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The story of March 17, 1863 has been told many times from the viewpoint of the Southern cavalry. Captain Frank W. Hess, Co. M, 3rd Pa. Cavalry, recounts the events of that fateful day from the viewpoint of the Federal cavalry. Captain Hess' account is Chapter XIV of History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 by William Brooke Rawle (Philadelphia: Franklin Printing Company, 1905), pp. 201-214.
On the 16th of March, 1863, about three thousand men of his [General William W. Averell's] command, including a battery of horse artillery, left their camps near Potomac Creek and marched to the vicinity of the ford (Kelly's) and bivouacked for the night.
The enemy's pickets were met before arrival at this point, and were pushed back, and pickets of his own command were placed well down toward the ford, in order to mask the intended movement of the morrow. A force of nine hundred men was here detached with instructions to drive the enemy all across the river and take up a position some miles westward, with a view of protecting the flank of the main body, which was to move southerly toward and across Kelly's Ford.
These two commands started very early in the morning, and by 6 o' clock the ford had been reached. An advance guard for the main body had been selected with a view of carrying the crossing by a dash, if it was found to be defended. The enemy, through his scouts, had been apprised of our approach, and the guard at the fording had been increased, and they were on the lookout for us. Here occurred a very stubborn resistance on the part of the rebels, who were posted behind an intrenchment which commanded thoroughly the fording and its approaches. The stream was swollen by recent rains until it was four or five feet deep at the fording, and much deeper both above and below, so there was no possibility of getting over except at the fording. A dash was made at the crossing by the advance guard but it was repulsed....
While this was going on, General Averell had placed himself on a little knoll to the left of his column, and from this point overlooked and directed all subsequent operations. He perceived that the enemy had dismounted a large number of his men and thrown them into a well-constructed rifle-pit which thoroughly commanded the ford. The ri ver at this point, at this stage of water, is about three hundred feet wide. In addition to the rifle-pits, the enemy had thrown trees into the road on both sides, and on the river bank had driven stakes into the ground, interlacing them with brush in such a manner as to prevent horses froin'getting out of the ford at all.
The left bank of the river is traversed for a short distance by a sunken road, having been worn away to the depth of about three feet by long usage. Into this General Averell directed the placing of one hundred men, dismounted, with orders to keep up a constant fire on the rifle-pits opposite, with a view to preventing the men therein from rising to take aim when they fired. Of course, the battery, which had now come up, would have made short work of the defenses behind which the enemy crouched, but the General wished to exhaust all other means in efforts to cross before using it, as the sounds from his guns would have apprised Lee [Fitzhugh Lee] in his camps Of the precise place at which the crossing was being made, as well as of the magnitude of the expedition, of both of which he was ignorant ....
The pioneers (axmen) of the brigade were now ordered forward to clear the way of obstructions on one side of the ri ver , under the command of Lieutenant D. M. Gilmore, Third Pennsylvania Cavalry. At this time volunteers were called for by the General to carry the crossing. The opportunity to volunteer for this duty was given to the regiment nearest him (the First Rhode Island), and was responded to by the whole regiment moving to the front. The nearest platoon, that commanded by Lieutenant Simon A. Brown, was selected and made ready for the dash.
The fire from the sunken road was now keeping down that from the pits, and under its protection the axmen partially succeeded in making an opening to the ford. The remainder of the Rhode Island regiment was moved up to Brown's support, the word was given, and away he went. Of the eighteen men of Brown's platoon who entered the ford with him, but three men came out on the enemy's side, all the rest having been ei ther killed or wounded or had their horses disabled . The Lieutenant [Gilmore] rode up the bank and, looking down on the men in the pit, fired a shot among them, and, it is claimed, killed one of the enemy. Turning, he waved his sword to the balance of his regiment, and called on them to come on. This they were already doing, and a few of the leading files arriving, they broke through or over the obstructions. In the meantime the enemy, perceiving their inability to longer hold their position, commenced retiring toward their horses, which were some distance in the rear. They were pursued by the mounted men and twenty-five of them made prisoners....
The remainder of this brigade pushed rapidly across the river, the regiments forming promptly on the south side. The ammunition for the battery was carried over by the cavalrymen in their nose bags, the water being so deep as to flood the ammunition chests. Some delay was occasioned here, as it was necessary to water the horses, and only those occupying the fording could be watered at one time. While this was going on the remainder of the division was moving into the position assigned, the General galloped to the front with a detachment, and made a hasty examination of the field. Satisfying himself that the proper place for the expected battle was farther from the river, the whole command was moved forward on the road to the Culpeper Court House via Brandy Station, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.
The division, properly protected by skirmishers, moved in "order of battle" as nearly as the conformation of the ground would permit, McIntosh having the right and Duffie the left, while Reno commanded the reserves, composed of the detachments from the Regular cavalry. With him was the battery. After moving about three-fourths of a mile from the fording, the advance of the enemy was discovered coming rapidly from the direction of the railroad. This was what General Averell had anticipated ....
By his order McIntosh deployed his small brigade, with the Sixteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry on his right, the Third Pennsylvania next, advancing the meanwhile toward the Wheatley house, which was in front of the right of General Averell's line. These two regiments were now a considerable distance to the right of the road. Immediately to the right of the road the Fourth New York was formed, and its left the Fourth Pennsylvania. One section -- two guns -- of the battery was advanced and went into the position between the left of the Third Pennsylvania and the right of the Fourth New York, a little retired, while Reno, in support of the two regiments on the right and the guns, formed a little to the right and rear of the latter.
The enemy was now advancing rapidly in line, preceded by a heavy line of mounted skirmishers, whose fire became very annoying to the two regiments near the road, and to which they were now ordered to reply, while the section in position also opened. Under this severe fire from the Confederate sharpshooters, now at a halt, these two regiments ... exhibited a little unsteadiness, requiring some personal exertion on the part of himself [Averell] and his staff to correct.
A little after this a charge was ma'de by about a regiment of the Confederates, perhaps not so great a number, on McIntosh's right, with a view, apparently, of obtaining possession of Wheatley's house and outbuildings. Gregg (Colonel Irvin), who commande