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Civil War Trust

John Kelly

The man who built Kellysville
by Clark B. Hall

On March 17, 1861, John P. Kelly was not in a mood to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  Although never in good humor, the irascible John Kelly seethed as rumors of war wafted about, as entrepreneur Kelly knew one thing with a certainty: War is bad for business.

In May 1861, 1051 Culpeper voters (all male) approved the Virginia General Assembly’s Ordnance of Secession, and war was indeed a reality. But the fighting war bypassed Culpeper for almost a year as new guns and novice troops blasted away in northern Virginia.

This peaceable status quo was about to change, however. Geographically situated midway between the warring capitals, Culpeper’s vital strategic position ensconced just south of the Rappahannock assured the county would soon attract the focus of contending military planners.

And exactly a year later, St. Patrick’s Day, 1862, thousands of Confederate soldiers under General Dick Ewell withdrew behind the Rappahannock, and fortified the river from the Culpeper bank. This division was the first military unit to arrive at the Rappahannock—with hundreds of thousands of troops to follow in four years of bloody war.

kelly's toll bridge
Remnants of John Kelly's toll bridge over the Rappahannock can still be seen today.

Discerning that 70-year old John Kelly was a bipartisan hater of any cause but his own, Rebel soldiers helped themselves to Kelly’s chickens and hogs. Appeals to officers went unnoticed, and Kelly was waved away with dark oaths that surpassed even his own colorful brogue.

But to understand John Kelly and the severe impact of the war upon his creation, we must go back before the war.

John Kelly was easily the most feared, hated man in Culpeper County. One intimidated neighbor in fact opined that Kelly believed himself, “God on earth,” and most people stayed out of “God’s” way. But hated or not, there was no denying Kelly’s business acumen.

John P. Kelly bought land in 1829 along the river and amassed more than a thousand acres. On the Culpeper side, he built a large home and constructed a three-story mill; cloth factory; sawmill; plus, a dye factory and shoe shops—all built with slave labor; Kelly owned 200 slaves.

The mills and industrial shops employed a hundred workers, free and slave, and the 1850 census revealed “Kelly’s Mill” was the largest non-farm business in the county—its value assessed at about $25,000.

Immodestly, John Kelly named his creation “Kellysville,” and strutting about while wearing a white beaver hat, Kelly surveyed the prosperous scene he built from scratch. But war has a way of changing things…

John Kelly had the very bad misfortune of establishing his town on the Southern bank of the most heavily trafficked river ford in the entire Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of men crossed, fought and camped at Kelly’s Ford, and every time a new command took over, Kellysville suffered additional damage. The mill shut down; the stores closed; and most slaves disappeared in the night. But “Old Kelly” stayed on, refusing to abandon his dream.

Captain Isaac Plumb, 61st New York Infantry, described a visit to John Kelly on April 5, 1864: “I called on the old man, found him in bed suffering from the loss of his right arm, which occurred two years ago from the following cause... He became outraged at a slave woman and struck her with his fist in the mouth cutting his hand on her teeth, which caused blood poisoning.” Captain Plumb concluded, “Was that not a just retribution?”

After the war, it is said John Kelly mellowed a bit, and he even helped re-build Mt. Holly Church. Hearing the news John Kelly found religion, a cynical neighbor responded, “Hell’s for rent now.”

John P. Kelly died at age 77, and although he is buried in the family cemetery off Edwards’ Shop Road, his headstone disappeared many years ago—perhaps payback from one he wronged.   Indeed the war destroyed both John Kelly and Kellysville, and his village has disappeared from the face of the earth.    

In 1899, a novel was written by L.B. Hilles involving Kellysville, and the reader might find its title appropriate: Chickens Come Home to Roost.

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