To Defend One’s Home

At 5 am, the Confederate army had every reason to believe that they were on the cusp of a great victory. On April 6, 1862, they had caught the Union army under Grant unaware and had driven them to the edge of the Tennessee River. Twenty-seven-year-old John Ashby was in an ideal position. A member of Ketchum’s Battery from Mobile, Alabama, he had spent April 6 helping the artillery fire and advance behind Bragg’s Corps. They had overrun the Union camp under General McClernand and had scooped up bushels of Union valuables, and the battery was now posted in a portion of the camp in north Jones field.

Maybe the opening rounds should have signaled how long the day would be, how the tides had already turned. All night long, Union reinforcements had poured across the river, and rather than hold a defensive posture, General Grant took the initiative. Before dawn, the artillery of Union General Lew Wallace’s division opened fire and engaged Ketchum’s Battery. As they did, the Union infantry advanced slowly in what began a massive counterattack that would ultimately sweep the Confederate army from the field.

Ketchum’s Battery suffered one man killed that day: John Ashby, likely in the morning artillery duel. He was an Alabama man defending his Southern soil, and as with the rest of the Confederate dead, he was buried in a trench, his exact location never to be known.

That’s the easy narrative, of course, but it’s not exactly true. John was the oldest son of John Ashby and Maria Clark. John Sr. was not an Alabama man; Maria was not an Alabama woman; most of their children were not native Southerners. Rather, the elder John was a native of Maine; Maria was from New York City, and two of their three children–John Jr. and Edward–were born in New York City, while their daughter, Maria, was born in 1842 in Mobile. After the war, the younger Maria would move back north to Massachusetts and marry Lewis Jones in Boston.

By the time John found his way to the Shiloh battlefield, he had already experienced a move from one region to a vastly different part of the country, only then to see his mother die a few years later. His father remarried, this time to Ida Wood of Mobile, and when the war opened, John Jr. left behind his siblings and a young step sister (Ida Kate, age 4) to join the artillery.

Why would a young man from New York whose parents were from Maine and New York take up arms against his boyhood home? Remember, conscription into Confederate service had not begun yet–John volunteered to fight against his parents’ home states. Why? The records of the Ashbys are mostly silent. John Sr. and his first wife are buried together in Magnolia Cemetery far from their birthplaces. John Jr. is buried in an unmarked grave on the battlefield. John Jr.’s sister, Maria, would later die in Virginia. Even today, much of the rhetoric surrounding the war has its roots in the concept of home and defending one’s native land. For the Ashbys, the notion of home must have been complicated at best, divisive at worst.

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