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PostPosted: Mon Jan 08, 2024 9:41 pm 

Joined: Sun Jan 04, 2009 9:33 pm
Posts: 320
Location: Old Northwest (Michigan)
Fellow Sharpshooters

On November 7th was the 160th anniversary of the Battle at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia. Both regiments of the USSS played conspicuous roles; the 1st Regiment with DeTrobriand, and the 2nd with Ward’s brigade.

On our trip south to participate in the Columbia Rifles/Stonewall Brigade event at Payne’s Farm; Dan Wambaugh, Brian White, Chad Fuller and I stopped to “recon” the pristine battlefield of Kelly’s Ford. Using C.A. Stevens history and Robert Sneden’s maps, we arrived at the bridge that marks the former location of the Wheatley post office. We pulled into a small turn off to read the historical marker that described the cavalry action of March 1863. Walking down to the waters edge, we could see an island and the stone foundations of the mill and buildings of Kellysville; but our goal was to locate the ford where the Sharpshooters crossed. Driving a half mile east, we crossed a bridge over a small stream, then turned off onto a small Virginia Fish and Game park astride the run.

A small trail, paralleling the stream, meandered through hip high brush, wild rose bushes and head high saplings, as the opposite bank rose to greet us as we arrived at the river’s edge. Despite its imposing name and history, the mighty Rappahannock, ar least at this juncture, isn’t much wider than the Boardman back in Traverse. But the opposite shore rose to an impressive 7 foot embankment.

We worked our way east along the bank about 50 yards and arrived at the stony ‘Ford’. The river curved and the bank dropped in height, to about 4 feet above the water surface. We hopped on rocks and gravel bars until halfway across. Here the current swept fast and deep, as if challenging us. Brian didn’t hesitate; removing his shoes, socks and trousers, he steadily waded across; the water rising to his hips; the same depth reported by the Sharpshooters. While Dan was negotiating the deep grass he nearly stepped on a three foot black snake, it was difficult too tell who was more terrified.

Standing on the Rivers bank, it was then we realized the shrub choked stream we had followed to the River was indeed Marsh Creek. Suddenly Robert Sneden’s map ‘came alive’ revealing an untouched and pure Civil War battlefield.

From the 1st USSS accounts (DeTrobriand’s division/3rd Corps) we were at the exact spot where they crossed and scaled the bank and rifle pits. It was easy to see that by erecting the earthworks so close to the River, whenever the North Carolina troops stood up to shoot, they made an easy target. But where were the Sharpshooters positioned to provide covering fire for the assault group?

Just east of the Ford, the ground rises sharply to form a bluff. As we climbed uphill, the terrain opened under a canopy of trees. As I reached the crest I turned around to take in the scenery, when my eyes locked onto three distinct depressions dug along the military crest; with a perfect view of the river and the opposite bank and Kellysville beyond. The Sharpshooter accounts report finding Confederate pickets on the north side of the River who were taken captive in their rifle pits sometime before the assault was made. It is likely these were those pits.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Virginia hunting license so we couldn’t view the battlefield through a Sharps’ ladder sight. But from this position, even a small squad of Sharpshooters could completely dominate any troops across the River. We guesstimated the distance to the nearest earthworks to be 400 yards away.

We continued to wander through the woods between Sumerduck road and the River, paralleling the 3rd Corps march when I spotted a church in the distance. According to Sneden’s map, it was Mt. Holly Church, the location of the 3AC field hospital that treated casualties from the assault. I paused to take in what I was seeing.

A few years earlier, I portrayed Sgt. Edward Southworth for a cemetery tour in Hudson, Michigan. As Southworth entered the river, his leg was shattered by a minie ball. His Hudson comrades put him on a stretcher and carried him to Mt. Holly Church. There, his leg was amputated and Ed Southworth’s war was over.

Here’s the link to the Kelly’s Ford maps made by Private Robert Sneden that we used during our reconnaissance:

I’ve included three images sketched by Alfred Waud on November 7th. The first depicts “Wards brigade” (Gen. DeTrobriand protested that the New York newspaper were wrong, it was his brigade that crossed the River under fire and captured the CSA earthworks).

The scene shows the pandemonium that the sudden assault by the Sharpshooters triggered for the confederate pickets guarding the crossing. The spit of land (likely the west bank of Marsh Creek) on the right, shows intense combat, some rebels throwing up their arms in surrender, others firing or falling wounded.

Brian and I have debated if the troops pictured are the 2nd USSS, further reading of letters from Frank Cobb and Thomas Humphrey (Co. C 1st USSS), I now believe this is the first regiment’s “charge of a skirmish line” to take the earthworks.

In Waud’s sketch a soldier wears a knapsack with a mess kit. When the illustration appeared in the December 5, 1863 edition of Harpers Weekly, over a dozen knapsacks sported mess kits. It was not unusual for Waud to make notes for the illustrators in New York to add details that he didn’t include in his sketches. So the published image strongly suggests Sharpshooters spearheading the assault.

A second illustration, sketched from the south shore, of three riders crossing the River at the shallow ford. In the foreground are abandoned rifle pits. Across the River is the high ground where Ward’s brigade was deployed while waiting for the Sharpshooters to clear the entrenchments before crossing.

Below is Waud’s illustration of ‘Sleeper’s Battery’ providing fire support for the Sharpshooters by bombarding the entrenchments and dueling with CSA batteries on the hills across the river. On Sneden’s map, Sleepers battery is listed as the “10th Mass battery” on the plateau of the bluff we scaled.

This sketch is of the pontoon bridge erected to facilitate the passage of artillery and wagons to Brandy Station.

Of all of our rediscoveries of the ground where the original Sharpshooters marched, fought or bivouacked on, Kelly’s Ford continues to beckon us to return.

Bill Skillman
Michigan Companies
Berdan Sharpshooter Survivors Association

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