“Mom, I’ve waited about 13 years to come here,” I said in an undertone as we looked at Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River. The river ran low on that August day (just last week), and – though rivers change with passing years – it was still clear that a ford existed. I tried to picture what this place might have looked like in March 1863 when the water ran swift and cold. When the Union cavalry splashed across here, crossing a literal and figurative expanse in the history of volunteer warfare during the Civil War.
Why Kelly’s Ford? Why did I have to visit this site? Though my colleagues teased me about needing to come find the spot of John Pelham‘s last conscious moments, my interesting in the battleground goes back to days before I’d ever heard the names “Pelham” or “Stuart Horse Artillery.”
In my pre-teens I went through a “cavalry phase.” I think it had something to do with my love of horses and I was making a connection between one of my hobbies and stories from the past. Sometime during this cavalry craze, I stumbled across a mention of the Battle of Kelly’s Ford. I remember adding it to my wall timeline and the really cool thing at that time was the fight’s date: March 17, 1863. I had something to think about on St. Patrick’s Day other than how much I disliked the traditional corned beef meal served in my household.
If I was going to make table talk and play the “do you know what happened today in 1863?”game, I had to know something about the history. So, I learned that Kelly’s Ford marks the Union cavalry’s successful challenge to the Confederate cavalry. That seemed pretty impressive to me. The guys in blue had gone from chopping off their horse’s ears with uncoordinated saber swings to battling the “elite” Southern horsemen. Or that’s how the story when in my young mind.
Now, fast-forward those thirteen years, and here’s an overview what happened on March 17, 1863, at Kelly’s Ford.
Early in March 1863, Confederate General Fitz Lee’s cavalry harassed Union outposts and camps along the Rappahanock River. This prompted Union General William Averell to strike back, taking approximately 2,100 troopers to attack Lee’s cavalry near Culpeper Court House.
On March 17, the Union horsemen plunged into the chilly waters at Kelly’s Ford and made a difficult crossing through the fast-flowing river. Once across, Averell pushed his units inland from the ford into the open ground. He used a stonewall – sometimes called a “stone fence” – to anchor his line and provide a defensive position for some of his units while others poised to fight in the open ground beyond.
Fitz Lee scrambled his troopers to the area and was soon joined by General J.E.B. Stuart who happened to be in Culpeper and rode out to observe and help direct the fight. Confederate horsemen discovered that the Union cavalry was fighting back, actually repulsing attacking units at the stonewall, making stands and counter-charges in the open ground, and eventually forcing the Southerners from the field in a counterattack.
Though Fitz Lee and his cavalry “lived to fight another day,” Averell expressed satisfaction, declaring that one of his primary objectives had been accomplished. His troopers had stood and fought back – breaking the reputation that Union cavalry in the east always ran when confronted by Confederates. He correctly believed that this episode would boost the Union cavalry’s morale and battle tested his own soldiers.
In his official report of the battle, Union General William Averell wrote his analysis:
The principle result achieved by this expedition 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. At the first view, I must confess that two regiments wavered, but they did not lose their senses, and a few energetic remarks brought them to a sense of their duty. After that the feeling became stronger throughout the day that it was our fight, and the maneuvers were performed with a precision which the enemy did not fail to observe.
The enemy’s first attack was vigorous and fierce, and it took about an hour to convince him on the first field that it was necessary for him to abandon it….
A Confederate cavalryman – Tom Colley of the 1st Virginia Cavalry – added a perspective about the fight at an individual level in his post-war memoirs:
As we were emerging from the woodland we were in, ‘General J.E.B. Stuart’ dashed up and ordered our line to be formed and to move forward. As soon as we emerged in the open fields and broad bottom land of Mr. Wheatley’s farm, we were ordered to charge, General Stuart leading. As I was not in the ranks, I charged with the General in front until we came to a high stone fence at the road running from Kelly’s Ford to Wheatley’s Ford. As the yanks were drawn up in solid columns on the opposite side of the fence and road, we could not get to them and were ordered to turn the left into columns. I did not hear or notice the movement and rode my horse up to the stone fence and commended loading and shooting into the dense column of cavalry drawn up, as I stated, in an open pine woods as far back as I could see.
Two officers opened fire on me with their pistols. I shot at them with my carbine. Our orderly Sergeant passed down in rear of my horse and said, “Tom, what are you doing there?” I said, “I am shooting Yankee,” and I did not move from there until I had exhausted all my ammunition. I looked around and found I was all alone. I wheeled my horse and started him across the bottom toward the pine woods that bordered them on the north….
The Battle of Kelly’s Ford marks the beginning of major Union Cavalry successes in the eastern theater which would be followed with a stiff fight at Brandy Station and effective skirmishing and fighting in the rest of the Gettysburg Campaign. The ford and the stonewall are visible reminders of the invisible threshold that Averell’s men crossed as they helped rewrite and redefine the role and successful courage of the Yankee horsemen. That day and in the following weeks, the Confederate cavalry started to realize that they no longer faced an easily scattered opponent; they were facing horsemen – cavalrymen – in the proper and military-ready sense of the word.
Perhaps I am drawn to small turning point moments in the past. I’ve written about the Battle of New Market as a turning point for Shenandoah Valley history and the Bushong Fence as a threshold for courage. As we walked at Kelly’s Ford, I thought about this fight in the terms of a minor turning point. No, it’s not a Gettysburg or even a Brandy Station, but the Battle of Kelly’s Ford signaled change. Significant change. No longer would the Confederate cavalry “joy-ride” without significant opposition. No longer would Union horsemen regularly scatter when their enemy charged. At Kelly’s Ford, cavalry fighting morphed into the close combat struggle that would play out on other larger fields. Cavalry fight was no longer a theory. It was becoming a reality as Union soldiers found their horsemanship skills, fighting prowess, and increasing morale ready to match the Southern horsemen.
So, I went to Kelly’s Ford to see and rediscover this lesser-known site where the Union cavalry was “reborn”, stood up to the baptism of fire, and took back a tale that the Confederate horsemen were not invincible.
Yes, I made the trek to the Pelham marker. Yes, that was part of my research project. (And you can catch the quick video here.) But Major John Pelham enacted his final active scenes at Kelly’s Ford. His final charge, the unexpected ending to his short life. His life history and military legacy unfolded on other fields, some of his finest moments at locations now even more remote than his wounding marker.
Standing at that marker and earlier standing at the site of the house where he died, I felt conflicted. If we define Pelham by his death and memory, then Kelly’s Ford is the climax of his story. If we choose to remember that he really lived – lived in every sense of the word: struggled, decided, fought, innovated, loved, and lost – then his story at Kelly’s Ford marks the sudden end, but not the highpoint of his life. While I am grateful to have seen Kelly’s Ford as Major Pelham’s last battlefield, that was not the ultimate reason I wanted to go nor the final thought I store away in my memory.
I think of the river. Of Union horsemen crossing in the late winter cold. Crossing to fight a foe they had long cursed or feared. I think of the stonewall and the open fields where charges and countercharges proved that cavalry warfare was changing in the eastern Civil War. I think of Averell and Fitz Lee – both determined. I think of the cavalry troopers and officers who fought their last fight, just as the curtain opened for the new scenes of embattled horseman conflict.
I think of Kelly’s Ford and the penciled date, added crooked on childish timeline. Now I know the history. It is no longer a white page with notes. Now I have the images of the battlesites etched in my mind because I had the privilege to walk the land where the minor turning point in cavalry warfare really happened.
Official Records, General William Averell report on the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, accessed at Official Records via Cornell University, online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924077730244&view=1up&seq=69
Colley, Thomas W., edited by Michael K. Shaffer. In Memory of Self and Comrades: Thomas Wallace Colley’s Recollections of Civil War Service in the 1st Virginia Cavalry. (The University of Tennessee Press, 2018.) Pages 49-50.