On this date of March 17, 1863 was fought the cavalry conflict of the Battle of Kelly’s Ford. This pitted two former West Point cadet friends and Indian fighters against each other for the second time in two months. William Averell would command about 2100 Federal troops against about 800 Confederates under Fitzhugh Lee. The prior engagement at Hartwood Church (written about in this blog by going HERE), was a smaller more accidental event. This engagement marked the beginning of a sea change for cavalry operations, particularly for the Union.
At Hartwood Church (fought behind Federal lines in Virginia), Lee had left behind a note for his old friend which 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.” This irritated Averell, who on the 16th approached the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, set to attack the rebel cavalry at daybreak. Initial successes were set back, only to be reinforced more strongly as greater numbers engaged on both sides. By the afternoon, Averell missed the opportunity for a decisive win, and fearful of the (errant) sound of Confederate reinforcements arriving, withdrew his forces to the north bank of the river.
Up to this point of the War, it was an assumed understanding that Confederate cavalry was far superior to that of the Union. But with command structure changes by Joe Hooker, along with the new equipage of the Federal cavalry with the 1863 Sharps Carbine repeating rifles, obviously a new day had arrived for the northern mounted troops.
Though technically a victory for the South, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford was a moral victory for the Union. The Federal loss amounted to 85, whereas the rebels number a total of 146. Among the Confederate casualties was the mortal wounding of John Pelham – a young artillerist who had distinguished himself at Fredericksburg in particular. It was certain that he was a major rising star for the Southern war effort. JEB Stuart mourned his loss in tears, writing to Pelham’s mother, “I loved him as a brother; he was so noble, so chivalrous, so pure in heart, so beloved.” In fact, Pelham was on the scene due to simply paying a visit to a young lady not far from the action. (There is probably a lesson in there somewhere! … more on Pelham in this blog tomorrow.)
Kelly’s Ford – an oft-used crossing for both sides – would be the host location for a larger Cavalry engagement on June 9th – the Battle of Brandy Station.
Averell did leave behind a return message for Lee, “Dear Fitz, Here’s your coffee, Here’s your visit. How do you like it?”
(The Civil War Trust has a particularly good set of write-ups on this battle.)