Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Union Cavalry Show They Can

The winter of 1863 saw both Armies settled into camps on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River. There were several small skirmishes, but on March 17th 1863 an important cavalry raid at Kelly’s Ford broke out.

The Battle of Kelly’s Ford was the first chance the Union Cavalry had to bring together a large force. Union Brigadier General William Averell received orders in early March to leave the Army of the Potomac. He was to take his men west and cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, expecting to engage the Confederates ten miles west of the ford at Culpeper. On March 16th about 3,000 Cavalry with a battery of six cannon, started out. Worring about a flanking move on his right, Averell sent about 900 of his men north of Kelly’s Ford to Catlett Station.

Confederate Cavalry Commander Fitzhugh Lee soon learned of Averell’s movements, and reinforced the twenty Confederates guarding Kelly’s Ford. The rest of Lee’s command, along with Captain James Breathed’s four cannon battery were stationed in Culpeper. The Confederate defenders at Kelly’s Ford, numbering about 85, from the 2nd and 4th Virginia, block the ford on both sides of the river with felled trees.

On the morning of March 17th 1863 the Union troops tried three times to cross the ford. For two hours they tried to remove the trees. Averell believed his opponent would attach, decided to rest his men, and withdrew about a mile behind a stone wall. This gave Fitzhugh Lee, along with General Jeb Stuart the chance to move forward. Lee ordered the 3rd Virginia to charge the stone wall. Finding a gap in the wall the Virginian’s tried to cut the Union men off from the ford. However on the Union left Colonel Alfred Duffie moved a brigade forward, trying to bait the Rebels into charging. When the Confederates were about seventy-five yard away, Duffie ordered the 1st Rhode Island forward striking the Confederates on both flanks.

Fitzhugh Lee pulled his men back about a mile to near Dean’s Shop. As the Union approached, Lee’s Cavalry charged, however the attack was quickly put down. Averell’s counter attack was feeble, and fearing he was facing a large force of the enemy, he withdrew.

The Battle of Kelly’s Ford was a victory for the Confederates, but it cost them 146 men wounded, killed or missing. The Union loss only 85. Although Averell failed in reaching his objective, the Union Cavalry showed that they would fight.

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