The campaigning season of 1863 opened with the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia battling for position along Virginia’s swift-running Rappahannock River. Having witnessed the disastrous attempt to force a crossing at Fredericksburg at the end of the December previous, newly installed Major General “Fightin’” Joe Hooker now sought to outflank the Confederate army by way of the river’s western fords. The opening battle of this new campaign, at Kelly’s Ford on March 17, would be his first move in pursuit of this goal.
Hooker’s ultimate objective—to deliver a crushing, war-ending defeat to Robert E. Lee in open battle—had required a complete structural overhaul of the Army of the Potomac. One of the main features of his plan was a reorganization of the army’s cavalry wing. Up to this point in the war the Confederate cavalry had simply dominated its Union counterpart. One Federal cavalryman claimed that there were only three choices when facing Confederates on horseback: “surrender, die, or run.” Wanting to give his troopers a few more choices, Hooker drew inspiration from J.E.B. Stuart and formed his cavalry into a single, powerful corps under George Stoneman. Where before the Union cavalry had been dispersed throughout the army, each small group taking orders from a different officer, now thousands of horsemen would be acting as one body. Hooker hoped that this, in addition to an infusion of quick-shooting and accurate breech-loading carbines, would give his cavalry the muscle necessary to turn the tables on the Confederates.
It was not long before the Union cavalrymen received an opportunity to test their mettle. At the end of February, Confederate horsemen under the command Fitzhugh Lee conducted a daring raid north of the Rappahannock. Lee, the commanding general’s nephew, captured men and horses, stole supplies, and left a note for William Averell, an old friend from West Point who was now a Union cavalry officer. The note read: “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.”
Averell was furious and his mood blackened further after receiving a vicious reprimand from Joe Hooker. On March 16, he set out to “rout or destroy” Fitzhugh Lee and his command as they sheltered south of the river near Culpeper Courthouse. He took with him some 3,100 troopers, telling them to sharpen their sabers and expect a victory. By nightfall the advance elements of the northern forces had quietly reached Kelly’s Ford. This shallow run would be the starting point for the next day’s battle. Averell picked 100 men who would lead the attack to the opposite bank at first light on the 17th.
The first assault was stopped cold by 85 Confederate sharpshooters sheltering in rifle pits along the southern bank. Major Samuel E. Chamberlain rallied the Union troopers and led three more charges across the ford, all of which were turned back. Chamberlain himself was wounded twice in the face. The fifth charge, led by men of the 1st Rhode Island and supported by the fire of Averell’s main body, which had by now arrived at the battlefield, finally overwhelmed the defenders. By 7:30 A.M. 2,000 Union cavalrymen had crossed the Rappahannock and were at large in Confederate territory. Rallying some 800 Confederate troopers, Fitzhugh Lee galloped to the battlefield, and to the attack. J.E.B. Stuart heard the sound of guns and came to observe the fighting. So too did John Pelham, a brilliant young artillerist with a thirst for battle.
Averell knew his old friend’s aggressive bent. The Union men advanced slowly, maintaining a strong defensive front. The two forces collided in the farm fields of C.T. Wheatley, 2 miles northwest of Kelly’s Ford. Averell deployed his men with one flank behind a stone wall and the other in a dense woodlot. Lee ordered a charge on the stone wall. With Pelham in their midst, the 3rd Virginia gave a loud whoop and touched spurs to their horses. Crossing the field under a heavy fire from Union carbines and freshly deployed artillery, the Virginia troopers found the wall too high to jump. After emptying their revolvers at close range they were forced back. Pelham was carried back to the lines, unconscious. The tiny shell fragment lodged in his brain would kill him within hours.
On his own initiative, Union Colonel Alfred Duffié, watching from the woods on the left flank, chose this moment to launch a counterattack. His cavalry thundered towards the Confederate line. Taken by surprise, Lee’s troopers retreated through the woods a mile further to the northwest to a position behind a small stream known as Carter’s Run. The Union men cautiously pursued. Averell had just heard a locomotive whistle in the distance and thought it signaled the arrival of southern reinforcements.
Lee ordered another charge as the blue line came into view in the trees. Averell met the charge defensively and the Confederate troopers were once again staggered backwards by the Union carbines. At this moment, around 5:30 P.M., Averell had a significant numerical advantage over an enemy much disordered by the day’s violent failures, but his nerve failed him. He ordered a withdrawal back to the northern side of the Rappahannock, and thus failed to provide the victory he had promised. He did take the time to leave a message behind: “Dear Fitz, Here’s your coffee, Here’s your visit. How do you like it?”
The Battle of Kelly’s Ford was the first large all-cavalry action of the war and it had significant consequences. The loss of Pelham cut short a wildly promising career—the potential impact of such a high-caliber artillerist on the battlefields of 1863 is incalculable. Additionally, while Averell’s ultimate timidity prevented a signal victory, for the first time Union cavalrymen had one in their grasp. The battle proved that Hooker’s unified and well-equipped cavalry was a force to be reckoned with, and one that would greatly strengthen his hand in the Chancellorsville Campaign.
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