Following the December 1862 Federal debacle at Fredericksburg, and
the infamous Mud March of January 1863, both sides settled into
winter camps on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River. Several
cavalry raids and skirmishes broke the dull routine of camp life
during the long winter. The largest and most important of these
occurred on March 17, 1863, near the Rappahannock crossing at
Battle of Kelly’s Ford was “the first purely cavalry fight east of
the Mississippi River” of any appreciable size. The battle was the
first opportunity for the Union cavalry to amass a significant
force, because the horsemen had been concentrated into a corps only
a few weeks earlier.
early March, Union Brigadier General William Averell received orders
to leave the main body of the Army of the Potomac, then opposite
Fredericksburg. His instructions were to lead his troopers west up
the Rappahannock river, cross it at Kelly’s Ford, and defeat a
Confederate cavalry force near Culpeper, 10 miles west of the ford.
Averell wanted to impress army commander Major General Joseph
Hooker, who had earlier remarked, “Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?”
Averell was further motivated by the prospect of defeating his good
friend and former West Point classmate, Brigadier General Fitzhugh
Lee, commanding the Confederate cavalry in that region.
the winter, Fitz Lee sent Averell several messages taunting him
about the inferiority of Federal cavalry. Lee left an especially
challenging message before withdrawing from a raid in late February:
“I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state, and go home.
You ride a good horse, I ride a better. If you won’t go home,
return my visit, and bring me a sack of coffee.”
3,000 cavalrymen and a battery of six cannon, Averell set out on
March 16th to accept Lee’s challenge. Fearing that a
significant enemy force to the northwest might threaten his right
flank, Averell detached 900 of these troopers to Catlett Station, 15
miles north of Kelly’s Ford.
Lee quickly learned of Averell’s movement, but was unsure whether
Averell would attempt to cross the river at Kelly’s Ford or at
Rappahannock Ford, four miles further upstream and north of
Kelly’s. Lee reinforced the 20 Confederates guarding Kelly’s Ford.
His available sharpshooters were poised to move to either ford. The
bulk of Lee’s command, 800 horsemen and Captain James Breathed’s
four-cannon battery, was posted in Culpeper. The Kelly’s Ford
defenders, about 85 members of the 2nd and 4th
Virginia Cavalry regiments, found shelter in a dry millrace and
blocked the approaches to the ford along the both river banks with
abatis – obstructions formed by felled trees.
Federals arrived at Kelly’s Ford early on the morning of March 17th.
After three failed attempts to cross at the ford, and a failed
effort to cross father downstream, Lieutenant Simeon Browne and 18
members of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry rode into the
frigid waist-deep water, followed by 20 men of the 16th
Pennsylvania Cavalry carrying axes. While only three Rhode Island
troopers gained the opposite shore, these survivors and the
Pennsylvanians established a foothold. Federal reinforcements
splashed across the river and scattered the Virginians.
two hours the Federals struggled to remove the obstructions and
cross the narrow ford. Averell, correctly believing that his
aggressive opponent would advance from his camp, decided to rest his
horses and await Lee. The cautious Averell slowly advanced about ¾
of a mile from the ford and took shelter behind a stone wall. This
delay allowed Fitz Lee time to hurry forward and assume a blocking
position. Accompanying Lee were Major General J.E.B Stuart, his
commander, and Major John Pelham, the gallant 24 year old horse
artilleryman and hero of Fredericksburg.
ordered the 3rd Virginia to charge toward the stone
wall. Under fire from Federal carbines, the Confederate troopers
turned left, riding parallel to the wall and ineffectually firing
their pistols at the well-protected Federals. The 5th
Virginia, accompanied by Pelham, joined the attack as the 3rd
Virginia approached the Federal right. Finding a gap in the wall,
the Virginians galloped through in an attempt to turn the Federal
right and cut them off from the ford. Pelham reined in his horse,
stood in his stirrups, waved his sword and shouted “Forward! Let’s
get them!” Suddenly an exploding shell knocked Pelham off his horse
and a sliver of metal penetrated the back of his head. Shortly
thereafter, a Federal countercharge drove the Virginians back.
Meanwhile, on the Federal left the dashing Colonel Alfred Duffie,
acting on his own initiative, moved his brigade forward, hoping to
entice a Confederate attack. Lee took the bait and charged. Duffie
waited until the Confederates were about 75 yards from his lead
regiment, the 1st Rhode Island, when he ordered them to
dash forward. Duffie then sprang his trap, bringing forward three
other Federal regiments to strike the Confederate horsemen on both
withdrew the entire Confederate line about one mile to a position
near Newby’s or Dean’s Shop, behind Carter’s Run. As Averell
cautiously approached, Lee’s horsemen charged, but only a few made
it to the Federal line. Although the attack was repulsed with
relative ease, Averell’s feeble pursuit halted on the ground of
Lee’s former line. Fearing that he faced a large enemy force
aligned in a strong position, Averell deemed “it proper to
withdraw.” He left behind two wounded Confederate officers who had
fallen into Federal hands, along with a sack of coffee and a
message: “Dear Fitz, Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How do
you like it?”
Although technically a Confederate victory, the Battle of Kelly’s
Ford exacted high price from the Southerners. They lost 146 men
killed, wounded, and missing compared with a Federal loss of 85.
Confederate losses were magnified by the death of the popular and
promising young John Pelham, who died about 1 A.M. on March 18th.
Stuart wrote Pelham’s mother, “I loved him as a brother; he was so
noble, so chivalrous, so pure in heart, so beloved.”
Despite Averell’s lack of aggressiveness, the Federal cavalry
demonstrated unprecedented spirit. Averell failed in his objective
of routing Lee’s troopers, but this action along with the Battle of
Brandy Station, three months later, marked a major turning point in
the fortunes of Federal horsemen.