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Historic America

Kelly’s Ford Battlefield in Culpeper County, Virginia

Old friends, torn apart by war, clash in a chivalric contest of sabres and revolvers in one of the Civil War’s best-known cavalry battles.

The Battle of Kelly’s Ford (aka Kellysville) was fought on March 17, 1863 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. William W. Averell and Confederate forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee in Culpeper County, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle, which resulted in 211 total casualties, was a draw but was the first time in the Eastern Theater that Union cavalry held their own against their Southern counterparts.

In a war that produced so many great quotes, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford gave us one of the best. The opposing commanders, William Averell and Fitzhugh Lee, were friends at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before the war. On February 25th, Fitzhugh Lee led a raid across the Rappahannock River and captured dozens of Averell’s men. Lee sent his old friend a note saying “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.”

After the battle of Kelly’s Ford, Averell left two captured Confederate officers with a sack of coffee and a note saying: “Dear Fitz, Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How do you like it?”

On the morning of March 17, 1863, Brig. Gen. Averell forced a crossing of the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford with three cavalry brigades and one battery of artillery, for a total of 2,100 men. His objective was to destroy Confederate cavalry in the area and stop raids like that of February 25th. His old friend, Brig. Gen. Lee (nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee), opposed him with approximately 800 men. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederates’ flamboyant cavalry chief, and Stuart’s chief of artillery, Maj. John Pelham, were also on hand.

Union troopers had initial success, routing one cavalry regiment and repulsing an attack by two others. During this attack, Maj. Pelham was mortally wounded by an artillery shell and died the next morning. He was 24 years old and considered a promising young officer by his peers. J.E.B. Stuart even named his third child, Virginia Pelham, in his honor.

Averell ordered his units to hold fast, but Franco-American Col. Alfred Napoléon Alexander Duffié disobeyed orders and led his brigade in an unsupported charge. Had Averell’s other brigades joined this attack, it might have been successful, but Duffié could not maintain momentum unsupported. Low on ammunition and fearing Confederate reinforcements, Averell withdrew back across the Rappahannock around 5:30pm. Union forces lost 6 killed, 50 wounded, and 22 missing to the Confederate’s 11 dead, 88 wounded, and 34 captured.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

The area around Kelly’s Ford has been spared major development and remains predominantly forests and pastures. The American Battlefield Trust has preserved a large portion of the battlefield, and one parcel, including the spot where John Pelham was mortally wounded, lies within the Chester F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area. For such a small battle, Kelly’s Ford has more than its share of markers and Civil War Trail interpretive signs, though there is no formal driving or walking trail.

Parking for Pelham’s marker (erected in 1981) is located off Kelly’s Ford Road, across the street from Bob’s Small Engine Repair (16240 Kellys Ford Rd, Remington, VA). The marker is somewhere in the woods at the end of a trail (GPS coordinates 38.487900, -77.790817) but I was unable to find it. There is another gravel parking lot off Newbys Shop Road leading to the American Battlefield Trust property, but aside from two Civil War Trail signs there is nothing but an open field. More signs are located in a gravel pull-off on Kellys Ford Road, just west of Kelly’s Ford Bridge.

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