Learning Lincoln On-line
FROM-- SET SEVEN, CIVIL WAR STUDIES
Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy--The Tradition of Knightly Chivalry in the South, and in the North
Sir Walter Scott's Writings, Mosby's Raiders and General Ashby Turner
John Singleton Mosby (December 6, 1833 – May 30, 1916),
also known by his nickname, the "Gray Ghost"
The code of honor did not exist solely within antebellum Southern culture. It sprung, rather, from an ethic "deep in mythology, literature, history, and civilization. ... It is one in which a ritual, tragically common in the American South but at one time more widespread in the Western world, helped a community to overcome its fears and reassert its primal values" (Wyatt-Brown, p.3,4).
In medieval times, the knight upheld society's honorable virtues. To actively defend one's ethical code, one must be at war. Modern times unfortunately provide few instances for this opportunity. The Civil War, however, took place at a time when these notions of primal honor still survived. Mosby tapped into an ancient, romantic heroic ideal through his daring wartime raids and self-conscious "virtuous" conduct. Others ascribed to this belief as well, especially after the war. The close of the Civil War sealed off further possibility to actively uphold the chivalric code of honor. This fact, however, merely served to heighten the importance of creating a postwar example of Mosby to keep such notions of honor active.
Support of his mother state Virginia urged Mosby to fight, but age-old examples of gallant knighthood reinforced his actions during the war. Allusions to classical figures also supported Mosby's claim as a part of a greater historical continuum. Mosby described chasing some Yankees, who reportedly rode into the small town of Middleburg, Va.: "Women and children came out to greet us -- the men had all been carried off as prisoners. The tears and lamentations of the scene aroused our sentiments of chivalry, and we went in pursuit" (Memoirs, p.158). A skirmish fought late in the war between Mosby's men and Union soldiers under Capt. Blazer "passed anything that had been done in the Shenandoah campaign and recalled the days when Knighthood was in flower" (Memoirs, p.370). Mosby frequently told the story of a wounded young soldier on the battlefield -- who refused water, instead instructing the bearer to take it to his colonel -- as a "model of chivalry" and therefore worthy of emulation (Daniels, p.37).
After the war newspapers merely enlarged the myth surrounding Mosby. In a January 1895 clipping, one article gushed about Mosby's military spirit "too restless to be totally confined to strict discipline. ... The more we hear of him the prouder the Southern people may feel of such a knightly soldier." One writer, George Cary Ellington, described Mosby as a "gallant and chivalric spirit," while noting Mosby's modesty prevented him from acquiring "that boyish vanity which has distinguished most of the world's great cavalry leaders" (5/2/1897). By his death in 1916 one obituary referred to him as "the last of the dashing figures of the war between the states."
The Influence of Sir Walter Scott's Writings
If anything, Scott’s romances were even more popular on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some southern families even went so far as to name their estates and children after places and characters in Scott’s stories. As Mark Twain would later write, “Sir Walter Scott had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.”
"President Lincoln’s assistant secretary during the Civil War, would explain decades later, “The books a boy reads are those most ardently admired and longest remembered. . . . Through all [the] important formative days of the Republic, Scott was the favorite author of Americans. . . . [The influence of his books] was enormous upon the taste and sentiments of a people peculiarly sensitive to such influences.”
General Ashby, Immortalized in Poetry
A poem titled “Ashby” by the popular Southern poet John Reuben Thompson offers another example of Scott’s powerful influence on wartime writers. General Turner Ashby, a Virginia gentleman and Confederate cavalry officer, was killed while fighting a rear-guard action under General Stonewall Jackson’s command in early June 1862.
Thompson, who served as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger from 1847 to 1860 and of The Richmond Record and The Southern Illustrated News during the war, was one of many Southern writers who memorialized the man who had been called the “Knight of the Confederacy.”
To the brave all homage render,
General Ashby was shot in the chest in a skirmish that took place more than a year into an unremitting, full-scale war in a still rustic America. But Thompson’s poem, full of romantic flourish, all but omits these fundamental facts.
Instead, Thompson focuses upon Ashby’s knightly fortitude and compares Ashby to warriors of bygone days and faraway lands. In the second stanza he writes:
Well they learned, whose hands have slain him,
Later in the poem, Thompson refers to Ashby’s “saber,” “crest” and “manly breast.” Indeed, in Thompson’s adoring portrait, Ashby seems better outfitted for a medieval joust than for mid-19th-century armed combat.
Perhaps most interestingly, Thompson makes reference to Templestowe, the mythical place from which Ivanhoe rescues Rebecca. He clearly trusted that his readers would recognize the reference and would likewise remember that an important jousting tournament in Ivanhoe occurs in the town of Ashby.
General Turner Ashby was the son of Colonel Turner Ashby, who fought in the War of 1812, and the grandson of Captain Jack Ashby, who fought in the Revolutionary War, yet Thompson makes no mention of Ashby’s actual martial lineage. Thompson’s emphasis on Ashby’s knightly qualities and Ashby’s nickname, “the Knight of the Confederacy,” point to the literary preferences and references of the Civil War generation.
Sir Walter Scott, more than any other writer, shaped Americans’ conception of manliness, bravery and combat in the period leading up to the Civil War. And his influence did not end once the fighting began.