17 March 2006 by Published in: General News 2 comments

In addition to being St. Patrick’s Day, today also marks the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, fought on March 17, 1863, along the banks of the chilly Rappahannock River.

On February 24, 1863, Confederate Brig. Gen. Fitz Lee, under orders to find the end of the Union line, led a raid of 500 hand-picked troopers of his brigade on the far right flank of the Army of the Potomac at Hartwood Church. Marching forty miles across country in deep snow, Fitz’s men launched a vicious dawn surprise attack that scattered the Federal cavalry pickets. Lee’s men chased them until they came under the guns of the 124th New York Infantry. Having found the Federal infantry, Fitz broke off and withdrew, although not before taunting the Federal cavalry commander responsible for the sector.

Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell and Fitz Lee had been very close friends at West Point, and they remained friends. Fitz left his old friend a bag of tobacco and a taunting note. “Dear Averell, If you won’t go home, why not pay me a visit? I hear your horse is faster than mine. Fitz.” Infuriated, Averell vowed revenge. He got his chance a couple of weeks later.

Averell took his division of Federal cavalry on an expedition designed to break up a concentration of Confederate cavalry in the vicinity of Culpeper, Virginia. He left three hundred of his 2100 men behind to guard his rear and marched.

Arriving at Kelly’s Ford early on the morning of March 17, he found intense preparations by the Confederates awaiting him. They had dug rifle pits and felled trees to block the way, and Averell had to fight his way across the river, a process that took most of the morning. When he finally got across, he engaged in a bitter six hour long fight with the 800 men of Fitz Lee’s Brigade that featured saber charges and counter charges, the Yankee horsemen going boot-to-boot with their Southern rivals. Maj. John Pelham, commander of the Confederate horse artillery, had foolishly decided to lead a saber charge, and paid for it with his life when a fragment of a Union artillery shell lodged itself in his brain. The Gallant Pelham died a few hours later as a weeping Jeb Stuart stood by his deathbed.

At the end of the day, with victory in his grasp, Averell broke off and withdrew. He thought he had heard trains bringing reinforcements to Fitz Lee, and knowing he was alone and far behind the enemy lines, Averell felt he had done enough, even though he had not fulfilled his orders for the mission. Before leaving, he left a bag of coffee and a note for Fitz Lee that said, “Dear Fitz, Here’s your visit. How’d you like it? How’s your horse? Averell”

By any measure, Kelly’s Ford was a Confederate victory. They held the battlefield at the end of the day, and Averell utterly failed to fulfill his strategic objectives for the raid. However, the importance of Kelly’s Ford cannot be overstated. First, and foremost, it proved definitively that the Union cavalry could hold its own against the very best that the Confederacy had to offer. Second, it cost the life of Pelham, the very competent commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery. Pelham had no business leading that charge, and it cost him–and the Army of Northern Virginia–dearly. Finally, it demonstrated that the Confederate cavalry could be beaten on the field of battle under the right commander.

Kelly’s Ford marks a milestone in the maturation process of the Union cavalry. For that reason alone, it is worth studying.

So, hoist a green beer to the memory of the Gallant Pelham today, and also recognize the bravery of the cavaliers who fought long and hard that day.

Scridb filter


  1. Dave Kelly
    Sat 18th Mar 2006 at 10:05 am

    Neither a German or an Irishman will drink a damned green beer.

    Oyle trink me Guiness tank yer very moich…. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for the Kelly’s Ford remembrence. Kinda makes ya wonder if there was a Yankee General who ever heard of the term “Objective”. Yeah, I know there were some pretty spunky Rebs who managed to get in the way of mission accomplishment, but cripes, how many times do operations just seem to drift off into space. (Current discussions of Peninsula and Antietam elsewhere has me in a funk over Union processes of indecision… ๐Ÿ™‚ .)

  2. Mike Peters
    Sun 19th Mar 2006 at 11:43 am

    Chapter 3 of “The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863” is a good place to start your reserch of Kelly’s Ford. Also found Trout’s study of the Stuart Horse Artillery helpful.


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