March 17, 1863 (Tuesday – St. Patrick’s Day)
Through the first two years of the war, and especially in the winter of 1862-1863, the Confederate Cavalry under Jeb Stuart and Fitz Lee were in their heyday. Often, they would cross the Rappahannock River to raid a Federal camp or rout a party of their Union counterparts. Nobody could tell when they would strike or where.
So bold had they become that on a February raid that Fitz Lee made against one of his closest pre-war friends, William Averell, the former left the latter a note. They had struck up a friendship at West Point several years before going their separate ways in 1861. As Fitz Lee was making his quick egress across the river, he wrote the message: “I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state, and go home. If you won’t go home, return my visit, and bring me a sack of coffee.”
It was brash and daring and left both Averell and General Joe Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, much less than amused. Hooker demanded that Averell put a fast end to these Rebel antics. And so Averell took up his old friend’s challenge and was determined to surprise the Confederates in the camps at Culpeper Court House.
He selected his men, and prepared for battle. By March 16, he had 3,100 under his immediate command at Morrisville, about six miles northeast of a major crossing at Kelly’s Ford. Rumors of Confederates at Brentsville, a small town in the opposite direction, for some reason caused Averell to detach 900 men to track them down. This left him with 2,200, and still more reports that Fitz Lee’s force totaled 3,000. But surprise would be on the side of the Union, thought Averell.
Nothing Averell believed was actually true. Fitz Lee had only 1,000 men under his command. Much of his force was out gathering new horses or foraging for supplies. But it was also not true that he would be surprised. Rebel scouts reported that a large body of Federal Cavalry was gathering at Morrisville. What Fitz Lee could not yet tell was where they were going. Would it be Rappahannock Bridge to the north, or Kelly’s Ford to the south? Hedging his bets, Lee ordered both to be reinforced with pickets while his main command stayed in Culpeper to await developments.
Through the dark night and early pre-dawn of this date, Averell and his remaining men picked their way towards Kelly’s Ford. Just as dawn dimly lit the eastern sky, his vanguard of 100 men tried to storm across the river. They were met with a well-entrenched enemy. Though small in number, they made crossing a near impossibility.
When Averell arrived on the scene, nothing apart from the loud cracks of skirmish fire was happening. Fearful that the sounds would alert Fitz Lee, Averell tried to outflank the Rebel position by finding another nearby crossing. But with the obstructions placed by Rebels and the swollen river, it simply wasn’t going to happen.
And so Averell decided to overwhelm them by force. The first time they tried, the Rebels beat them back. The second time offered the same results. On the third attempt, three Federal cavaliers crossed and got behind the Rebel lines, sending the pickets, about 80 in number, scrambling out of their rifle pits. Kelly’s Ford was now in Union hands.
As Averell crossed his men and organized a plan, Fitz Lee was drawing his force towards Kelly’s Ford. Along with him was Jeb Stuart, cavalry commander, and John Pelham, a brilliant and gallant artillery officer who had won favor with everybody from General Robert E. Lee on down through the ranks. Neither would actually command any troops – that was Fitz Lee’s job – but both were spoiling for a fight and hoped to get one this morning.
Stuart and Pelham would soon get the chance. General Averell established his line along a stonewall down the road from the Ford. His right was anchored on the river, while his left was on the main road, held against a thick woods. To his front was an open field with another thick woods behind it. To give him battle, the Rebels would have to file through the small open made for the road and then fan out in the field. This would bottle up the enemy and allow for a quick repulse and counterattack that would bag the Rebels.
When Fitz Lee saw the position, he and Stuart both agreed that it should be assaulted. Two regiments went forward, but when they hit the stonewall, they found it too high to jump and without an easy opening. They rode down the length of it, towards the Union right and the river, firing as they went. Joining the attacking force was Major Pelham.
At last a gate was found, and the Rebels hoped to rush it and turn the Union flank. But the gateway was protected by dismounted Pennsylvania Cavalry and the Confederate attack was turned back. At it apex, Major Pelham was standing high in his stirrups, waving his saber and cheering the boys forward, when a shall fragment hit him in the back of the head and knocked him senseless from his horse. He was dragged back to Confederate lines as the assault was broken.
Just as the Federal right was saved, the Federal left charged without orders from Averell. This surprised not only Averell, but his friend Fitz Lee, as well. Seeing that his flank would soon be overlapped, Lee ordered his entire force to squeeze through the bottleneck and establish a new line along a stream in the next field down the road.
Vexed, Averell demanded that no more such charges be ordered unless the orders came directly from him. Following the repulse, captured Rebels reported correctly that Jeb Stuart was on the scene. Averell thought that he had only been tangling with Fitz Lee, only a portion of Stuart’s whole force. And when he heard a train whistle blow at the nearby station, he added it up and decided that Lee was about to be reinforced by the rest of Stuart’s men.
For Fitz Lee, Stuart’s presence was a bit of luck. But the train whistle was part of the design. He had ordered the engineer to run his locomotive up and down the tracks blowing its whistle all the while. Lee put out the bait and Averell so willingly accepted it.
The Federal Cavalry followed Lee’s through the bottleneck and established a line 600 yards away from the Rebels. They did not have long to wait before the Rebel charge came. Seeing them advance, Averell ordered his men to remain on the defensive and pick off the Rebels as they closed in.
This was a sound plan and the Rebels began falling in droves. Due to their smaller numbers, the Union line greatly overlapped the advancing Confederates, especially on the left. If Averell had not forbid another charge, the Union left could easily have enveloped and probably surrounded the attacking Rebels.
But no charge to get behind the Rebel attack was ordered by Averell, and so, no charge came at all. The Rebel attack was repulsed and Fitz Lee began the task of quickly reorganizing his force for a last stand. It was time to let the Federals do the attacking and dying.
As the Confederates were regrouping, the artillery began to duel and Averell decided to call it a day. He had no stomach to attack and figured that Rebel reinforcements were certainly on their way. It was 5:30pm and darkness was soon upon them. Averell and his men recrossed Kelly’s Ford and set up camp on the opposite bank.
Before he exited the scene, Averell left a bag of coffee and a note with a surgeon. “Dear Fitz,” it began. “Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How do you like it?”
Fitz did not like it much at all. Though the Federals had left the field of battle to the Rebels, this day signaled that things were about to change. No longer would the Union Cavalry be easy prey. Now, the match was on.
Major John Pelham, the daring and brilliant artillery officer, died behind Confederate lines. He was a national hero would would lie in state at Richmond. Otherwise, Lee lost 11 killed, 88 wounded and 34 missing. Averell’s losses were lighter, losing 6 killed, 50 wounded, and 22 missing.1