For the first two years of the Civil War, Confederate cavalry tended to out ride and out fight the Union cavalry.
In June 1862, Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart boldly led 1,200 cavalry troops north to scout out behind the Union army of General George McClellan. Not only did Stuart lead a successful reconnaissance mission, his cavalry also managed to capture 165 Union prisoners, 260 mules, cattle, grain and other supplies, on their 4-day, 100-mile ride behind enemy lines. The boldness and success of the mission was a great morale booster for the south and made Stuart believe that his cavalry could outride and outfight any Union cavalry unit.
In October 1862, Stuart led another mission into Union territory. General Robert E. Lee had tasked Stuart to take his cavalry north into Pennsylvania and destroy a railroad bridge near Chambersburg. Lee had ordered Stuart not to do anything to anger the citizens of Maryland as they passed through the state, but no such order was given concerning the people of Pennsylvania. As Stuart’s 1,800 cavalry troops entered Pennsylvania, they raided the pantries of many citizens as they made their way to their target. When they arrived on the outskirts of Chambersburg, word of their arrival circulated through the town, driving many residents to fear and panic. Without firing a shot, the town was surrendered to Stuart. When members of his cavalry reached the bridge, they were dismayed to see that it was made of iron instead of wood. The axes they brought with them were useless and the bridge remained intact. However, word of Stuart’s raid into Union controlled Pennsylvania helped to bolster confidence in the Confederate cavalry.
In February 1863, Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee, son of Robert E. Lee, also led a cavalry raid that humiliated the Union forces. This led General Joseph Hooker, newly appointed commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac, to assign the task of stopping the Confederate cavalry to General Willian Averell.
Averell brought together a Union cavalry of 3,000 troops. Taking 2,100 of his cavalrymen, Averell set out for Culpeper Court House in Virginia where they believed the Confederate cavalry was located. To reach the court house, Averell wanted to cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford.
Gen. Fitzhugh Lee was made aware of Averell’s approach. He had his cavalry dig a number of strategically located rifle pits on his side of Kelly’s Ford and positioned his cavalry to repel the Union horsemen.
On March 17, 1863, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford commenced early in the morning. As the Union cavalry arrived at the crossing, Confederate riflemen opened fire on them. After four attempts, the Union cavalry managed to take out the rifle pits. By noon, all of Averell’s horsemen had crossed Kelly’s Ford where they were then confronted by Lee’s cavalry.
Averell took up a defensive line and managed to repel the repeated attacks of the Confederate cavalry. Having the advantage of numbers, Averell had the opportunity to defeat Lee’s cavalry but he didn’t. Fearing that more Confederate cavalry was coming to the aid of Lee, Averell decided to retreat back over the Kelly’s Ford crossing.
During the battle, famed Confederate Major John Pelham was killed. He was known as the top artillery officer that the Confederacy had. He had been visiting Stuart at the time and rode to the line to watch the battle.
By the end of the day’s skirmish, the Union forces suffered 78 dead or wounded and the Confederates suffered 133 dead or wounded.
Even though the Confederate cavalry had staved off the attack of the Union horsemen, it showed that they were vulnerable and not the far superior cavalry as they believed themselves to be.
Even though Averell didn’t defeat the Confederate cavalry, he did show that the Union cavalry could hold their own against famed enemy. The resulting morale booster helped lead the Union cavalry to more victories. In the next few months, the Union and Confederate cavalries fought to a draw at Brandy Station, Virginia. In July 1863, the Union cavalry went on to defeat the Confederate cavalry at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.
The no win win Battle at Kelly’s Ford proved to be the turning point for the dominance of cavalry warfare in the Civil War.
Sources for the above includes: Battle of Kelly’s Ford, Virginia; Satellite View of the Kelly’s Ford Battlefield; The Battle of Kelly’s Ford; Kelly’s Ford; Kelly’s Ford; J.E.B. Stuart Rides Around McClellan;