155 years ago today, Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell’s Union cavalry division clashed with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalry brigade east of Culpeper Court House. The day long struggle derived its name from a nearby crossing on the Rappahannock River, Kelly’s Ford. That St. Patrick’s Day, the waters which flowed from the Blue Ridge to the Chesapeake served as a point of embarkation from the past and a vision of the future.
Kelly’s Ford was first time the Army of the Potomac’s mounted forces launched an expedition with the sole purpose of engaging the Confederate cavalry. Through the course of the fight, Averell’s troopers established a bridgehead on the south bank of the river and then held their position in the fields adjacent to nearby Wheatley’s Ford against a Confederate counterattack. During this phase of the battle, the Confederates lost Maj. John Pelham, the talented chief of the Stuart Horse Artillery. Averell then pressed Lee back toward a stream known as Carter’s Run. With the sun setting in the western sky, Averell judiciously decided to break off the fight and returned to the north bank of the river.
“The principal result achieved…has been that our cavalry has been brought to feel their superiority in battle; they have learned the value of discipline and the use of their arms,” Averell wrote.
William Brooke-Rawle, the prolific chronicler of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, which participated in the battle, recalled “the most substantial result of this fight was the feeling of confidence in its own ability which the volunteer cavalry gained. This feeling was not confined to the regiments engaged, but was imparted to the whole of our cavalry. The espirit de corps and morale was greatly benefited. Kelly’s Ford was the making of our cavalry.” D.M. Gilmore, an officer in the regiment recalled after the war that the battle “gave great confidence to our men…the advantage gained at Kelly’s Ford was ever maintained.”
Kelly’s Ford marked the beginning of the ascension of the Union cavalry to a level of superiority over their Confederate counterparts. Without Kelly’s Ford, there would be no Brandy Station, without Brandy Station, there would be no Yellow Tavern, without Yellow Tavern there would be no Trevilian Station. Like a rock tossed into a river, the battle’s ripples spread far and wide through the water.