How a ‘Napoleon’ Served in the American Civil War

September 30, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Civil WarAmerican Civil WarNapoleonic WarsFranceMilitary History

How a ‘Napoleon’ Served in the American Civil War

Frenchman Alfred Duffie parlayed a bogus military background into a Union officer’s commission during the Civil War.

Key Point: Settling into his new life in America, Dufie fabricated a story about his family and military background designed to impress his new American associates.

Napoleon Alexandre Duffie was born on May 1, 1833, in Paris, France. His father, Jean August Duffie, was a prosperous sugar refiner and mayor of the village of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. The family, originally from Ireland, had fled to France during the Cromwellian conquest of the 1640s. In 1851, at age 17, young Duffie enlisted in the 6th Dragoons Regiment of the Imperial French Army.

Transferred to North Africa with his regiment, Duffie rose to the rank of sergeant. He and his comrades saw action in the Crimean War, participating in the battles of the Alma, Inkerman, Balaclava, Chernaya, Sebastopol, and others. Duffie was awarded the Order of the Medjidie from the Ottoman Empire and the Cross of the Legion of Honor from his own government. Back in France in February 1858, Duffie was made first sergeant and chief marshal of logistics. He transferred to the 3rd Hussars Regiment, reenlisting for another seven-year term. On June 14, 1859, Duffie was promoted to second lieutenant.

The Tall Tales of Napoleon Alexandre Duffie

Two months later he attempted to resign his commission but his request was rejected. In response, he fled to the United States. Court-martialed the next year, Duffie was found guilty of desertion, sentenced in absentia to five years in prison, and dishonorably discharged from the French Army. With prison hanging over his head, Duffie would never again see France. His reason for leaving France was his desire to be with 32-year-old American Mary Ann Pelton, daughter of Daniel Pelton of Staten Island, New York. The Pelton family was wealthy and politically well connected. Duffie had meet Mary when she was a nurse in Europe. The two were married August 19, 1860, at the Pelton homestead at West Brighton, New York.

Settling into his new life in America, Dufie fabricated a story about his family and military background designed to impress his new American associates. He transformed his middle-class father into an aristocrat, enhanced his former military education and career, and changed his birth date to 1835. He claimed that he had attended a preparatory military academy at Vincennes and entered the prestigious French Military College of St. Cyr in 1852, being one of only 220 accepted out of 11,000 entrants. He further alleged that he had graduated with honors from St. Cyr and then been commissioned a lieutenant in the French Army and posted to North Africa.

Duffie similarly exaggerated his Crimean War exploits, claiming that he had been wounded multiple times during the war. He also claimed to have participated in the fighting in Italy in 1859 as a first lieutenant in the 5th Hussars Regiment, again receiving battlefield injuries, the most serious at the Battle of Solferino on June 24. Continuing to weave his deceitful tale, Duffie said he had come to the United States to recover from his latest war wound. He alleged a total of eight injuries received in combat in the French service, but none could ever be verified. He never uttered a word about desertion from the French Army or the asthma condition that affected him his entire adult life. Most outlandishly, Duffie claimed to have received the English Crimean War Medal from Queen Victoria herself.

Receiving His Command in the Civil War

Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War, Duffie’s military masquerade and political connections through the Peltons secured him a major’s commission in the 2nd New York Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. With a flair for the theatrical that predated the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer, Duffie wore a uniform of his own design based on the French light cavalrymen attire, including leather knee-high boots and a high-crowned fatigue cap. Respected by his officers and men, the little Frenchman was called by his nom de guerre, “Nattie.”

Duffie was promoted to colonel and given charge of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry Regiment in July 1862. When the regiment heard that a foreigner was coming to command them, the unit’s officers all tendered their resignations. The enlisted personnel were also alarmed at the prospect of a Frenchmen taking the regiment’s helm. Rumors had spread that Duffie was mercurial, irascible and cared not a bit about the comfort or safety of his men. Upon arrival at the 1st Rhode Island’s camp, the new colonel immediately took charge, threatening to cashier any officer who did not rescind his resignation request. He assured his officers in his fractured English that although “you not like me now, you like me by and by.” In a few weeks’ time, his program of training and firm but fair discipline, as well as his wry sense of humor larded liberally with curse words, won over the Rhode Islanders.

“Steady Men; Don’t You Stir; We Fix ‘em; We Give ‘em Hell!”

Duffie and his command tasted combat at the Battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, and Chantilly as part of Brig. Gen. George Bayard’s cavalry brigade in Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia. At the engagement at Groveton on August 28, the colonel exhibited his calm under enemy fire by halting in a road within easy range of Confederate artillery. There he deliberately rolled a cigarette. Even after an enemy round showered him with dirt, he merely brushed off his clothes and calmly lit his smoke.

During the Maryland campaign, Duffie’s regiment was assigned picket duty along the Potomac River, thus missing the Battle of Antietam. After the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, Duffie spent the next few months drilling his officers and men in the finer points of mounted warfare. On March 1, 1863, the Frenchman was given control of one of the brigades in Brig. Gen. William W. Averell’s cavalry division. Duffie was regarded as one of the best drillmasters in the Army of the Potomac, and he had planned to carry out a program of instruction so that his new brigade would be able to efficiently work together as a cohesive combat unit. However, he did not get the chance to put his scheme into effect before his new command was thrown into combat.

Ordered to move on Culpeper, Virginia, and attack the Rebel cavalry 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 into the water after his horse was hit by an enemy musket ball, badly bruising his leg. During the subsequent fight with 800 Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, Duffie conducted a mounted charge that drove back the surprised foe. Attempting to recapture the initiative on that part of the field, the Confederate cavalry counterattacked.

Seeing the onrushing enemy approach, Duffie shouted to his command, “Steady men; don’t you stir; we fix ‘em; we give ‘em hell!” Moments later he led the U.S. 5th Cavalry Regiment in a countercharge that repulsed the surging Confederate horsemen. Duffie’s leadership did much to contribute to the first large-scale Union cavalry victory of the war. Kelly’s Ford showcased Duffie as an aggressive and battle-wise commander.

Brandy Station: Duffie’s Battle to Lose

During the Chancellorsville campaign, 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. As a result, Averell was transferred out of the Army of the Potomac and replaced by Duffie. This assignment marked the zenith of Duffie’s Civil War career. Viewed as extremely ambitious, he had always sought recognition and advancement. One Union officer who had served with Duffie in the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry described him as “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.”

Leading his regiments at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, the largest cavalry battle of the war, Duffie advanced toward Stevensburg, Virginia, placing him in the rear of Confederate Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart’s mounted force, which was pinned down fighting the balance of the Federal cavalry corps. Thus positioned, Duffie could have won the battle for the Union cavalry by immediately turning north and striking Stuart from behind. However, his lethargic advance to Stevensburg and the sluggish fight he conducted to clear the town kept him from moving swiftly. Concerned for his career, Duffie missed his biggest opportunity for glory and success.

Duffie’s failure at Brandy Station gave his enemies in the military establishment an opportunity to undermine his standing. Foremost of these was Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the newly formed Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Declaring that “I have no faith in foreigners saving our government or country,” Pleasonton added, “In every instance foreigners have injured our cause.” He stripped Duffie of division command, reducing him once more to leader of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. Worse luck would befall the Frenchman soon.