Captain John Ashby

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Travis Shaw. 

Part One

As he looked northward across the open ground in front of his position, Captain John Ashby could see the advance guard of the British army moving steadily closer. They came on in a loose, open line, taking time to return the fire of Ashby’s men. Made up of red-coated light infantry and their German counterparts, the rifle-armed Jaegers, the advance guard were the cream of the Crown forces – men chosen for their fitness, marksmanship, and ability to endure hardship. Ashby and his men were veterans, so they must have known they’d be in for a fight. As the battle intensified around him, one wonders if Captain Ashby’s thoughts turned to home. The Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania was a long way from his native Virginia Piedmont.

The Crooked Run Valley in northern Fauquier County looks much as it did when John Ashby lived there two centuries ago (Author_s photo)

The Crooked Run Valley in northern Fauquier County looks much as it did when John Ashby lived there two centuries ago (Author’s photo)

John Ashby was born in 1740 in northwestern Fauquier County, among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The son of Robert Ashby and Rosanna Berry, he grew up at Yew Hill, the family estate that lay just a few miles from the Gap that bears the family’s name to this day[1]. John’s uncle and namesake, Captain “Jack” Ashby commanded a company of Virginia rangers during the French and Indian War, where he made the acquaintance (and drew the ire) of a young George Washington[2].

Yew Hill, ca. 1760. Birthplace of John Ashby (Wikipedia-Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD)

Yew Hill, ca. 1760. Birthplace of John Ashby (Wikipedia/Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD)

When the Revolutionary War erupted in the spring of 1775 the younger John Ashby followed in his uncle’s footsteps and went to war. Records indicate that he was active in the Culpeper Minute Battalion as it campaigned against Lord Dunmore in the fall of that year[3]. As Virginia mobilized for war the 36 year-old Ashby was commissioned a Captain in the newly formed Third Virginia Regiment in March, 1776. The regiment would become a “who’s-who” of northern Virginia. Among the officers that would serve with distinction in the Third were Thomas Marshall (father of future Supreme Court Justice John Marshall), future president James Monroe, future generals Hugh Mercer and George Weedon, and William Washington (a cousin of the Commander in Chief).

Captain Ashby’s command comprised of a company of riflemen from his native Fauquier County. They would serve in a similar capacity to the British light infantry and German jaegers, working as scouts and skirmishers in support of their musket armed comrades. Late in the summer of 1776 the regiment received orders to join the main body of the Continental Army in New York. They marched quickly, covering the 400-odd miles in just 26 days – they were the first regiment of Virginians to join Washington there. Their arrival provided a much needed moral boost to Washington’s dejected army, which had been pushed onto the northern reaches of Manhattan Island. A fellow officer from Fauquier County, Captain John Chilton, wrote that “…great joy was expressed at our arrival and great things expected from the Virginians…”[4]

Ashby and his fellow Virginians wouldn’t have to wait long to prove their mettle. On September 16th a running fight developed between British and American troops in front of Washington’s position at Harlem Heights. Three companies of Virginia riflemen – those of Captain Ashby, Captain Charles West, and Captain John Thornton – went into action alongside Thomas Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers.[5] It was a bloody baptism of fire for the Virginians, and among the Third Virginia three were killed and eight wounded.[6] The Third Virginia continued to serve with distinction throughout 1776 and 1777. They served in the desperate actions around New York and New Jersey that winter, but it was clear that hard campaigning was taking its toll. By December the regiment numbered less than 200 men fit for duty.[7] Despite this, however, they played an important role in the Christmas attack on Trenton, where Captain William Washington and Lt. James Monroe were both wounded leading a charge to capture the Hessian guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Sources*

[1] Russel, T. Triplett and Gott, John. Fauquier County in the Revolution. Warrenton Printing and Publishing. 1977. Pg. 29.
[2]“From George Washington to John Ashby, 14 October 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0105.;“From George Washington to John Ashby, 28 December 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0245
[3] Russel and Gott, Pg. 98-99
[4] “John Chilton to Joseph Blackwell, 13 September, 1776,” Tyler’s Quarterly. Richmond Press. 1931. Pg. 91.
[5] Russel and Gott. Pg. 115.
[6] Ibid Pg. 117.
[7] Cecere, Michael. They Behaved Like Soldiers. Heritage Books. 2004. Pg. 29.

 

*Bio*

Travis Shaw holds a BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an MA in Public History from American University. His professional career includes well over a decade of experience in the fields of historic preservation, archaeology, and museum education, working with both private and public institutions. Travis has spent time at Historic St. Mary’s City, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Oatlands Historic House and Gardens and currently serves as the Public Programs Coordinator for the Mosby Heritage Area Association. In his free time, he enjoys dragging his family to historic sites and participating in 18th century living history events.

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