’s advance cavalry detachment consisted of four companies, probably a little more than three hundred riders. Captain John Winfield’s force defending the bridge consisted of only a dozen men. Winfield, though, had already formed a defensive line on the south side of the bridge. As Union cavalrymen descended on the crossing Winfield told his men: “Boys, pick your man like a squirrel in a tree and FIRE!”

Several of the Union soldiers were unseated from their mounts but there were far too many of them to be stopped. The two commands collided with each other and fought hand to hand for a brief time. Some of the Union troopers dismounted from their horses and attempted to put out the fire. Their efforts were, by and large, successful.

In the course of the melee, though, four Union cavalrymen charged Turner Ashby who was mounted on his favorite horse, a white charger named Tom Telegraph. There was contact and several pistols were discharged. One of the bullets meant for Ashby grazed his leg and entered Tom Telegraph’s body. The horse remained standing in spite of its wound. If not for the timely appearance of an unnamed rebel trooper, however, who fired a shot than took down one on the Union assailants, and for shots fired by Captain G. W. Koontz and Private Harry Hatcher, Colonel Turner Ashby would have been slain or captured. As it was three of the four attackers were killed while the fourth escaped.

With more Union troopers appearing on the bridge with every passing moment, Colonel Ashby turned his horse in the direction of Rude’s hill, more than a mile in the distance. Ashby spurred his wounded horse and sprinted off at a gallop in the direction of Jackson’s troops on Rude’s Hill. Ashby trailed behind his own retreating troopers and was the last man to escape from the bridge. Union cavalrymen raced after him but were driven off by the discharge of Confederate artillery directed at them from atop Rude’s Hill.  The bridge over the Shenandoah was securely in Union hands; damaged but not destroyed.

Henry Kyd Douglas, who was a witness, would later write about the incident in his book, I Rode with Stonewall. “The bridge was not burned, but where was Ashby? Instantly he was seen to emerge from the bridge and follow his troops. Centaur-like, he and his horse came sweeping over the plain. They were soon with us. Having borne his master with unabated spirit until danger was over, Ashby’s splendid stallion sank to the ground, dappled with foam of heat and suffering; his wound was mortal. The big-hearted Cavalier bent over him, stroked his mane, stooped down and gazed affectionately into his eyes, and the excitement of the last hour was swallowed up in his sorrow for his dying companion. Thus the most splendid horseman I ever knew lost the most beautiful war-horse I ever saw.”


Turner Ashby Mounted on Tom Telegraph.

Turner Ashby was forced to put his horse out of its misery. It was thought the assailant’s bullet that struck him had entered the horse’s lungs. The horse had ridden that last mile on its last breath of air. Rebel relic hunters are said to have plucked the hairs from the mane and tail for souvenirs. Someone even hacked off one or more of the hooves belonging to Tom, one of  which now sits in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Such was the fate of Tom Telegraph.

Turner Ashby, himself, had a little more than a month and a half left to test his theory on the accuracy of Union rifle fire. The Knight of the Confederacy would perish from its effects on June 6, 1862, at the Battle of Good’s Farm while leading infantry on foot. His last words were “’Charge, men! For God’s sake. Charge!.’” “He was waving his sword when a bullet pierced him in the breast and he fell dead.”

Goods farm

Battle of Good’s Farm June 6, 1862 where Turner Ashby was Killed.

“The hoof from Confederate General Turner Ashby’s white horse, ‘Tom Telegraph’, has been memorialized with an inscription, presumably hand-written by the local druggist, which notes that the animal was shot and killed ‘near New Market, Va. on Valley pike’ during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Affixed to the side of the hoof is a romantic rendering of Ashby in cape and plumed hat that captures the general’s nickname, “‘Knight of the Valley.'”

Ashby horse hoof

Tom Telegraph’s Hoof

Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2008.

Gwynne, S. C. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. New York: Scribner. 2014.

Tanner, Robert G. Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co Inc. 1976.

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