The Battle of Kelly's Ford - March 17, 1863

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 Kelly’s Ford,

The 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.

In 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.

During 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.”

With 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.

Fitz 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.

The 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.

For 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.

Lee 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 flanks.

Lee 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.