Here's What You Need to Know: As the largest all-cavalry battle yet fought in the Eastern theater, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford would have a symbolism far greater than its immediate results.
With freshly honed sabers, more than 2,000 Union cavalrymen rode toward the Confederate-held Rappahannock River crossing of Kelly’s Ford in March 1863 with orders to attack and rout or destroy Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Rebel cavalry. With them, the bluecoats carried a day’s forage, rations for four days, and a sack of coffee for a particular Confederate general.
One of the South’s advantages offsetting the North’s superiority in military and industrial resources was the Confederate cavalry. Led by bold and talented commanders, such as Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart, the Rebel cavalry in Virginia completed one spectacular raid or expedition after another, while Union cavalry commanders blundered about with little success in stopping them.
Major General Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, led a reconnaissance of the enemy lines from February 24 to February 26. His troopers struck a Union force at Hartwood Church in Stafford County, northwest of Fredericksburg, on February 25. Eluding pursuit, Lee’s men crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford on February 26, bringing back more than 150 prisoners. Thirty-six Union soldiers were killed in the action. Lee’s total casualties were just 14 killed, wounded, or missing.
Most of the Union casualties belonged to Union Brig. Gen. William W. Averell’s 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Lieutenant Charles Palmore, an antebellum physician who served during the war as a line officer in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry, had stayed behind at Hartwood Church with some wounded Confederates. Lee left Palmore a note to give to Averell. Lee and Averell were old friends from their days at West Point in the 1850s, but the war turned their friendship into rivalry. “I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state, and go home,” Lee wrote. “You ride a good horse, I ride a better one. Yours can beat mine at running. If you won’t go home, return my visit, and bring me a sack of coffee.”
The Hartwood Church clash was only one, and by no means the least, of a long string of defeats suffered by the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. The fairly minor raid infuriated Maj. Gen.
Joseph Hooker, who had replaced Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863, in the wake of the Union defeat at Fredericksburg.
Hooker sought to surprise the Rebels with a major raid of his own making. It was well known to the Union that Fitz Lee’s Second Brigade was camped near Culpeper Courthouse. Hooker ordered a large-scale reconnaissance of the fords on the Rappahannock River where a Union force might cross to assail Lee.
Hooker planned to launch his attack on March 16. He assigned 3,000 men and six guns to Brig. Gen. William W. Averell. Twenty-nine year-old Averell, who hailed from upstate New York, had graduated in the bottom third of the West Point Class of 1855. After brief assignments in Missouri and Pennsylvania, 2nd Lt. Averell served in New Mexico from 1857 to 1859 where he fought in skirmishes against the Kiowa and Navajo. Having suffered a severe wound in 1859, he took an extended leave of absence to recover. He was commissioned as colonel of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry on August 23, 1861, and received his promotion to brigadier general on September 26, 1862. On February 22, 1863, Averell was given command of the 2nd Cavalry Division.
Hooker instructed Averell to take every precaution necessary to ensure the operation’s success. Averell was to attack and break up the enemy cavalry camp at Culpeper Courthouse. As a precaution, Averell wanted another cavalry regiment sent to Catlett’s Station to cover the middle fords of the Rappahannock. From there pickets could watch for enemy forces approaching from Warrenton, Greenwich, and Brentsville. Averell’s superiors deemed this request unnecessary, and no additional men were provided. Averell decided on his own to detach 900 sabers (1st Massachusetts Cavalry and part of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry) to guard Catlett’s Station, cutting his expeditionary force by almost one third.
Sending the troopers to Catlett’s Station left Averell with 2,100 men. Colonel Alfred Duffie’s 775-man brigade included the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, the 4th New York Cavalry, and the 6th Ohio Cavalry. Colonel John B. McIntosh commanded a total of 565 men in the 3rd, 4th, and 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Two regular army regiments, the 1st U.S. Cavalry and the 5th U.S. Cavalry, rounded out the force with 760 men.
Following orders from Hooker, Averell left camp on March 16. Captain George Bliss of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry noted that his men moved out about 8 am, carrying four days’ rations and one day’s forage. They rode for 16 miles, halting at dusk at Morrisville. Their camp was about four miles east of Kelly’s Ford.
Lieutenant George Browne commanded the 6th New York Battery, the artillery unit assigned to Averell. With its half-dozen rifled guns, the 6th New York Battery left its camp at Aquia Creek at dawn on March 16. But a guide took them down the wrong road, causing such a delay that they did not catch up with the cavalry at Morrisville until 11 pm. After their long day’s travel, which would have been more than 20 miles even without a wrong turn, the horses were in poor condition, noted Averell.
About 5 amon March 17, Averell’s advance reached Kelly’s Ford. Twenty-five miles upstream from Fredericksburg, Kelly’s Ford was an often-used Rappahannock River crossing. The ford got its name from John Kelly, a Culpeper County businessman who owned a sprawling mill complex on the south bank of the river. Clustered around the mill were homes that made up the village of Kellysville.
Averell’s advance met Captain William F. Hart of the 4th New York Cavalry with about 100 men of his regiment and the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Hart was ordered earlier to take a position near the ford and seize it at first light. But Hart’s task was not to be as easy as that.
A telegram from the headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia, warning of Averell’s approach, had reached Fitzhugh Lee at 11 amthe previous day. That evening, Confederate scouts observed the Union cavalry had reached Morrisville and made camp. To slow down the enemy’s crossing, the Rebels cut trees down to block the ford and constructed abatis on both banks of the river.
Lee considered that the Yankees had two choices for a Rappahannock crossing: Kelly’s Ford and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad Bridge, which was situated four miles above the ford. Lee sent 40 men to bolster a 20-man picket station at Kelly’s Ford. Commanded by Captain James Breckinridge of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, the pickets were deployed in rifle pits and a dry mill race that served as a ready-made trench.
When the rest of Averell’s men reached Kelly’s Ford, it was still in Rebel hands. The obstructions at the crossing were piled so high that, as a Rhode Island regimental historian put it, “but one horse could leap them at a time, and that at extreme difficulty.” That morning, the ford was about 100 yards wide and as much as four feet five inches deep, which was about the maximum depth military manuals recommended for a successful crossing of cavalry. March 1863 had been raw and bitter in central Virginia, and the Rappahannock was icy cold. Hart’s men had found good cover in an empty canal that paralleled the river. They exchanged fire with the Confederates but were unable to push across the river.
Breckinridge was down to only about 15 men. As was customary, he had sent one out of four of his men to the rear as horse holders. It was in this depleted condition that the Confederates received the first enemy charge. As for his 40 reinforcements, they had been deployed too far in the rear to reach the ford in time to repel the first enemy charges.
While Averell looked for a better crossing, his chief of staff, Major Samuel E. Chamberlain, gathered Hart’s men and more of the 4th New York Cavalry. Covered by firing from the canal bed, Chamberlain led his men in column of fours to the ford. At the river’s edge, the abatis formed an impenetrable barrier in the face of the enemy. Chamberlain’s attack withered away as the men retreated back from the river.
Union troops inspected another potential crossing a few hundred yards away but found that steep banks and deep water made fording impossible. Wheatley’s Ford, a short distance upstream, was also impassible. Kelly’s Ford was the only place within reach to get across the Rappahannock.
Twenty pioneers from McIntosh’s brigade came to the front. Lieutenant Browne reported that his New York battery loaned three of its felling axes to the cavalry. Chamberlain led another charge of the 4th New York Cavalry. About 100 dismounted cavalrymen peppered the Confederates with a heavy fire, hoping to force them to keep their heads down. The pioneers hacked at the abatis with their axes but made little headway through the tightly tangled brush. Slowed by the barrier, the riders came under heavy enough fire that this second charge was also thrown back.