- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

The facts state that Union Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell was born Nov. 5, 1832, in Cameron, N.Y., graduated from West Point in 1855, and served in the cavalry on the New Mexico frontier. He married for the first time, at age 52, in 1885.

Those spare facts do not explain his erratic service during the Civil War.

Late in the evening of March 16, 1863, a 3,100-troop force of Federal cavalry commanded by Averell assembled at Morrisville, Va., about six miles from Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River.

They were divided into two brigades, commanded by Cols. Alfred Duffie and John B. McIntosh. Artillery support was provided by six 3-inch ordnance rifles of the 6th New York Independent Battery. They assembled there to advance against Confederate cavalry led by Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee.

Averell had extra motivation to defeat Lee — to reverse a two-year string of Union cavalry defeats by Confederate cavalry. Lee’s brigade was then at Culpeper Courthouse, about 15 miles southwest of Kelly’s Ford.

Kelly’s Ford

Union intelligence overestimated Lee’s strength at about 3,000 troops, with several hundred of those troops thought to be north of the Rappahannock. Nevertheless, Averell detached 900 troops, greatly reducing his force, to protect his flank and rear.

Lee reinforced Confederate pickets at Kelly’s Ford and awaited Averell’s next move.

Crossing the Rappahannock, Averell’s advance faced 85 troops of the 4th Virginia cavalry. Fearing that noise from the ordnance rifles would alert Lee’s main force, Averell ordered a frontal assault against the 4th Virginia. The third charge dislodged them, securing Kelly’s Ford for Averell’s main body. By midmorning, Averell was advancing to the battleground, about a mile south of the river, with about 2,050 troops.

Meanwhile, Lee had learned of Averell’s crossing and put his force of 800 troops in a fast trot toward the ford. With Lee were Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Maj. John Pelham, known to Southerners as “the gallant Pelham.”

Choosing the defensive, Averell put his line behind a stone fence in a field owned by a farmer named Wheatley. The 3rd Virginia advanced toward the stone fence but stalled. Then the main body of Lee’s cavalry — the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Virginia, came charging across the field, accompanied by Pelham.

Finding no openings in the fence, they galloped alongside, yelling and absorbing Union fire. At the Wheatley home, the 3rd and 5th Virginia found an opening. A Union shell burst nearby, knocking Pelham off his horse, and a fragment struck the back of his head. He was carried unconscious from the field and soon died. Lee’s Virginians retreated, sustaining significant losses.

At that moment, Col. Alfred Napoleon Alexander Duffie, an expert swordsman and French Army veteran leading the 1st Rhode Island cavalry, charged Lee’s brigade. Taking the Confederates by surprise, Duffie’s attack forced Lee to retreat.

Averell, taken aback by Duffie’s aggressiveness, gave strict orders, despite the positive result, that officers were not to leave their positions without orders from him.

Averell remained on the defensive, and Lee, 600 yards away, again ordered a charge. Under heavy fire from Averell’s artillery, Lee’s charge disintegrated, with heavy losses.

Had Averell then attacked with his entire force, he could have beaten Lee decisively. However, erroneously thinking that the distant whistles of Orange & Alexandria Railroad locomotives indicated the approach of Confederate reinforcements, Averell broke off the attack and retreated across the Rappahannock.

The Battle of Kelly’s Ford redeemed the honor of long-humiliated Federal cavalry, but Averell failed to destroy Lee’s force, thereby failing to fulfill the expectations of his commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.

Slow retreat

After the failure of Gen. George Stoneman’s April raid on Confederate communications, in which Averell participated, Hooker relieved Averell of command. However, he didn’t quit. Instead, he was transferred to West Virginia and given a new command.

Late in the evening of Dec. 19, 1863, elements of the 14th Pennsylvania and 8th West Virginia cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. William Blakely, found themselves pinned down by heavy Confederate fire coming from the heights on the approach to the Island Ford Bridge over the Jackson River, about a mile east of Covington, W.Va.

The 14th Pennsylvania and 8th West Virginia had participated in Averell’s raid on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad four days earlier at Salem, Va. Averell’s 2,500 troops had destroyed 15 miles of the Virginia & Tennessee, which had supplied Gen. James Longstreet’s army as it besieged Knoxville.

The Union troops were retreating slowly northward, up the Rich Patch Road. Unknown to Averell, about 600 Confederate troops under Col. William Lowther “Mudwall” Jackson were waiting near Covington. Jackson’s mission was to guard approaches to the Jackson River, including the Island Ford bridge.

“Mudwall” Jackson, a cousin of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s, had been aware of Averell’s approach for several hours but had failed to destroy the bridge. Averell’s scouts had discovered a narrow path parallel to Rich Patch Road, ending at James River Pike, a mile east of the Island Ford bridge. Jackson was not aware of this path, which was slick with ice. One of Averell’s troops, Frank Reader, described the path as “so narrow it was with the greatest difficulty for anyone to pass from the rear to the front.”

Shortly after dark, Averell’s troops, led by the 8th West Virginia, began to negotiate the side path. Around 9 p.m., the 8th West Virginia came out of the narrow defile and onto the James River Pike. Driving off local militia, the regiment captured the bridge. Meanwhile, Jackson remained unaware that Averell’s force was getting around him.

Several Confederate couriers, sent to destroy the bridge, failed to return. Suspecting foul play when Company A of the 19th Virginia cavalry failed to destroy the bridge, Jackson finally realized that Averell’s force was slipping past him. He immediately ordered an attack on Averell’s column, now more than four miles long.

Pinned down

Jackson’s troops attacked Averell’s rear guard, Blakely’s 14th Pennsylvania and 8th West Virginia — about 500 troops, who had yet to cross the bridge. After a brief assault, most of the Confederates withdrew.

Jackson, however, put 50 troops from the 20th Virginia on the cliffs overlooking the approach to the bridge.

They kept up heavy fire, pinning down Blakely’s troops as they tried to cross the bridge. Blakely concluded that his only choice was to await Averell’s rescue.

Blakely’s troops waited and shivered through the night. “The air was very cold that night,” remembered Lt. Alexander Pentecost of the 14th Pennsylvania. Unable to build fires, the troops slept on the cold, hard ground.

Averell, ignorant of widespread confusion in Jackson’s command and fearful of attacking at night, waited until daylight to make a rescue attempt. Just after dawn, he sent 25 troops back across the river to open communication with Blakely.

Confederate sharpshooters on the heights prevented it, and the 25 troops recrossed the Jackson River.

Averell subsequently abandoned Blakely’s force, even though they held all of the column’s tents and most of the rations. After sending a few men to burn the bridge, Averell rode on with the main column, northwest toward Callaghans.

Desperate straits

Blakely’s force was stranded on the south side of the Jackson River. However, with the bridge destroyed, the Confederate sharpshooters on the heights above it withdrew. Nobody else in Jackson’s command realized that Blakely’s troops were still south of the river.

To facilitate their crossing upstream, Blakely’s men burned 30 wagons containing the column’s tents and rations. However, smoke from the burning wagons alerted Jackson’s force to the presence of Blakely’s troops, and they attacked in force.

Retreating westward and nearly surrounded, Blakely’s force refused a surrender demand, fought its way out and marched two miles to Holloway’s Ford. Nearly all of the troops made it safely across. They followed Averell’s trail all day, enduring frozen clothes, empty stomachs and bitterly cold weather. They arrived at Averell’s camp just before midnight.

Upon hearing that Averell had retired for the night, Blakely waited until sunrise to report. However, Averell, responding to rumors of Blakely’s surrender, had him arrested and refused to see him for five days. Humiliated and dejected, Blakely wrote to Averell, begging to be released from arrest. His arrest and dismissal were overturned in March 1864.

Terrible cost

Averell’s column arrived in Beverly, W.Va., on Christmas Day, 1863, having outdistanced its pursuers. The Salem raid had succeeded, but at a terrible cost. About 120 of Averell’s troops were captured, and most of them died at Andersonville prison. Of the 2,000 troops who made it to Beverly, many suffered cold-induced loss of toes, feet and fingers, and many remained in ill health for the rest of their lives.

As it turned out, the raid had little military value because Longstreet had broken off the siege of Knoxville four days before the raid began, and the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad was repaired within two weeks.

The raid’s success, such as it was, could be attributed mostly to the courage, stamina and determination of Averell’s soldiers and to Confederate incompetence.

However, Averell’s erratic behavior continued.

Failure to pursue

On July 20, 1864, Averell’s troops outflanked and defeated a Confederate force commanded by Brig. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur at Stephenson’s Depot, north of Winchester. Averell’s force failed to pursue Ramseur’s defeated troops.

After the Confederates burned Chambersburg, Pa., Averell hunted down those responsible, decisively defeating Gen. John McCausland’s cavalry at Moorefield, W.Va., on Aug. 7.

However, when challenged the next day by remnants of McCausland’s force, Averell inexplicably retreated. Likewise, he failed to pursue beaten Confederates at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill on Sept 22.

Meanwhile, Averell’s division had come under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who appointed Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert to command his cavalry.

Averell outranked Torbert, refused to serve under him and complained to the War Department about his appointment. Sheridan responded by removing Averell from command immediately after the action at Fisher’s Hill. Averell remained bitter about the dismissal for the rest of his life.

William Woods Averell contributed much to Northern victory. He won a few battles, and his organizational ability was second to none. However, unable to face his shortcomings, he failed to live up to his potential as a commander. He died Feb. 3, 1900, in Bath, N.Y.

Steven Bernstein is a freelance writer.

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