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Battle of Kelly's Ford

Below is the text from a park brochure on the Battle of Kelly's Ford (March 17, 1863) including a summary of the battle, directions to the battlefield from the Fredericksburg area and a suggested tour route.

Following the December 1862 Fredericksburg 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 crops 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 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 sector.

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 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 farther 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 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 futile effort to cross father downstream, Lieutenant Simeon Browne and 818 members of the 1st Rhode Island 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 3/4 mile from the ford and took shelter behind a stone wall. This delay allowed Fitz time to hurry forward and assume a blocking position. Accompanying Lee were Major General Jeb 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 the 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 'em!" 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 sprung his trap, bring forward three other Federal regiments to strike the Southern 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 a high price from the Southerners. They lost 146 men killed, wounded, and missing, compared to 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 no 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.

DIRECTIONS TO THE BATTLEFIELD

Follow the directions and map carefully for a tour of the Kelly's Ford battlefield, which has changed little since the war. However, some changes might have occurred since this brochure was written in the late 1980's. To reach the battlefield from Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville, proceed west on Rt. 3 to Lignum, about 13 miles west of Chancellorsville. Turn right on Rt. 647 and go 0.9 mile. Turn right on Rt. 610, and drive 0.5 mile. Turn left on Rt. 620 and cautiously travel 5.3 miles down this narrow, winding road. Immediately after Rt. 674 intersection, turn right into the parking lot just before a bridge. Public access to this area and the river are provided by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Stop 1 - Kelly's Ford (opening phase). The river crossing was about 300 yards downstream from the bridge. This west bank of the Rappahannock was occupied by Confederate defenders when the battle began. As you face the river, the remains of a dry mill race which served as a rifle pit for Confederate troopers, can be seen to your left front.

Drive out of the parking lot and turn left, then almost immediately turn right on Rt. 674 and travel 0.8 mile. Turn right into a gravel parking lot, and walk down the path. This area is within the Phelps Wildlife Management Area of the Virginia Game Department.

Stop 2 - Stone Wall and Mortal Wounding of Pelham Monument (middle phase). Most of the fighting occurred in this vicinity. Union troopers were positioned behind the stone wall along the path to your right, and Confederates attacked across what was an open field on your left. About 300 yards down the path is a marker near the spot of Pelham's fatal wounding. The trail continues several hundred yards to a scenic view of the Rappahannock River near Wheatley's Ford.

Turn right out of the parking lot and travel 0.6 mile, stopping where two driveways converge.

Stop 3 - Level Green - the Brannin House (middle phase). The original portion of the privately-owned English-style farmhouse to the left was built ca. 1780. Owned by Fielding Brannin during the war, a bloody footstep on every other step of a stairway serves as testimony to its use as a hospital. The 3rd Virginia made its charge against the stone wall across the field to your right and rear.

Continue traveling down the road 1.4 miles, stopping before the road crosses Carter's Run.

Stop 4 - Carter's Run (final phase). The final charges of the battle occurred across these fields - first a Confederate charge from a position ahead of you, then a Federal counterattack from the ground behind you.

Continue driving for 0.3 mile, stopping near the intersection of routes 673 and 674.

Stop 5 - Newby's or Dean's Shop (final phase). A blacksmith's shop stood near this intersection during the Civil War. Lee's last charge of the battle began here. The ensuing Federal countercharge and pursuit halted in this area. Averell effectively ended the battle when he retired from this position back to Kelly's Ford.

Continue straight on Rt. 674 for 1.7 miles. Carefully turn left on heavily traveled US 15/29. Drive 0.8 mile and turn right on Rt. 685. Immediately to the right, in the yard of a privately owned home, is another Pelham memorial.

Stop 6 - Pelham Monument. This 1926 monument once stood on the battlefield, but the access roads were so bad that it was moved to this front yard.

To return to Fredericksburg, either retrace the steps from this tour, or drive south on U.S. 15/29 toward Culpeper for about five miles, and head east on Rt. 3 about 35 miles. To reach the Manassas National Battlefield Park, which is 35 miles away, travel north on U.S. 29.

For more information on touring Kelly's Ford Battlefield including photos, click here.

The battlefields of Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, Mine Run, Rappahannock Station and Bristoe Station are also in this area. Written guides on these and other nearby battlefields are available in the visitor centers at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and online.

Return to Civil War Battlefields in Virginia.

 
Map of Kelly's Ford Battlefield Tour
Map of Kelly's Ford Battlefield Tour

Did You Know?

Todd's Tavern

The Battle of Todd's Tavern was not the largest cavalry battle of the war, but may have been the most important. Confederate horsemen delayed the advance of the Union just long enough so that the Confederate army could win the race to Spotsylvania which extended the war for eleven months.