Also known as the Battle of Kellysville or Kelleysville, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford was a largely inconclusive event that provided positives and negatives for both the Union and Confederate armies.
Today, the American Battlefield Trust preserves and maintains 1,370 acres (5.5 km2) of the battlefield in Culpeper County.
Before discussing the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, it is worth mentioning that three different Civil War battle-related events occurred at this one location. The Battle of Kelly’s Ford occurred on March 17, 1863, but two further engagements that year would involve the site: the Battle of Brandy Station; June 9, 1863, and the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station; November 7, 1863.
If visiting the site with Battlefield Tours of Virginia, the focus of your tour will be the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station and the events of November 7, 1863, however, the Battle of Kelly’s and the Battle of Brandy Station will also be covered.
For Civil War history enthusiasts, this is a must-visit destination.
Often regarded as a prelude to The Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford occupies an unusual place in American Civil War history. On the eve of battle, Brig. Gen. William Averell of the Union army stated that he aimed to “rout or destroy” the cavalry of Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, a Confederate leader who had been menacing Union forces on regular raids.
However, at the battle’s end, Averell would call for his men to withdraw before any real routing or destruction had been achieved. The battle would prove to be a morale boost for the Federals – something they very much needed.
In the lead-up to the battle, it was clear that the newly established Union Cavalry Corps had healthier numbers of men and horses and access to superior weaponry than their Confederate counterparts. What they did not yet possess, though, was the tenacity of their foe.
In early March, Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee had carried out raids against the Union forces camped along the Rappahannock River. This constant threat of raids is what finally spurred the Union forces into action.
On March 16, 1863, Brig. Gen. William Averell decided to launch an offensive against Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade. The following day, Averell’s advance guard reached Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock. Waiting for them were 60 Confederate sharpshooters.
A Union brigade led by Major Samuel E. Chamberlain eventually broke through, and over the next two hours, Averell and his men followed across the river.
Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederates started the battle poorly, outnumbered two to one and facing an enemy that had got its artillery into an excellent position.
At this point, experienced Confederate leader Jeb Stuart and his horse artillery chief, Maj. John Pelham arrived and joined the fight (they were each in the area by coincidence and hurried towards the conflict.
Though the 24-year-old Pelham was not meant to be involved that afternoon, he led a charge against the Union forces and was mortally wounded when an artillery shell exploded above his head.
Union brigades under Duffié and Reno did well to drive the Confederates back, though neither capitalized on their success. In the early evening, Averell “deemed it proper to withdraw,” as his men were exhausted.
In the aftermath of the battle, some would attack Averell for not continuing the fight, suggesting that a prolonged attack could have truly destroyed Fitzhugh Lee’s forces. However, what Averell achieved was still deeply significant: his men now knew they could take the fight to the Confederates and win.
The great sorrow for the Confederates came with the death of the talented young Maj. John Pelham and several veterans of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Pelham would succumb to his battlefield wound the day after the battle, and the heartache it caused Jeb Stuart was so great that he wrote to his wife to suggest they name their next son John.
However, for all the loss and regret, the Confederates could claim a crucial tactical victory – they managed to keep possession of the battlefield.
When the dead and wounded were later counted, it was found that the Union had suffered 78 casualties (6 killed, 50 wounded, 22 missings) while the Confederates lost 133 (11 dead, 88 wounded, 34 captured).
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