I am happy to welcome Arnold Blumberg to Small but Important Riots. Arnold is an attorney residing in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of “When Washington Burned: A Pictorial History of the War of 1812 (Casemate Publications, 2012), as well as numerous articles covering a wide range of military history topics including American Civil War cavalry operations. An earlier version of this article first appeared in Military Heritage Magazine in 2016.
I will discuss Alfred Duffie’s ‘demotion’ following the fight at Brandy Station, his role in the Loudoun Valley, and his subsequent promotion in a future post.
Napoleon Alexandre Duffie (“Alfred” first appeared in his name after his arrival in America) was born on May 1, 1833, in Paris, France. His father, Jean August Duffie, was a prosperous bourgeois sugar refiner who was also mayor of the village of La Ferte sous Juarre.1 The family, originally from Ireland, had fled to France during the Cromwellian conquest of the Emerald Isle in the 1640s.2 In 1851, at sixteen, with visions of martial glory swimming in his head, and after attending primary school at St. Barbe, young Duffie left home and family, and enlisted in the 6th Dragoons Regiment of the Imperial French Army.
Transferred to North Africa with his unit, Private Duffie rose first to corporal, then sergeant due to his wholehearted attention to the “school of the soldier” and his prior civilian education, both of which radically set him apart from most other army recruits of his day. He and his comrades saw action in the Crimean War (1854-56), participating in the battles of Alma, Inkerman, Balaclava, Chernaia, Gangel, and the horrific siege of Sevastopol. At Gangel, Duffie’s regiment made a daring and successful charge near the Black Sea port of Yevpatoria. For his bravery in that action Duffie received the Order of the Medjidie from the Ottoman Empire In addition, he received the Cross of the Legion of Honor from the French government. Upon his return to France in February 1858, he was made first sergeant and appointed his unit’s ‘Chief Marshal of Logistics,’ due to his proven wartime organizational abilities. He then transferred to the 3rd Hussars Regiment, re-enlisting in the French Army for a further seven-year stint. On June 14, 1859, Duffie received a commission as a second lieutenant after being graded by his superiors “a strong man capable of becoming a good average officer.”3
Two months later he suddenly offered to resign his commission, explaining his wish to enter civilian life as a businessman. The army denied his request. In response, the newly minted subaltern fled France for the United States in 1859.4 Court-martialed the next year, he was found guilty of willful desertion, sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and dishonorably discharged from the French Army on December 20, 1860.5 With prison time hanging over his head, the disgraced ex-soldier never again stepped foot on the soil of his native land.
As it turned-out, Duffie’s real reason for leaving France was hardly mercantile based; it was grounded in his desire to be with thirty-two-year-old American born Mary Ann Pelton, daughter of Daniel Pelton of Staten Island, New York. The Pelton family was wealthy, pro-abolitionist, politically well-connected, and engaged in the footwear manufacturing business. Duffie had met Mary when she was serving as a nurse in Europe. The two were married on August 19, 1860, at the Pelton homestead at West Brighton, New York. Their union produced two sons: Daniel P. Duffie born March 17, 1862, and August Duffie, born August 13, 1866, who died shortly after his birth on September 5 of the same year.6
While settling in to his new life in the United States, Alfred fabricated a story about his French family and European military background designed to impress his new American associates. He transformed his middle-class father into an aristocrat – titling the elder Duffie a Count. He greatly enhanced his former military education and career and changed his birth date to 1835. He explained that he had attended a preparatory military academy at Vincennes, France, specializing in languages and the sciences. He also claimed to have entered the prestigious French Military College of St. Cyr at Versailles in 1852, being one of only 220 accepted out of 11,000 entrants!7 He averred that he had been graduated by the institution among the upper tier of his class, and then received a commission as a lieutenant in the French Army and a posting to Algiers in North Africa.8
Duffie then went on to exaggerate his Crimean War exploits, to include receiving multiple wounds during the conflict. He further claimed to have seen action in Italy in 1859, as a 1st Lieutenant in the French 5th Hussars Regiment. Intent on further bolstering his resume, Duffie claimed to have been wounded at the Battle of Solferino, June 24, 1859.
However, as he had hoped, his listeners never discovered his falsehoods. He had never been a member of the 5th Hussars, which did in fact did fight in the Italian War of Liberation. The 3rd Hussars and 6th Dragoons – which he had served with during his Gallic military career – never took part in the war.9
Continuing to weave his deceitful tale, Alfred stated he came to the United States to recover from his latest war wound. (He claimed a total of eight injuries received in combat during his French service, although none could ever be verified).
Finally, he bragged of having received the English Crimean War Medal from the hand of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria herself, as a measure of Great Britain’s esteem for his service. Of course, he never uttered a word about his desertion from the French Army, or the asthma condition which affected him his entire adult life.
Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War, Duffie’s masquerade, and connections through the prominent and influential Pelton family, secured for him a major’s commission in the 2nd New York Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Contemporaries described him at the time as of “medium stature, erect form, light frame, nervous temperament, dark complexion, full hazel eyes, black hair, athletic in action, humorous in manner, exact in routine, firm in discipline, and thoroughly accomplished in his profession.”10
Pock marks on the left cheek passed for some of the eight battle scars he claimed to have received. After meeting Duffie in 1864, a combat artist deemed the Frenchman the “beau ideal soldat…with his tall symmetrical form erect in saddle and severe facial expression emphasized by a mustache and goatee of a formal cut waxed to a point, a la militaire.”11
With a flair for the theatrical – predating the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer – Duffie wore a uniform of his own design based upon the French light cavalryman’s’ attire, including leather knee-high-boots and a “fatigue cap…abnormally high crowned.” The Frenchman soon received the nom-de-guerre of “Nattie.”
Duffie’s ability to train men eventually secured him a promotion to colonel of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. He took command of the regiment in early-July 1862. Angered by the governor’s decision to pass over their current leader, Lieutenant Colonel Willard Sayles, the officers of the regiment tendered their resignations en masse upon learning Sayles had been superseded in favor of a foreigner.12
The enlisted men also balked at the prospect of a Frenchmen taking the regiment’s helm. According to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fitz Simmons, who later served under Duffie as head of the 21st New York Cavalry, rumors had spread before Duffie arrived at the 1st Rhode Island’s camp that he was “mercurial” and had an “irascible temper,” and, as a soldier of fortune from another country, had “a perfect indifference to the merits of the cause in which he was engaged.” Most importantly, the troopers believed Duffie cared not a twit about the comfort or safety of his men.13
Upon entering the 1st Rhode Island’s bivouac area, Duffie immediately sought to establish his authority by threatening to cashier any officer who did not rescind his resignation request. As proof of his intent, Duffie had the regimental chaplain, Frederic Denison, arrested for having instigated the officer revolt.
Then, in his comically fractured English, Duffie sought to resolve the matter, telling the officers and men, “You not like me now. You like me bye and bye.”14 He asked the disgruntled officers to give him four weeks, and then, if they remained dissatisfied with his leadership, he would resign.15 He won the men over in just two weeks, by personally drilling and tutoring them, meting out firm but fair discipline, and ensuring the men had plenty to eat. His wry sense of humor, larded liberally with colorful epithets certainly did not hurt either.16
Shortly after taking charge, Duffie and his command saw action at the Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862), followed shortly thereafter by the Battle of Second Manassas (August 29-30), and Chantilly (September 1). During these fights, the 1st Rhode Island formed part of Brigadier General George D. Bayard’s Cavalry Brigade, attached to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. In these contests, Duffie and his men saw action along the skirmish line and helped to protect the army following successive defeats at the hands of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Between these battles the Rhode Islanders performed near constant scouting and picket duty.17
At the engagement at Groveton, Virginia on August 28, 1862, Duffie calmed his men by halting in a road within easy range of Confederate artillery. There he stood, shells passing narrowly over his head, deliberately rolling a cigarette. Even after an enemy round landed close by and showered him with dirt, he merely brushed his clothes and lit his smoke, outwardly exhibiting little or no concern.18
During the same engagement, and while under heavy enemy artillery bombardment, Duffie saw one of his frightened men urging his horse to a trot to evade the Rebel projectiles. Seeking to prevent the entire regiment from panicking, Duffie yelled at the trooper, “Walk that horse; one man run, all run.” The man obeyed, and the entire regiment walked to a new position.19
During the Maryland Campaign, the Rhode Islanders pulled picket duty along the Potomac River, thus mercifully missing the bloody Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). Following the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, (December 13), and with the Army of the Potomac in winter quarters, Duffie spent several months drilling his officers and men in the finer points of mounted warfare.
On March 1, 1863, the Frenchman demanded control of the brigade (including his 1st Rhode Island) in Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Cavalry Division. Duffie planned additional instruction for the officers and men of the brigade, but events interfered.20
Ordered by the new chief of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Joseph Hooker, to move on the town of Culpeper, Virginia and “attack and rout or destroy” the Rebel cavalry force reported there, Averell crossed the Rappahannock River with 2,200 troopers at Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863. While traversing the river, Duffie was thrown in to the water after his horse was hit by an enemy musket ball, badly bruising the officer’s leg. 21
During the subsequent fight between Averell’s Unionists and the 800 men led by Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee, Duffie and his command conducted a successful mounted charge. Moments later, while Duffie sought to reform his command, the rebels counterattacked. Without time to reform his brigade, Duffie ordered the 1st Rhode Island to make a countercharge on its own. Their effort stopped the Rebels in their tracks and then forced them to retreat in disorder, “hardly waiting to feel the [Yankee’s] sabre.” A newspaper reporter described the Union assault thusly: “Your correspondent has seen in this war several brilliant cavalry charges, but he never saw anything so handsome and exciting as the dashing charge made on the left of our line by Colonel Duffie.”22
Attempting to regain the initiative, the Confederate cavalry once more attacked. Seeing the onrushing enemy, Duffie, rising in his stirrups, shouted to his command “Steady men; don’t you stir; we fix em; we give them hell!” Moments later he personally led some of the 5th U.S. Cavalry in another successful countercharge.23
Having conducted several of the most effective assaults of the day, Duffie contributed greatly to the first large scale Union cavalry victory of the war. Kelly’s Ford, referred to as “The Saint Patrick’s Day Melee,” showcased Duffie as a calm, aggressive and battle wise commander of mounted troops.
During the Chancellorsville Campaign (April 29-May 6, 1863) Averell’s division accomplished little, merely conducting a fruitless pursuit of some Confederate cavalry to the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, while the rest of the Army of the Potomac fought for its life against Robert E. Lee’s main force.
Dissatisfied with Averell’s performance, Hooker transferred him out of the army and placed Duffie in command of the division. This assignment marked the zenith of Duffie’s Civil War career. Viewed as extremely ambitious, he had sought, sometimes in the most vocal way, recognition, and advancement. His constant striving for these advantages had created, according to an officer who served with Duffie in the 1st Rhode Island, a complete lack “of cordial feelings between him and the controlling officers in the cavalry [corps]… he was more or less a thorn in the side of the higher officers. He was not compatible with them; did not think as they did; had little in common and was perhaps inclined to be boastful.” His attitude, combined with his being a foreigner, left many native-born Union officers resentful and suspicious of him.24
At Brandy Station, near Culpepper, Virginia on June 9, 1863, Duffie’s route of advance toward Stevensburg placed him directly in the rear of the enemy’s cavalry, led by Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart. As Duffie approached, Stuart and his main force was pinned down fighting the balance of the Federal cavalry corps near the little way station of Brandy Station farther to the north. Thus positioned, Duffie might have won the battle for the Union had he immediately turned north and struck “Jeb” Stuart from behind. However, his unusually lethargic advance to Stevensburg, located only a few miles from Stuart’s position, and the sluggish fight he conducted to clear the enemy from his front, kept him from moving expeditiously upon Stuart. When Duffie finally began to move, he received orders to retrace his steps and rejoin the rest of the Union horse soldiers at Brandy Station.
A warrior with more foresight and courage might have disregarded the directive considering the circumstances; but Duffie, concerned for his career and how disobeying direct orders could harm his prospects for promotion, complied and missed the biggest opportunity for glory and success the war would present him.
Duffie’s failure at Brandy Station gave his enemies within the Federal military establishment an opportunity to undermine his standing. Captain Charles Adams, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, opined that Duffie “might be a good man, but he could not run a Division.” Lieutenant William H. Beach, 1st New York Cavalry, felt the Frenchman “somewhat impulsive and excitable, possibly a little too much to plan coolly.”25
Following his disappointing performance at Brandy Station and the disaster in the Loudoun Valley, June 17 and 18, (to be discussed in a future post) Duffie, in an ironic twist-at the lowest point in his military career- received a promotion to brigadier on June 23, 1863! His elevation had been initiated by General Hooker, who had been impressed with Duffie’s performance at Kelly’s Ford in March. Upon receiving the news, Duffie reportedly exclaimed, “My goodness, when I do well, they take no notice of me. When I go make one bad business, make one fool of myself they promote me, make me General.”30
Prompted by criticism from Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Cavalry Corps, the army transferred Duffie to the Military Department of West Virginia. There he raised and trained a cavalry force of 3,000 men, and within two months he had created a fine contingent of mounted soldiers. For a short time, due to his proven administrative capability, he assumed command of a combined infantry and cavalry division in that department, following the capture of the unit’s former commander.
At the start of 1864, Duffie once again found himself a brigade leader under William Averell. Neither man – both now under a cloud for past miss-performance and shunted off to a secondary combat theater – had ever been cordial toward the other; Averell being particularly bitter as the Frenchman had replaced him in May of the previous year. For Duffie, (who called Averell “A Damn Fool” behind his back) coming under the abrasive and controlling Averell would only dim his chances for independent assignments and any rewards which might come with success.
In June 1864, Duffie found himself unexpectedly freed from Averell’s supervision when given command of a two-brigade cavalry division under Major General David Hunter, then operating in the Shenandoah Valley. During the Battle of Lynchburg, Virginia on June 17-18, 1864, Duffie’s troopers – with their commander leading the assault – aggressively pushed their opponents back to the latter’s prepared defensive positions on the outskirts of the town. However, soon thereafter, Hunter determined to retreat, and gave Duffie the hapless task of covering the Union withdrawal. Taking charge of his lead regiments, the Frenchman cleared the way for Hunter’s arduous twelve-day retreat over the Blue Ridge Mountains back to the Kanawha Valley in what is now West Virginia.31
Plagued by a lack of provisions and blistering heat, the severe trek ruined Hunter’s army so badly that it did not take the field again for more than a month. Although he lost many horses in the movement, Duffie leadership during the ordeal left his command one of the few battle-ready formations in Hunter’s straggling and starving army.
Duffie next saw action on July 23, 1864, south of Winchester, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, as he fought probing gray horsemen to a standstill. The following day, at the Battle of Second Kernstown, enemy troops routed Union infantry under Brigadier General George Crook, but Duffie, once again in the forefront of battle, fought competently and with courage, keeping his hard-pressed men under firm control. As Crook’s broken command fled to the rear, Duffie unleashed a well-executed mounted charge on the advancing enemy infantry which allowed many blue-coated footsloggers to escape capture.32
For the next three days Duffie’s 1st Cavalry Division skirmished with the enemy while covering the Federal army’s withdrawal towards Martinsburg, West Virginia. During that trying time Duffie and his men rarely stood down from the saddle.
Between late-July and August 1864, Duffie engaged in daily fighting and marching as the Confederate Valley Army, under Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, maneuvered against the Federals under Major General Philip H. Sheridan. During the near relentless skirmishing and movement, Duffie’s troopers did more than hold their own against their butternut counterparts, with their general always among them encouraging and leading. In early-September, Sheridan ordered Duffie’s exhausted division to Cumberland, Maryland, to be remounted and refitted.
On October 19, 1864, Sheridan unexpectedly relieved Duffie of his command. History does not record why he sacked Duffie, but anti-foreigner prejudice, along with Sheridan’s (the Westerner) dislike for the officer corps of the Union’s Eastern armies, may have contributed to Duffie’s relief.
On October 21, Duffie travelled to Sheridan’s headquarters near Winchester, Virginia, to plead for a new field assignment. Sheridan consented to Duffie being given the job of raising and training a new cavalry unit. After leaving the meeting with Sheridan, Duffie, travelling without an escort, was captured on October 24 by Colonel John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers five miles from Bunker Hill, just north of Winchester. Upon learning of the Frenchman’s seizure, Sheridan took the opportunity to permanently rid himself of Duffie. Writing to general in chief Henry W. Halleck on October 27, Sheridan requested Duffie’s dismissal from the service. “I think him a trifling man and a poor soldier,” Sheridan explained. Not mincing words, Sheridan then told Halleck, Duffie “was captured by his own stupidity.”33
Sent to a Confederate prison at Danville, Virginia, Duffie, asserted himself as a leader of the Union prisoners, and engineered an escape attempt which narrowly failed. Paroled on February 22, 1865, and contrary to Sheridan’s earlier recommendation that he be dismissed from the army, Duffie received a posting to the Department of Arkansas, followed by an assignment to the Department of Kansas. On June 5, 1865, with the war over, he was honorably mustered out of the United States Army.
As a result of his status as a war veteran, and his in-laws’ influence, Duffie received an appointment in 1869 as the United States Consul in Cadiz, Spain. He died of tuberculosis in Cadiz on November 8, 1880 and was buried in the North Burial Ground on Staten Island that December. As a sign of respect for their former commander, veterans of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry spent eight years raising money for a monument in his honor. The veterans unveiled the memorial on July 10, 1889, at Duffie’s grave site.34
Alfred Duffie had as much experience and active-duty service as any Union cavalry commander during the American Civil War. He was an able regimental, brigade, and division leader who excelled at training soldiers, and who, generally, proved a competent battlefield leader. Unfortunately, his accomplishments are tarnished by the lies he told about himself and the prejudice of certain American officers toward his foreign birth. But even though he was, as one soldier-comrade commented, “a boaster and one who spun some fantastic yarns about himself,” he had proved himself a brave soldier who served his adopted country well in her most trying hour.
- Procuration executed by Daniel A. Duffie, heir to Jean August Duffie, New York City, New York, March 16, 1885, held by the Staten Island Historical Society. According to Colonel James C. Shepard in his “Alfred Duffie,” Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1969, p.17, Duffie’s birthdate was May 18, 1835. Eric Wittenberg records Duffie’s date of birth as May 1, 1833. See Eric J. Wittenberg,” The Fight at Stevensburg, June 9, 1863: Saving Jeb Stuart from Defeat at Brandy Station.” The Gettysburg Magazine, Issue 44 (January 2011): 7. The different dates arise from contradictions between Duffie’s French military records and the material contained about Duffie in American records.
- Charles Fitz Simmons,” Hunter’s Raid,” Military Essays and Recollections: Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Illinois Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 4 vols. (Chicago: np., 1891-1907), vol. 4, pp. 395-96.
- Napoleon Alexandre Duffie Military Service Records found in the French National Army Archives, Vincennes, France.
- Superintendent of the Paris Police report dated October 8, 1859, indicating Duffie left France with an unidentified American woman, see Shepard MS, p.24, footnote 24.
- Duffie Military Service Records.
- Marriage Certificate of Mary Ann Pelton and Alfred Duffie attached to the pension application of Mrs. Duffie on file at the United States National Archives, Record Group 94.
- George N. Bliss, “Duffie and the Monument to His Memory,” Personal Narratives of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Being Papers Read Before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society, No. 100 (Providence: Published by the Society, 1890), p.317; Reverend Frederic Denison, Sabres and Spurs: The First Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Providence: The First Rhode Island Cavalry Veteran Association, 1876), p.103.
- Ibid, p.104.
- Edouard Detaille, L’ Armee Francaise: An Illustrated History of the French Army, 1790-1885 (New York: Waxtel & Hasenauer, 1992), p. 151; Colonel H.C. Wylly, The Campaign of Magenta and Solferino 1859 (Minneapolis: Absinthe Press, 1996), pp. 164-168; 173-177.
- Denison, Sabres and Spurs, p.105.
- James E. Taylor Sketchbook (Dayton: Morningside Press, 1989), p.134.
- Denison, Sabres and Spurs, p.102.
- Fitz Simmons, Hunter’s Raid”, pp.396.
- William H. Beach, The First New York Lincoln Cavalry (Milwaukee: Burdick & Allen, 1902), p. 399.
- Bliss, “Duffie and the Monument to His Memory,” p. 321.
- Benjamin W. Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1891), p.113.
- Ibid, pp.323-324; United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. In 128 parts Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series I, vol. 12, part II, pp. 88-93.
- Jacob B. Cooke, “The Battle of Kelly’s Ford, March 17, 1863,” Personal Narrative of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Being Papers Read Before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society (Providence: Published by the Society, 1887), p. 339-340.
- Bliss, “Duffie and the Monument to His Memory,” p.323.
- Edward K. Eckert and Nicolas J. Amato, editors, Ten Years in the Saddle: The Memoir of William Woods Averell, 1851-1862 (San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1978), p. 334; Bliss “Duffie and the Monument, pp. 327-328.
- Cooke,” The Battle of Kelly’s Ford,” p. 350.
- Ibid, pp.352-354.
- Ibid, p.354-355.
- George Bliss, “The First Rhode Island Cavalry at Middleburg, Virginia”, Personal Narrative of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Being Papers Read Before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society (Providence: Published by the Society, 1889-1890), p. 172-17
- Beach, The First New York Lincoln Cavalry, p. 399.
- Bliss,” The First Rhode Island Cavalry at Middleburg, Virginia,” p. 151.
- OR, vol. 37, part I, pp.139-145.
32. Scott C. Patchan, Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), p. 265.
33. OR, vol. 43, part I, 35.
34. Bliss, “Duffie and the Monument to His Memory,” p.348.