Brig. Gen. William W. Averell led Union troops at the Battle of Kelly's Ford, Virginia, in 1863. Averell had attended West Point, the military academy in New York, with Fitzhugh Lee, who went on to become a brigadier general for the Confederate States of America. The two friends met on the battlefield at Kelly's Ford, with Lee's Confederate cavalry forcing Averell's troops to withdraw.

Photograph by Matthew Brady, courtesy Library of Congress

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  • The life of William Woods Averell illustrates the political and economic geography of late 19th-century America.

    Averell graduated in the lower part of his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He remained in the military for most of his life.

    Prior to the Civil War, Averell served in the New Mexico Territory, incurring injuries in conflict with nations such as the Zuni, Kiowa, and Navajo.

    Averell was promoted to major general during the Civil War, where he served in the Union forces and his portrait was taken by famed photographer Matthew Brady, above. Averell saw action in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and the Battle of Fredericksburg before being relieved of duty by Gen. Philip Sheridan. (Averell had failed to follow Sheridan's orders.)

    After the war, Averell served as the consul general to British North America (now Canada) in Montreal.

    Averell was also a successful entrepreneur. Taking an interest in the urban landscape, Averell made a small fortune securing contracts to pave city streets from 5th Avenue in New York City to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

    1. William Averell was very well-traveled. What U.S. states are referred to in the short biography in "Background Info"?

      New York and Virginia. Averell attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and won a contract to pave 5th Avenue in New York City. During the Civil War, Averell fought in the battles of Bull Run and Fredericksburg, both in Virginia.

      Did you also think of New Mexico and Washington, D.C.? Neither one were states when Averell visited them. Averell served in the New Mexico Territory, years before it joined the U.S. as a state in 1912. The city of Washington, D.C., remains a federal district, not a state, today.


    2. According to "Background Info," what are some of the diverse ecosystems or landscapes William Averell encountered in his lifetime?

      Averell was familiar with many landscapes: the urban areas of New York City and Washington, D.C., the desert of New Mexico, the river valleys of western Virginia, and the lakes and wetlands of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, are just a few.

    3. William Averell made his fortune by developing asphalt for paving roads. Why was this an important and lucrative business?

      Streets paved with asphalt were a sign of technological development, and high in demand. Prior to the early 1900s, most roads were paved with stone, gravel, sand, brick, and even seashells and wood chips. Asphalt is much more durable than these materials, making transportation for commerce, communication, and tourism much faster and easier. Cars and other motorized vehicles also operated better on asphalt roads, although they were not widely used in Averell's lifetime.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    Civil War Noun

    (1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

    conflict Noun

    a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

    consul general Noun

    chief officer appointed by a government to protect and support the interests of the government in a foreign region or city.

    entrepreneur Noun

    person who starts and manages a business.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    incur Verb

    to acquire something, usually unwanted or unpleasant.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    military Noun

    armed forces.

    prior Adjective

    before or ahead of.

    Union Adjective

    having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.

    urban Adjective

    having to do with city life.