Turner Ashby served most his Civil War battles and skirmishes as a colonel, but he was promoted to brigadier general about two weeks before his death. Ashby is a controversial figure among some historians. However, I think it’s relatively easy to agree that his horses helped create his image and his legends. Numerous accounts mention Ashby’s horses and one of his favorites was a big white stallion called Tom Telegraph.
I’m not exactly sure how the horse got its name; the sources I’ve examined suggest that the horse came to Ashby with the name.
At the beginning of the war, Turner Ashby rode a horse simply known as The Black Charger. Black Charger died after a fight at Kelly’s Island and after swimming back across the Potomac River to bring his rider to safety; the horse’s death was reported in Southern newspapers, beginning the legends of Ashby and his steeds.
To replace Black Charger, a Shenandoah Valley citizen gave Ashby a white horse. While many soldiers and accounts referred to this horse as The White Charger, the original owner named it Tom Telegraph, and I’ve decided to use the original name for this article.
Tom Telegraph became part of the “Ashby image” that inspired and fascinated the citizens of the Shenandoah Valley and spread across the south. A staff officer serving with Stonewall Jackson described the stallion and rider:
Galloping over the field on his favorite war horse, his white one, eager, watchful, he was fascinating, inspiring. Altogether he was the most picturesque horseman ever seen in the Shenandoah Valley – he seemed to have been left over by the Knights…
By 1862, Ashby commanded all of General “Stonewall” Jackson’s cavalry during the spring Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Although not known for his discipline and regulation, he was a daring commander and fought off Union attacks many times. Toward the end of May 1862, Ashby was promoted to brigadier general.
In the Enemy’s Words
A Union soldier described Tom Telegraph with admiration as he watched the horse from the opposing side of the battlefield or skirmish line:
[The horse] is disciplined…to the accomplishment of the most wonderful feats. He will drop to the ground in a flash, at the wish of his rider, and rise again suddenly, bound through the woods like a deer, avoiding trees and branches, clearing every obstacle, jumping fences and ditches with perfect ease.
To many, the horse and rider seemed invincible – like heroes sprung from the pages of medieval romances. But even heroes – man and beast – are mortal.
Tom Telegraph’s Fate
Tom Telegraph was a war-horse, a splendid animal in appearance and with stamina. The 1862 Valley Campaign was rough; rain, mud, and Yankees presented near-constant challenges and dangers for a horse and rider.
On April 17, 1862, near Rude’s Hill, Ashby and some of his troopers tried to delay the Union cavalry. Ashby and Tom Telegraph were last in the Confederate column and rode so close to the enemy that observers at a distance at first thought of the officer on the white horse was a Union man. They reached a bridge with the Union cavalrymen firing pistols. Ashby reined and fought off the attackers, taking a bullet which grazed the colonel’s leg and went into Tom Telegraph’s side.
Officer Henry K. Douglas later wrote his recollection of the scene:
The bridge was not burned, but where was Ashby? Instantly he was seen to emerge from the [covered] 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.
Tom Telegraph died of his wounds on April 17, 1862. Troopers and soldiers quietly passed by the still animal and snipped away his mane and parts of his tail for remembrance mementos.
Weeks after Tom Telegraph’s death, Turner Ashby was killed on June 6, 1862, during rearguard action not far from Harrisonburg, Virginia. Ashby is buried in Winchester, Virginia, and in 1997, it was reported that his saddle and Tom Telegraph’s bones were displayed at a historical museum in the same town. In 2016, I visited that museum and don’t recall seeing horse bones, so perhaps Tom Telegraph’s remains were laid to rest, perhaps they are tucked away in storage, or perhaps I just didn’t see them. Further searching, reveals that a museum in Richmond has a preserved hoof. (Click here if you want to see it. Personally, I find it slightly disturbing…)
Tom Telegraph’s story doesn’t end happily. Unlike some of the other famous Civil War horses, he didn’t survive the conflict. However, Tom Telegraph won a place in history, in legends, and in Southern myths because he was “Knight” Turner Ashby’s White Charger in reality and imagination. Tom Telegraph helped build the “Ashby image” and – like his master – was viewed as a martyr in the Lost Cause story.