On March 17, 1863, Union Gen. William Averell was under orders to 'rout or destroy' Confederate Gen. Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry guarding the Rappahannock River. Averell commenced a dawn raid by crossing the seven-foot deep Kellys Ford and charging the Confederate position on the north bank of the river. Lee counter-attacked, and dismounted Union troops fired on the Confederates from behind a stone wall, mortally wounding gifted Confederate artillerist Maj. John Pelham. Union troops remounted and pursued the Virginia Cavalry in a savage clash of pistol shots and sabers. Averell withdrew without achieving his objective, yet he proved the mettle of the once-maligned Union Cavalry and provided valuable intelligence that would be used against Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville the following month.

brandy station foundation graffiti house battle of kellys ford

Civil War graffiti about the Battle of Kelly's Ford was written on the wall at nearby Brandy Station Foundation Graffiti House.

Although on opposite sides of the river, Averell and Lee were, in fact, two former West Point buddies. Union and Confederate encampments frequently traded coffee, tobacco and other goods across the river. Lee, a nephew of Robert E. Lee, taunted Averell with a note asking him to bring him 'a sack of coffee.' After several brutal engagements, and despite an almost certain victory ahead, Averell retreated leaving a sack of coffee for his old friend.

Visiting the Kellys Ford Battlefield

Your best bet to tour Kellys Ford Battlefield is to start out at the Civil War Trust markers at Kelly's Ford located about 15 miles east of downtown Culpeper near the junction of Routes 674 (Kelly's Ford Road) and 620 (Edwards Shop Road). Park in the gravel lot and walk to the pedestrian overlook on the bridge. Union troops attempted to cross the river about 300 yards downstream from this point. Return to your car and drive 0.8 mi north on 674 to a gravel parking lot at the Phelps Wildlife Management area. Here, you can walk an easy, scenic 1 mile round trip on a gravel road and grass track to the site of Major Pelham's mortal wounding and a scenic view of the Rappahannock. As you follow the gravel road, note the boulders on the right hand side. Union troops were positioned behind this stone wall. When the path forks, bear right and follow the path to Pelham's marker on the left. Follow the path a little ways longer to a scenic view of the Rappahannock and return to your car following the same route.

kellys ford major pelham kellys ford pelhams marker

Major John Pelham, CSA  (Library of Congress) was mortally wounded near this marker on the Phelps Wildlife Management trail. Brilliant West Pointer 'Gallant' Pelham gave the Confederacy an advantage through his pioneering use of light artillery on the battlefield. Pelham had been in Culpeper courting Bessie Shackelford, one of Judge Shackelford's daughters, when he heard of the Union Cavalry crossing at Kelly's Ford. Although he was not on duty, Pelham rushed to the scene to join the battle and was there struck by shrapnel. The brilliant artillerist was draped over his horse and returned to the Schackelford home where he died in Bessie's arms later that evening.

A self-guided driving tour of the entire battlefield is available from the National Park Service. The village of Remington publishes a pleasant and scenic Civil War Loop Bicycle Tour of both Kelly's Ford and Rappahannock Station Battlefields. If you don't have a bike, you can easily follow the 11.7-mile loop in your car. If you need provisions, this early 20th century railway town has a couple of gas stations and convenience stores as well as a deli, restaurant, drug and hardware stores. If you become really enamored of the area - and that is more than a little likely! - Remington publishes several other scenic historic Bicycle Trails.

Pictured at the top: Union troops crossed the Rappahannock a little south of the pedestrian overlook on the Kellys Ford bridge.

Visit Civil War Trust for battle details and information about the preservation of this battlefield.