When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, it sometimes caused soldiers to head into battle against their friends. One of the best examples of this is the Battle of Kelly's Ford, which occurred March 17, 1863.
The skirmish pitted Union Brigadier General William Averell and his men against Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee and his Confederate soldiers. Years earlier, the two officers developed a close friendship while attending the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Just weeks before the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, Lee, the nephew of famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee, left a taunting message for his old pal Averell. On February 25, 1863, Lee led a raid against Union forces stationed at Hartwood Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Lee and his men punctured the Union Army’s defenses. Upon leaving the battlefield, he left a note for Averell with a Confederate surgeon who stayed behind to treat injured men.
Lee’s note said: “I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state and go home. You ride a good horse. I ride better. If you won’t go home, return my visit and bring me a sack of coffee.”
According to Greg Mertz, the supervisory historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Fredericksburg, Union Major General Joseph Hooker was upset that Lee had managed to get past his men at Hartwood Church. “He was embarrassed by it, so he turned to Averell and ordered him to seek out, search, and destroy Fitzhugh Lee in retaliation for the raid,” Mertz says.
Battle of Kelly’s Ford
On March 16, Lee’s former West Point classmate set out against him with 3,000 cavalrymen and six cannons. The Union force headed toward Kelly’s Ford, a shallow section of the Rappahannock River in central Virginia. Averell was hoping to cross the river at the ford and engage Lee’s men on the other side.
But, upon arriving at Kelly’s Ford the next day, Averell and his men discovered the Confederate forces had created obstacles to hinder their crossing. “They cut down some brush and put it in the river,” Mertz says. “They put some tree limbs with the forks of the trees pointed towards the direction that the enemy would come. It’s a very nice temporary way to obstruct the ford.”
Averell’s forces eventually slashed through the obstructions and made it to the other side. Knowing his friend Lee was an aggressive military leader, Averell moved his cavalry cautiously away from the river and toward the Confederates.
The Union forces took a position behind a stone wall and waited for Lee’s cavalry. When the Confederates arrived, they made several charges against the well-hidden Union men. These skirmishes caused injuries on both sides. In one of the advances, promising young Confederate officer Major John Pelham was critically injured. Pelham died the next day in nearby Culpeper, Virginia.
After Lee’s charges, Averell began to move his troops upstream, toward a nearby train track. “Averell claimed in his report that he could hear train whistles blowing, and that he somehow knew that these were trains bringing reinforcements to the Confederates,” Mertz says. “In fact, they were not.”
Fearing Confederate reinforcements, Averell decided to withdraw his troops.
But first, he left a sack of coffee and a message for Lee with a couple of wounded Confederate soldiers. It read: “Dear Fitz, here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How do you like it?”
The playful taunting between Lee and Averell stands in contrast to the realities of the deadly battle, which resulted in 85 Union soldiers and 146 Confederate soldiers killed, wounded, or missing.
“It does to me sound like they are probably still good friends and that they are trying to maintain a joking friendship during this very, very serious action,” Mertz says.
Even though Averell withdrew his forces, Mertz views the Battle of Kelly’s Ford as a win for the Union general. “If one looks at the casualties alone, tactically it was a Federal victory,” he says.
After the Battle
Just weeks later, Averell’s reputation was tarnished in the Battle of Chancellorsville, considered one of the greatest Confederate victories in the Civil War. After the battle, he was reassigned to the less-important region of West Virginia. This reassignment ensured he would never encounter Lee on the battlefield again.
“They would not face each other anymore after this, because Averell was no longer in the same area of operation as Fitzhugh Lee was,” Mertz says.
Mertz says there is no evidence that Lee and Averell ever crossed paths after the Civil War. However, they both found success.
Lee became the governor of Virginia, serving from 1886 to 1890. He was later appointed as a consul general in Havana, Cuba, representing American business and political interests in the region.
Averell was also appointed as a consul general, to British North America, an area that became the nation of Canada. Averell also established a fortune by inventing a new form of asphalt.