March 17, 1863
When 400 of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalrymen crossed the Rappahannock River on February 25, 1863, and captured 150 Union horsemen near Hartwood Church, Va., Lee left a note for Gen. William W. Averell, an old friend and commander of the captured Union soldiers: “If you won’t go home, return my visit and bring me a sack of coffee.” Averell’s boss, Gen. George Stoneman, also got a note — an angry one from Union army commander Gen. Joseph Hooker: “You have got to stop those disgraceful cavalry surprises . . . and, by God, Sir, if you don’t . . . I will relieve the whole of you and take command myself!”
On March 17, 1863, Averell returned the visit along with 2,100 of his horsemen. They were delayed from crossing the Rappahannock for two hours by the determined defense of Kelly’s Ford by Lee’s pickets. but by 10:30 A.M. the Union force had pushed through and taken up defensive positions half a mile away. There they waited for the Rebel response they knew would come.
Lee had only 800 men to confront Averell’s raid, but he gamely led them to the scene of battle. Cavalry commander Gen. Jeb Stuart and Maj. John Pelham of the horse artillery were in the vicinity and accompanied the Rebel horsemen. Lee’s men arrived at about noon, and for five hours the horsemen engaged in battle. Union artillery blasted gaping holes in the Rebel horsemen and killed “The Gallant Pelham.” The Yankee line held firm and then counterattacked, pushing Lee’s men back for a mile. Then Lee counterattacked, but the stubborn Union line held.
Finally, at about 5:30 P.M. Averell ordered his men to withdraw, and they crossed back over the river. The Confederates’ 170 casualties were more than double the 78 men that Averell had lost. Before he crossed the Rappahannock, Averell left a sack of coffee for Lee with a note: “Dear Fitz: Here’s your coffee. Here’s your visit. How did you like it?”
Fascinating Fact: In his report of the battle, Lee cited the heroic actions of Sgt. W.J. Kimbrough: “. . . wounded early in the day, he refused to leave the field . . . then, dashing on at the head of the column, he was twice sabered over the head, his arm shattered by a bullet, captured and carried over the river, when he escaped, and walked back twelve miles to his camp.”