In the first two years of the Civil War, the Confederate cavalry vastly outperformed its Union counterpart, especially in campaigns in the East. This led to poor morale and a defeatist attitude among the Union horsemen, and a feeling of great confidence by the Rebel cavalrymen. When Major General Joseph Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac in late January 1863, he reorganized the army including placing all cavalry in one Cavalry Corps instead of having it scattered among the various infantry corps. Federal cavalry improved as time went on, and as the spring 1863 campaigns approached, a Union cavalry force finally matched up evenly with its Confederate foe at the March 17th, 1863 Battle of Kelly’s Ford, an important crossing point on the Rappahannock River northwest of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
On March 16th, Brigadier General William Averell set out for Kelly’s Ford with two brigades of his own cavalry division–which included the 3rd, 4th, and 16th Pennsylvania, 4th New York, 1st Rhode Island, and 6th Ohio Cavalry regiments–plus the 1st and 5th U.S. Cavalry, and the 6th New York Light Battery of artillery. The Confederate cavalry of General Fitzhugh Lee–the 1st, 2nd 3rd, 4th, and 5th Virginia Cavalry regiments–were reported to be near the river crossing. Lee’s cavalry had harassed the Federals over the course of the winter, and Hooker, who was busy planning the Chancellorsville Campaign, had had enough of that. Averell was to attack and destroy Lee’s cavalry and stop the harassment.
Early on the 17th, Averell attempted multiple crossings at Kelly’s Ford before successfully crossing the river with about 2100 troopers. Lee had about 800 men. Fighting raged back and forth with charges and counter charges by both sides. The Federals eventually wore down the smaller Confederate force, but instead of ordering a final all out attack, Averill called for a retreat back to the Union side of the Rappahannock River; the result of the battle was inconclusive, though both sides claimed victory.
Averell may have suspected that Confederate reinforcements were nearby, perhaps influenced by reports that the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry chief, General J.E.B. Stuart, was on the field. Stuart was indeed present, but he had been in the area on unrelated army business and went to the battlefield to see the fighting for himself and was not part of any reinforcements. Despite failing to destroy Fitzhugh Lee’s command, for the first time Federal cavalry had fought Confederate cavalry evenly. It was a huge boost of confidence for the Union. Lieutenant George Brown Jr., commanding the 6th New York Battery, wrote in his battle report “As to the effect of this affair upon the morale of our cavalry, it only strengthens my belief in their superiority and efficiency over that of the enemy, as was clearly demonstrated in each encounter”. That may have been a bit of an overstatement, but morale did indeed improve a great deal and the Union cavalry would prove a more and more effective force as time went on.
Federal losses were six killed and 78 total casualties, while Confederate losses were 11 killed and 133 total casualties. One Rebel death was especially costly. Major John Pelham, J.E.B. Stuart’s head of artillery and one of the most promising artillery officers in the Confederacy happened to be along with his boss and also rushed to the scene of the action. Pelham was killed during the fighting by an artillery shell fragment.
Averell filed this after action report:
HEADQUARTERS SECOND CAVALRY DIVISION,
March 20, 1863.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that, pursuant to instructions received from you, I left the main body of this army on the 16th instant, for the purpose of crossing the Rappahannock River and attacking the cavalry forces of the enemy, reported to be in the vicinity of Culpepper Court-House, under the command of General Fitzhugh Lee. My orders were to attack and rout or destroy him. To execute these orders, I was directed to take a force of 3,000 cavalry and six pieces of artillery. Accompanying the orders were several reports containing information of the operations of rebel cavalry north of the river, in the vicinity of Brentsville, the force of which was reported from 250 to 1,000, with at least one piece of artillery, and I was directed to take every precaution to insure the success of my expedition. As a precautionary measure, I requested that a regiment of cavalry be sent to Catlett’s Station, which is the key-point to the middle fords of the Rappahannock, to throw out from thence pickets in the direction of Warrenton, Greenwich, and Brentsville. My request Was not granted, and I was obliged to detach about 900 men from my force to guard the fords and look out for the force alluded to in the information.
The battery ordered from near Aquia Creek made a march of 32 miles on the 16th, and joined my command at Morrisville at 11 o’clock that night, with horses in poor condition for the expedition. Small
parties of my cavalry had been sent, two to four hours in advance, on all the roads and to the fords, to mask the approach of my main body from the enemy’s scouts.
On the night of the 16th, the fires of a camp of the enemy were seen from Mount Holly Church by my scouts, between Ellis’ and Kelly’s Fords, and the drums, beating retreat and tattoo, were heard from their camps near Rappahannock Station. Rebel cavalry appeared in front of my pickets on the roads leading west during the evening of the 16th.
Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis, First Massachusetts Cavalry, was left at Morrisville to take charge of all my cavalry pickets north of the Rappahannock, who directed Lieutenant-Colonel Doster, Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry, with 290 men, to start from Mount Holly Church at 4 a.m. on the 17th instant, and drive the enemy’s pickets toward Rappahannock Station; to go thence to Bealeton, and, finally, to station himself at Morgansburg and communicate with a picket which would be established at Elk Run and with Curtis’ force at Morrisville. These orders were executed, and the enemy driven out of that section.
At 4 a.m. I set out from Morrisville with a command of about 2,100 men, made up as follows: From the First Brigade, Second Division, Colonel Duffie, 775; from the Second Brigade, Second Division, Colonel Mcintosh, 565; from the Reserve Brigade, Captain Reno, 760, and the Sixth Independent New York Battery, Lieutenant Browne commanding. Kelly’s Ford was selected for the crossing, because the opposite country was better known to me than that beyond any other ford, and it afforded the shortest route to the enemy’s camp.
The head of my column arrived at the ford at 8 a.m. The crossing was found obstructed by fallen trees, forming an abatis upon both banks, which, defended by 80 sharpshooters, covered by rifle-pits and houses on the opposite bank, rendered the crossing difficult. Two squadrons were dismounted and advanced under shelter of an empty mill-race or canal, which runs near the bank of the river, whence a brisk fire was at once opened, under which an attempt was made to cross by the advance, which failed. Two subsequent attempts of the pioneers met with the same fate. During this time a crossing was attempted one-fourth of a mile below, but it was found impracticable, owing to the depth of the stream and the precipitous character of the banks. After half an hour had passed in endeavors to cross, my chief of staff, Maj. S. E. Chamberlain, who had immediate charge of the operations at the crossing, selected a party of 20 men, and placed them under the command of Lieutenant Brown, First Rhode Island Cavalry, with orders to cross the river and not return. Lieutenant Brown obeyed his orders; the abatis was passed, and 25 of the enemy were captured.
Two pieces of the battery had been unlimbered, but I hesitated to open them until all other means should fail, as I did not care to give the enemy sufficient warning of my advance to bring him to attack me while astride the stream.
The First Brigade was immediately crossed and placed in position, followed by two pieces; then the Second Brigade, the remainder of the battery, and the reserve. The stream has a very rapid current at the ford, and was about 4 feet 5 inches deep. The ammunition was taken out of the limbers and carried over in nose-bags by the cavalry.
The crossing was not effected without loss. My chief of staff, Major Chamberlain, fell with a dangerous wound in the head; Lieutenant [John P.] Domingo, Fourth New York Cavalry, was seriously wounded, and Lieutenant [Henry L.] Nicolai, First Rhode Island Cavalry, killed; 2 men killed, and 5 wounded; 15 horses killed and wounded.
My command was drawn up so as to meet the enemy in every direction as fast as it crossed, and pickets pushed out on the roads running from the ford.
From what I had learned of Lee’s position, and from what I knew personally of his character, I expected him to meet me on the road to his camp, and I could not object to such a proceeding, as it would not make it necessary for me to march so far to a fight. My horses would be fresher and the chances of battle be more nearly equalized.
The horses of my command were watered by squadrons, and at 12 m. I moved on, with the First Brigade in advance. Looking toward the west from the ford, one sees half a mile in advance a skirt of woods on higher ground, around the right of which may be seen an open field. It is about one-fourth of a mile through the woods. When the head of my column reached the western edge of this timber, the enemy were discovered rapidly advancing in line, with skirmishers in front. I immediately ordered the Fourth New York to the right, to form front into line and advance to the edge of the woods and use carbines; the Fourth Pennsylvania to the left, with the same orders, and a section of artillery to the front to open fire. Sent to Mcintosh to form line of battle on the right of the woods; Reno to send three squadrons to act as a reserve to the right, and one squadron up the road to support the center, and one section to the right with McIntosh.
The Fourth Pennsylvania and Fourth New York, I regret to say, did not come up to the mark at first, and it required some personal exertions on the part of myself and staff to bring them under the enemy’s fire, which was now sweeping the woods. They soon regained their firmness, and opened with effect with their carbines. At this moment I observed two or three columns of the enemy moving at a trot toward my right. I immediately went to the threatened point, and found that it was a question which should obtain possession of a house and outbuildings situated there. McIntosh soon decided it by establishing some dismounted men of the Sixteenth thereabouts, and the section of artillery soon opened with splendid effect. The right was then advanced into the open field beyond the house, and the enemy’s left attacked by McIntosh and Gregg. Duffie in the meantime had formed the First Rhode Island, Fourth Pennsylvania, and Sixth Ohio in front of the left, and the enemy were advancing to charge him.
Perceiving his want of support, I called to Reno for three squadrons, and we went to the left at a gallop, while Duffie advanced in splendid order and charged
the enemy. The gallantry of Duffie had, perhaps, made him forget to leave any portion of his command as a support, excepting the Fourth New York. Two squadrons of the Fifth United States rushed across the field, while Mcintosh came in on the left flank of a fresh rebel column, and the enemy were torn to pieces and driven from the field in magnificent style. Had it been possible to reach the enemy’s flank when Duffie charged with the Fifth United States or Third Pennsylvania, 300 to 500 prisoners might have been captured, but the distance was too great for the time, the ground was very heavy, and the charge was made three minutes too soon, and without any prearranged support.
A little reorganization was requisite before advancing farther. It was necessary to form my line again and get stragglers from the Fourth New York and other regiments out of the woods behind, to assemble the sections of the battery, bring up the reserve, and give orders with regard to the wounded and prisoners. These duties occupied me half an hour or more. In advancing from the field we had won, I found the ground impracticable on the left of the road, by reason of its marshy condition. My left was, therefore, rested on the road, and the advance given to a squadron of the Fifth, under Lieutenant Sweatman. After advancing in line of battle three-quarters of a mile, driving the enemy before us through the woods, with the artillery supported by a column upon the road, we found ourselves through the woods and in the face of the enemy, drawn up in line of battle on both sides of the road half a mile in front. It became necessary to extend my line to the left as soon as possible.
The enemy opened two field-pieces upon the road with precision, and advanced upon both flanks with great steadiness. They were at once repulsed on the right. The squadrons to form the left were shifted from the right of the road under a terrific fire of shot, shell, and small-arms, and the enemy in superior numbers bore down on my left flank, arriving within 400 yards of the battery while it was unlimbering. Lieutenant Browne, commanding the battery, assisted by my aide, Lieutenant Rumsey, soon got two or three pieces playing upon them with damaging effect, and a general cavalry fight ensued on the left. We never lost a foot of ground, but kept steadily advancing until we arrived at a stubble-field, which the enemy set on fire to the windward, to burn us out. My men rushed forward, and beat it out with their overcoats. Here the enemy opened three pieces, two 10-pounder Parrotts and one 6-pounder gun from the side of the hill directly in front of my left. No horses could be discovered about these guns, and from the manner in which they were served it was evident that they were covered by earthworks. It was also obvious that our artillery could not hurt them. Our ammunition was of miserable quality and nearly exhausted. There were 18 shells in one section that would not fit the pieces, the fuses were unreliable, 5-second fuses would explode in two seconds, and many would not explode at all. Theirs, on the contrary, was exceedingly annoying. Firing at a single company or squadron in line, they would knock a man out of ranks very frequently. As soon as the enemy’s heavy guns were opened, his cavalry advanced again on my right, strongly re-enforced. They were repulsed with severe loss by Walker, of the Fifth, and Mcintosh. Mcintosh and Gregg pushed on to their left flank until they came to the rifle-pits, which could not easily be turned. Their skirmishers again threatened my left, and it was reported to me that infantry had been seen at a distance to my right, moving toward my rear, and the cars could be heard running on the road in rear of the enemy, probably bringing re-enforcements.
It was 5.30 p.m., and it was necessary to advance my cavalry upon their intrenched positions, to make a direct and desperate attack, or to withdraw across the river. Either operation would be attended with imminent hazard. My horses were very much exhausted. We had been successful thus far. I deemed it proper to withdraw. The reserve was advanced in front and deployed to mask the battery, which was withdrawn, and the regiments retired in succession until the ford was reached and crossed without the loss of a man in the operation.
The country in which these operations were conducted is level and open, and had the ground been firm would have been eminently fitted for a cavalry fight.
The principal 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. Between his first grand advance and his final effort there were several small charges and counter-charges which filled up the time.
I ought to mention that in front of the first wood there is a deep, broad ditch, along which runs a heavy stone wall, which served as a cover for my carbineers, but which was impassable for cavalry except around the right flank and where it was broken down in the center, and this impeded my operations somewhat. In the second field the enemy’s cavalry force was superior to mine, but it was constantly repulsed, and when I withdrew my command it was with unabated confidence in our strength as against cavalry. I hoped that they would advance, but they made no demonstration worthy of notice, even while I was withdrawing my command.
The officers and men of the battery performed their arduous duties with alacrity.
Whatever of success may have attended this expedition, I am greatly indebted to the vigorous and untiring efforts of my staff, Maj. S. E. Chamberlain, First Massachusetts; Captains [Philip] Pollard and [Alexander] Moore, of General Hooker’s staff, and Lieutenants [Charles F.] Trowbridge and [William] Rumsey; but to those officers and men of the command who exhibited the unflinching courage which attends a settled purpose, my thanks are especially due. For distinguished gallantry I beg leave to call your attention to the names of Maj. S. E. Chamberlain, my chief of staff, and Second Lieut. Simeon A. Brown, First Rhode Island Cavalry, who first reached the opposite bank. Colonel Duffié was conspicuous for his gallantry; his horse was shot under him. Colonel Mcintosh, who had been left ill in camp, joined me at 1 a.m., at Morrisville, and showed during the day that he possessed the highest qualities of a brigade commander. Captain Reno, whose horse was wounded under him, handled his men gallantly and steadily. Lieutenant Walker, of the Fifth, by his readiness and resolution, did much to repulse the enemy on our left in the second field, when the battery was threatened.
To avoid repetition, I would respectfully call your attention to the names of the killed and wounded, officers and men, in the inclosed list, as deserving of especial notice for distinguished gallantry. Several others had their horses shot under them, and nearly all performed their duty in a manner which cannot be surpassed for coolness and daring.
I inclose list of casualties, of which the aggregate killed, wounded, and missing is 80.
Of the enemy, his force was reported by the prisoners first taken as five regiments, commanded by Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. Subsequently prisoners reported that he had been re-enforced, and that Major-General Stuart was present. His equipments were inferior, but his horses good. Many of his sabers were manufactured in Richmond. From all the sources, I can estimate the enemy must have left 2 officers and 68 men killed and seriously wounded on the field. If twice as many slightly wounded escaped, his loss in killed and wounded must have been over 200, and his loss in horses must be certainly as great as that of men. I think the above may be an overestimate, but it is made by combining carefully the reports of officers who were in different parts of the field, and who report from observation. The enemy’s loss in prisoners was 47; 15 more are reported, but as yet I am unable to account for them.
I inclose a list of paroled prisoners, who are included in the 47. I inclose also tabular statements of losses of my command and of the enemy. I am compelled to believe that the reports of some officers respecting their losses have been carelessly made out, and that they may have been guided in their statement of numbers by the amounts for which they are accountable.
I believe it is the universal desire of the officers and men of my division to meet the enemy again as soon as possible.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
WM. W. AVERELL,
Brigadier-General of Volunteers, Commanding.
Maj. Gen. D. BUTTERFIELD,
Chief of Staff, Army of the Potomac.
The commander of the Regular Army cavalry regiments, Captain Marcus Reno, is best remembered as one of the officers under George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Then Major Reno was in command of one to the three detachments of the 7th Cavalry in that 1876 battle, along with Custer and another Civil War veteran, Captain Frederick Benteen. Reno and Benteen, along with portions of their commands, survived the battle unlike their impetuous commanding officer and his entire detachment.
by Stephen W. Sears
History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry, Sixtieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by the Regimental History Committee of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry Association.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XXV Part 1.