Top 10 Facts About The Battle of Kelly's Ford

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The Battle of Kelly's Ford, also known as the Battle of Kellysville or Kelleysville, took place on March 17, 1863, in Culpeper County, Virginia, as part of the ... read more...

  1. Both sides generally believed that Union cavalrymen were inferior to their Confederate counterparts prior to the Battle of Kelly's Ford. The phrase "There's going to be a fight! " was a favorite among northern foot soldiers as they marched by. Every time they saw horsemen on the way, they shouted, "The cavalry's coming back!" The Confederate cavalry humiliated the Army of the Potomac's cavalry units at the Battle of Hartwood Church in February 1863, adding to the general feeling that the Federals were inferior. The issue with the Union troops was their weak organization and inadequate equipment, not their lack of talent or cowardice. When Joe Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac in 1863, he made a number of changes to his mounted wing, most notably the adoption of rapid-firing carbines and the establishment of a centralized command system.


    The Union cavalry was finally prepared to engage in significant, protracted combat at Kelly's Ford. Up until that time in the war, the Union force on the field, which numbered over 2,000, was the greatest mounted force to be formed under a single battlefield commander. Despite failing to disperse the Confederate cavalry to their front, the hard fighting at Kelly's Ford encouraged the Federal cavalry.

    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust

  2. Although Fitzhugh Lee and William Averell were close friends at West Point, they opposed on the battlefield. During their time as West Point cadets in the 1850s, New Yorkers William Averell and Virginian Fitzhugh Lee remained close friends. Lee finished a year before Averell, who then joined the U.S. Mounted Rifles in the west. After earning his degree in 1856, Lee fought Comanches for three years in Texas before being hired as an instructor at the Academy. The two of them next ran into one another in 1863 on opposite banks of the Rappahannock.


    Lee sent Averell a note in February after leading a raid into Union territory that said, "I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state, and go home. I ride a better horse than the one you ride. Return my visit and bring me a bag of coffee if you won't leave." After hearing the taunt, Averell was so furious that he begged for permission to cross the river and engage his old friend in a fight.

    Fitzhugh Lee - Wikipedia
    Fitzhugh Lee - Wikipedia
    William Averell - Wikipedia
    William Averell - Wikipedia
  3. Averell was directed by Joe Hooker to assault Fitzhugh Lee in order to accomplish a number of goals. He understood that in order to achieve his overarching objective of defeating Robert E. Lee, a flanking operation around the impenetrable fortifications at Fredericksburg would be necessary. He would need to be aware of the fortifications manning the western fords of the Rappahannock's defenses in order to pull it off.


    Averell's expedition would gather crucial information about troop dispositions and offer a real-world examination of Confederate response patterns. Fitzhugh Lee's troop might potentially be destroyed by Averell, taking down the first line of defense on the western bank of the river. The outcome at Kelly's Ford would have a significant impact on the hundreds of thousands of troops involved in the Chancellorsville Campaign.

    Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker commanded three army corps in a maneuver to turn the Confederate left flank by fording the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers beyond Fredericksburg in the final days of April 1863. On April 30 and May 1, the Federals converged in Chancellorsville after passing the Rapidan via Germanna and Ely's Fords.

    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
  4. The Union cavalrymen lacked the courage, expertise, and leadership to confront Stuart despite having better equipment, a surplus of men, and federal horses on their side. One of Stuart's most important subordinates and the nephew of General Robert E. Lee, Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, led 400 soldiers in a raid on February 25, 1863, in Stafford County, about 9 miles northwest of Fredericksburg.


    Averell first led his column on a 32-mile ride to Morrisville, Virginia, in order to get to the ford. On the 16th, just before midnight, the 6th Ohio regiment arrived in the town and stopped to rest. The troopers utilized the church pews from one of the town's abandoned churches as kindling under their coffee pots because they were unable to find an appropriate supply of fuel elsewhere. It seems difficult to degrade places of worship in this manner, but it's likely that the doctrines of secession and the divine right of one man to own another have been preached from the pulpit, Captain Delos Northway admitted to his diary. Well, let it go; its time has come.

    RSF Trip Reporter
    RSF Trip Reporter
    Emerging Civil War
    Emerging Civil War
  5. When Averell's advance guard arrived at Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock early on March 17, 1863, they discovered 60 Confederate sharpshooters and fallen trees blocking their way across. Averell's men could see two substantial homes on the southern bank of the river, a millrace that resembled a trench, and grey-clad sharpshooters holed up in rifle pits from their side of the river. Major Samuel E. Chamberlain, Averell's chief of staff, eventually forced a crossing that was being made by 20 members of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. He sustained a head injury.


    These 130 defenders, led by Captain James Breckinridge, fired frantically, filling the ford with dead soldiers and horses and delaying the Federals for over three hours. Despite being outnumbered, the Confederates benefited significantly from the abatis they had previously built on the northern bank, which kept the Union soldiers from using their superior numbers to their advantage. Despite losing 79% of his attacking group when crossing the river, Lieutenant Simeon Brown bravely led the sixth charge and successfully drove the southerners back. Totally, the Confederates defending Kelly’s Ford repulsed five charges before the Union troopers crossed the river.

    The Civil War 150th Blog
    The Civil War 150th Blog
    Wikipedia
    Wikipedia
  6. Young artilleryman John Pelham, who has a stellar resume. He led the initial push on the Union line and was killed by a shell fragment even though he had no troops under his command on the battlefield. Moving forward with Lee's soldiers, Pelham waved a girl through a fence gate when a shell exploded over his head, piercing his brain with a small piece of shrapnel and killing him instantly. Few hours later, he passed away. The 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry's carbine fire and Martin's battery's shelling successfully stopped the Confederate assault.


    When Stuart learned of the boy's passing, he sobbed, saying, "Our loss is irreparable." Stuart later suggested in a letter to his wife that they name their future child after the brave fighter. It came as a shock to many veterans of the Battle of Fredericksburg and Robert E. Lee when young Pelham, who was 24 years old, passed away. "The courageous Pelham—so noble, so true—will be mourned by the nation," Stuart wrote following the war.

    Wikipedia
    Wikipedia
    National Portrait Gallery
  7. On the field of combat, Hooker's strategy to increase the cavalrymen's firepower was successful. The new Sharps carbines could fire up to 16 rounds per minute, a vast improvement above the standard Civil War soldier weaponry.


    The success of a cavalry charge depends on overpowering the opposing line before countervolleys can sap the assailants of their momentum, hence the substantially improved rate of fire was especially crucial for mounted operations. Before defenders with muskets could load and fire more than one shot at a time, horsemen could often cover several hundred yards. However, with the advent of carbines, this situation altered. At Kelly's Ford, almost any Confederate charges ever made it to hand-to-hand combat before being repulsed by Union weaponry.

    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
    GUNS Magazine
    GUNS Magazine
  8. Since the 17th century, the saber - a curved sword used for both slashing and thrusting - has been a standard cavalry weapon. However, by the 1860s, horse soldiers had started to favor revolvers and other small-caliber weapons more.


    Averell deliberately decided to reintroduce the saber into the battle at Kelly's Ford. Gunshots, saber fights, and chants of "To the death!" broke up the tumultuous melee. The Confederates were forced to follow suit since they had to face the weapon up close. Men on both sides were shocked by the wounds the blades left behind. The demoralizing effects of the saber played a crucial influence in the outcome of the conflict given the nature of cavalry shock action, in which hand-to-hand encounters resulted in one side immediately gaining the upper hand and compelling their opponents to flee in terror within minutes.


    "At Kelly's Ford, several troopers engaged in their first swordfight. The two lines clashed in a hand-to-hand battle, split up, then reunited and charged once more. Who would surrender first depended greatly on the terrible results of saber wounds." Courtesy Library of Congress wrote.

    Emerging Civil War
    Emerging Civil War
    Quora
    Quora
  9. The Confederate forces were in shambles by the conclusion of the day. On the Union left, Duffié disobeyed Averell's orders to hold his position and ordered a charge.


    Lee's soldiers were worn out and dejected after numerous unsuccessful charges, and Averell maintained a definite advantage in manpower and momentum. Lee had to retreat his soldiers through the trees to a clearing close behind him due to the surprise attack. Averell did not, however, give the command for the decisive charge that might have eventually overcome Lee. He decided to retreat back over the Rappahannock after hearing what he believed to be the noises of southern troops being hurried to the battleground. After the conflict, Thomas Rosser said that Averell "mistook the frantic thumping of his frightened heart for drums." Even though he had fallen short of a complete triumph, Averell's actions that day had a significant positive impact on Union morale and raised alarm in the ranks of the South. He also left a sack of coffee and a note for his old friend south of the river: “Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How did you like it? How’s that horse?”

    William W. Averell - Wikipedia
    William W. Averell - Wikipedia
    Legends of America
    Legends of America
  10. In 2013, the Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) affected a 964-acre acquisition that will protect most of the key battlefield land at Kelly's Ford. In order to safeguard a total of 2,792 acres spanning eight battlefields in the state, the state of Virginia, the Civil War Trust, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, and the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation collaborated to acquire this area. The Trust intends to protect even more land along the Rappahannock River's banks in the upcoming years, particularly at Brandy Station.


    The impressively preserved cavalry battlefield is located in the C.F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area on the south bank of the Rappahannock River. It has interpretive signs, hiking trails, and the "Gallant Pelham" memorial, which honors Maj. John Pelham, a renowned Confederate artillery officer was mortally wounded at the age of 24 during the battle at Kelly's Ford on March 17 and passed away the following day.

    American Battlefield Trust
    American Battlefield Trust
    Culpeper Virginia
    Culpeper Virginia




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