March 17, 1863 – A battle between opposing horsemen in northern Virginia served as a test for the new Federal Cavalry Corps within the Army of the Potomac.
In February, Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee (part of Major General Jeb Stuart’s command) had raided the camp of Federal Brigadier General William W. Averell, a West Point classmate and close friend who commanded a division in Major General George Stoneman’s new Cavalry Corps. Lee left a note for Averell before leaving: “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.”
In March, Averell received Stoneman’s approval to stage a raid of his own. He assembled 3,000 cavalrymen at Morrisville, about six miles northeast of Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River, on the 16th. He detached about 900 troopers to investigate a rumor of Confederates at Brentsville and led the remaining 2,100 to confront Lee’s force near Culpeper Court House. Averell believed he would surprise Lee, who was said to have 3,000 men. Lee only had about 1,000 men, but he already knew that a major Federal force was riding out from Morrisville.
The Federals arrived at Kelly’s Ford before dawn on the 17th and found it guarded by Confederate pickets. Unable to find any other crossing points, Averell’s men charged forward and drove the pickets off. During this time, Lee led his troopers toward the ford, accompanied by Stuart and Major John Pelham, Stuart’s top artillerist, who came to observe the battle.
Averell positioned his men behind a stone wall overlooking a field which the Confederates would have to charge across to get to them. The Federals repelled Lee’s charge with artillery and carbine fire. They then advanced to try taking the Confederate positions but were repelled themselves. A series of charges and countercharges ensued by both mounted and dismounted troopers. Neither side could gain a clear advantage.
The Federals pushed Lee back a mile, but a counterthrust regained the lost ground. Pelham joined in one of the charges near the Wheatley farmhouse, and as he stood in his stirrups to rally the men, a shell fragment hit him in the back of the head. He was taken to his fiancée’s home in Culpeper, where he died the next day without regaining consciousness. He was 25 years old.
Lee ordered a nearby locomotive to blow its whistle while moving back and forth to trick the Federals into thinking that reinforcements were arriving. Averell received word that Stuart was on the scene and, unaware that Stuart was only there as a spectator, took the bait. He disengaged at 5:30 p.m., leading his men back across the Rappahannock. He left a sack of coffee for a surgeon to deliver to Lee, along with a note: “Dear Fitz, Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How do you like it?”
The Federals sustained 78 casualties (six killed, 50 wounded, and 22 missing or captured), and the Confederates lost 133 (11 killed, 88 wounded, and 34 missing or captured). This was the first test of the new Federal Cavalry Corps, and it served notice that the Federal horsemen were no longer inferior to their Confederate counterparts.
Officers and men in the Army of Northern Virginia mourned the loss of Pelham, especially Stuart. He directed that Pelham’s body lay in state at the George Washington monument in Richmond, and he issued General Orders No. 9 on the 20th:
“The major-general commanding approaches with reluctance the painful duty of announcing to the division its irreparable loss in the death of Major John Pelham, commanding the Horse Artillery. He fell mortally wounded in the battle of Kellysville, March 17th, with the battle-cry on his lips, and the light of victory beaming from his eye… His eye had glanced on every battlefield of this army from the First Manassas to the moment of his death, and he was, with a single exception, a brilliant actor in them all. The memory of ‘the gallant Pelham,’ his many manly virtues, his noble nature and purity of character, are enshrined as a sacred legacy in the hearts of all who knew him. His record has been bright and spotless, his career brilliant and successful.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 267; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 245-47; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 272; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 105-11; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 329; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 568; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 411