Turner Ashby is an Un-American Name for a High School. Let’s Change It. (Part 1)

Rob Seal
12 min readJul 6, 2020

Turner Ashby’s only real tie to Virginia’s upper Shenandoah Valley is that he died here, shot by the United States military while fighting a traitorous war against America for the cause of human slavery.

He doesn’t deserve to have a public high school named after him in 2020. He didn’t in 1955 either, or in 1862.

There’s a lot more to say about this — about Ashby’s life and what he really stood for, on hard-to-face local histories of slavery and massive resistance, about Lost Cause propaganda and more.

But the short version is: We should change the name because it’s the right thing to do.

First, hear me out on something. People get really angry about stuff like this. We say crazy things on the internet. People see the world through filters of emotion, politics, upbringing and culture. Views do not align.

A proposal to change the name of a popular high school can ignite all of that. But I think we’re better off to pause the culture wars and consider the name on its own merit.

Defending the name doesn’t make someone racist. Thinking we should change it doesn’t make someone a superior human being.

When we talk about Turner Ashby in this area, we aren’t usually talking about the dead Confederate slaver. We’re talking about TA: the name on the jerseys or uniforms we wore or played against, the name on buildings in Dayton and Route 42 that many of us still drive past, where we were once in FFA and band, where we laid out yearbooks and built balsa racing cars (with a little space in the back for a C02 canister). It’s where our parents, siblings, cousins or kids also went. The name reminds me of Ashby Pool in the summer and Ashby Street by Sergio’s Pizza, and a buddy whose family dog was named Ashby. Those things have value.

Turner Ashby High School

I think TA is a good place. My wife and I graduated together, and we liked it. We still live in the Valley and raise our kids here, though not in the district. I’m a proud son of Rockingham County and the Shenandoah Valley.

But I didn’t really know anything about Turner Ashby’s life or legacy until a controversy over the name lit up a few weeks ago.

Consider it only as a local issue. There’s a building, constructed and sustained by public money to educate the kids who live in the area. Why is it named this? What’s Turner Ashby’s significance in the present?

I tried to understand by reading things and talking to people smarter than I am, including a history professor from Clemson University who wrote a biography of Ashby, a Rockingham County School Board member, one of my few Black TA classmates, a former Staunton City Councilor who witnessed a high school name change there, and the young woman who started all of this with a change.org petition.

I also talked with the local chapter president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Turner Ashby’s booster club in the Valley since 1898.

Here’s where I landed:

The Civil War was about slavery, not just some philosophical squabble over federalism and states’ rights.

We had slavery here too, brutal and violent. The Valley went to war to keep it. Turner Ashby went to war to keep it. Before he even died, we made him our own symbol of Confederate glory to distract from the real cause of the war, and we doubled down on that lie as Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow got started.

We inflated the Ashby legend again when we named the high school in 1955, just at the exact moment Virginia was preparing to fight for over a decade to keep Black children out of public schools. Sen. Harry Byrd — a Democrat— was the Shenandoah Valley-based architect of that racist, unconstitutional fight to keep segregation. The fake story of the noble Confederacy was part of that effort too.

Turner Ashby is our local hero, even though most know nothing about him. He’s a symbol designed to evoke Confederate chivalry, even though he led vigilante mobs and at least once hunted down an escaped slave. He’s our “general,” even though he was an irregular volunteer who spent most of his short war service undercutting his commanders while jockeying for promotion.

And even if his Civil War reputation was somehow deserved, he is famous only for fighting on the wrong side. No matter how you feel about Sheridan and his fires, we Valley residents deserved to lose that war.

I believe the Shenandoah Valley is a good place filled with good people. But can we please finally admit that Ashby’s Confederacy was a force for organized evil on par with Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia: failed states built on human suffering.

I wrote this for people who are — like me — lifelong Shenandoah Valley residents who value rural living and feel deep, deserved pride in our area. Our high school’s name is un-American, and we can do better.

You can almost script the arguments:

“You’re erasing our history!”

“What about JMU or Washington, D.C.? If we change this we have to change everything.”

“This is politically correct nonsense.”

“Nobody cared for 65 years, and now it’s racist all of a sudden.”

“Changing the name is a waste of taxpayer money.”

“If you don’t like it, get out!”

People I respect think this way, but they are wrong. In this article, I’ll use real, public Facebook comments on local news articles to represent these views. All names and profile pictures have been changed to Yosemite Sam 🤷‍♂️.

One other thing about history and “narrative.” There are a lot of accusations now about how people cherry-pick historical facts to suit their own notions. And that’s true. I’m doing it here.

But we should also admit that we’ve been doing the same with Ashby and our Civil War story in the Valley for a long time. A false narrative stretching back to the war itself, created by people who want to change the subject on the reason for the conflict, has baked nonsense about Confederate nobility into our sense of shared history.

We’re stronger if we let that go. It’s the shambling zombie of a defeated idea, still chasing after us in 2020.

Racism Was Here Since the Beginning

The Shenandoah Valley’s origin story usually starts something like this: the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, led by Gov. Alexander Spotswood, showed up and claimed it for England in 1716. There were native people before that, using the Valley as a sort of hunting preserve, and earlier explorers, but it’s as good a place to start as any, because in the early 18th century the Valley was the western American frontier.

Rockingham County was part of Augusta County until 1778, which once stretched all the way to the Great Lakes.

In 1716, Spotswood and about 50 people came down the Blue Ridge near present-day Elkton and camped on the banks of the Shenandoah River. The group included native guides and enslaved people, according to historian John Reuben Sheeler.

Spotswood claimed the Valley in the name of King George the First and they all shot guns into the air and got rip-roaring drunk, then slept it off and went home. Read the account of John Fontaine, who was there. It sounds a lot like camping at Hone Quarry, honestly.

Spotswood gave the group its fancy name and each member a literal engraved golden horseshoe. Each white member, that is.

“The Negroes, being mostly slaves, left no record of their activity; hence there is no account of the part they played in this venture to the West,” Sheeler wrote.

In the following decades immigrants came to the Shenandoah Valley, mostly from the north. They were raided by and raided against natives. The gun ports in the walls at Fort Harrison in Dayton were not decorative.

My favorite history of the pre-Revolutionary Shenandoah Valley is by Joseph Waddell. He writes that many of these early immigrants were Scotch-Irish homesteaders, some trying to leave their own sectarian troubles behind, as well as German and Dutch Anabaptists who brought religious traditions still strong here today, the Mennonites and Brethren among them.

These denominations were technically illegal in Virginia, where the Church of England was state-sanctioned — that’s basically you, Episcopalians — but the geographic isolation of the Valley provided sanctuary from state persecution. It’s a lot of trouble to cross a mountain range to arrest someone for going to the wrong church.

But that geographic protection from the state only worked if you were white. Early settlers like William Beverley, whose land included much of present-day Augusta County, were running on enslaved labor by 1745. Virginia itself had slavery from 1619 to 1865, longer than it hasn’t. By 1860, at the eve of war, the commonwealth’s enslaved numbered 550,000.

There’s a local lie we tell ourselves in southern Rockingham County about how we didn’t have slavery here because it didn’t jibe with our anabaptist values. We congratulate ourselves that Rockingham County delegates voted against Virginia’s succession in 1861.

John Wayland, a professor at what would later become James Madison University (and the namesake of my elementary school, right across from TA), pushes this view in a number of places, including in what’s otherwise a really good history of Rockingham County from 1912.

(Side note: the namesakes of all of my local schools showed up while doing this research, and Wayland is by far my favorite. Wilbur Pence was an overworked superintendent for decades, but was publicly tight-lipped on integrating schools. Turner Ashby was the worst by far.)

But the idea that Rockingham County didn’t have slavery is bogus. The enslaved were here from the beginning, on farms, in homes and elsewhere, and the Valley’s economy depended on them.

That’s not to say that no one knew it was wrong. We owe an overdue shout-out to the Shenandoah Valley Methodists, who organized as early as 1815 to advocate for abolition. The Mennonites and Brethren were also anti-slavery and may have been persecuted for it as the war dragged on, Wayland wrote.

Here’s what he had to say about the slavery debate in the Valley after secession in 1861.

“In the Blue Ridge sections of East Rockingham, where anti-slavery sentiment and martial spirit were both strong, a number of men went north and joined the Union armies. In other sections of the county the peace principles of large numbers of the people, particularly the Dunkers [Brethren] and Mennonites, kept many from assuming a decided attitude one way or the other; but notwithstanding all these conditions, the attitude of the county as a whole was soon definitely and decidedly for the Confederacy.” [emphasis added]

If local anti-slavery views held the number of slaves down here compared to other areas, it sure isn’t anything to brag about.

In 1860, about 10 percent of Rockingham County’s population was enslaved. That’s around 2,000 people, about 400 more than live in the town of Dayton today. Imagine saying, “We didn’t have much slavery in this county, really, just Dayton.”

Augusta County was worse at 20 percent, and half of Albemarle County was enslaved. Here’s a look at the entire state, from an amazing map based on the 1860 census.

Waddell, the Staunton historian, lived through the Civil War and kept a lively diary in the antebellum years. There’s a short passage in it that shows just what those Valley slave lives were worth. He relays this story from his mother’s childhood in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

“…A Negro girl was hung for drowning a white infant child. Many persons thought the girl innocent.”

That’s all. No names, no details. But he does include a folksy anecdote about how people were afraid of the ghost.

If you want a fuller idea of what it was like to be enslaved in the Valley, read the account of Bethany Veney, who relayed her life story in 1889. You’ll never forget it.

As a young woman in neighboring Shenandoah County, her owner attacked her so savagely in a blackberry field that he nearly killed her. Later, the memory of that incident caused her to alter her marriage vows to her husband, Jerry.

“I did not want him to make us promise that we would always be true to each other, forsaking all others, as the white people do in their marriage service, because I knew that at any time our masters could compel us to break such a promise; and I had never forgotten the lesson learned, so many years before, in the blackberry pasture.”

There tend to be a lot of “yeah, everyone knows slavery was bad, but….” arguments that happen at this point. Save ’em. This is what Ashby and the Confederacy went to war to preserve. Keep that in mind when we get to the slavery equivocations that Lost Causers are prone to mutter.

And if you don’t think the war was fundamentally about slavery, please read the handy list of reasons that South Carolina left behind when it seceded in December 1860, the first state to do so. There were a million causes of the war — including the role of slavery in western expansion and disputes about the limits of federalism — but slavery was foundation they were all laid on. For a better take on all this, listen to this episode of “Backstory,” where actual historians kick it around.

(And the Valley of the Shadow digital archive is an amazing resource to see what life was like in the Shenandoah Valley before, during and after the war.)

It’s not entirely our fault if we’re confused on the reasons for the Civil War. Our classrooms were contaminated by a decades-long propaganda campaign to convince us it wasn’t about slavery. More about that later.

It’s also important to note that talking about slavery in the Valley doesn’t mean there weren’t free Black families or a history of Black residents in the area. Check out the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project — there’s an entire history there that we never talked about in school.

There’s more to say about Turner Ashby and the causes he dedicated his short life to. He was already famous here when he was alive, but he got a big boost from the Lost Cause, with its sophisticated propaganda. And the timing of the high school name in 1955, just months after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, makes it impossible to separate the school from the start of massive resistance and its Shenandoah Valley-based architect, Harry F. Byrd Sr., one of Virginia history’s great douchebags.

But to me, the best reason to change the name is that honoring Turner Ashby is honoring a false view of history, one in which the Confederacy is deserving of patriotism. It isn’t.

No matter how it tried to spin it, the Confederacy wanted to tear itself free from the Constitution and the founding principles of our democracy. It did so because it valued slavery, a practice antithetical to the notion that everyone is created equal, bestowed with innate rights.

Think of how defiant and assertive we are about our favorite Constitutional paragraphs today. We look to the Bill of Rights as proof of American exceptionalism. Recall that the Confederacy replaced that document with this piece of flaming trash.

“No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs,. or to whom such service or labor may be due.”

For generations here in the Valley, it didn’t matter that the enslaved were created equal — their rights were alienable. It took a war to end that, and our high school is named after a minor character from the wrong side. It’s like naming it Crabbe and Goyle High School.

If you want to, sign the petition to change the name here. This project ended up taking a lot of time, so I split the results into a bunch of parts.

The Shenandoah Valley’s full history is, in my opinion, a thing to be proud of. But we should stop glossing over the parts we don’t like.

Part 1 Sources and Resources:

Sheridan’s Valley Campaign Overview

J. Reuben Sheeler, “The Negro on the Virginia Frontier,” 1958

The Journal of John Fontaine (Knights of the Golden Horseshoe)

“A History of Rockingham County,” John Wayland, 1912

“Dismissing the Peculiar Institution: Assessing Slavery in Page and Rockingham Counties, Virginia,” Charles Ballard, 1998

Virginia Slave Population Map, 1860

“Home Scenes and Family Sketches,” Joseph Waddell, 1864

“Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726 to 1871,” Joseph Waddell, 1902

“The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman,” 1889

Confederate States of America — Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union

Backstory, Civil War 150th, “The Road to the Civil War

“Valley of the Shadow” Digital Resource

Shenandoah Valley Black History Project

The Confederate Constitution

The Petition to Change TA’s Name