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.

Duffie’s “Gallant Debris”

After his demotion, Duffie persisted in requesting an independent command. Pleasonton obliged by instructing Duffie and his regiment to scout Loudoun County, Virginia, in the vicinity of Middleburg, mandating that they remain there for the night before continuing their reconnaissance the next day. The task placed the 1st Rhode Island behind enemy lines, six miles from friendly forces stationed at Aldie. Pleasonton never stated why he ordered such a dangerous assignment, but it may have been concocted as a way to further discredit the unwanted Frenchman.

After reaching Middleburg and driving off Stuart and his staff, Duffie was surrounded by masses of Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson. Pleas for help sent to Duffie’s brigade leader, Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, were ignored, and the next morning Duffie’s regiment was assaulted from all sides. In their commander’s evocative words, the regiment was reduced to “gallant debris,” with 225 men killed, wounded, missing, or captured out of the 280 who had started the mission.

The debacle at Middleburg was partially Duffie’s fault. Having been given a suicidal mission by his superiors, he failed to retain control of the situation through lack of leadership at critical moments. He should have ordered a retreat to Aldie instead of remaining in the area overnight. During the escape attempt the next day, Duffie detached himself from his rear guard and completely failed to exercise command or control over his men during their flight. His defense to the affair, stated many years later, was that “I certainly could have saved my regiment in the night, but my duty as a soldier and as colonel obliged me to be faithful to my orders.” Duffie further mused that his orders had been designed to destroy his military reputation.

An Ironic Promotion

At the lowest point in his military career, Duffie ironically was promoted brigadier general of volunteers later that month. His elevation had been initiated by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a former commander of the Army of the Potomac, who had been impressed with Duffie’s performance at Kelly’s Ford. 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.”

In September he was transferred to the Military Department of West Virginia. There he raised and trained a cavalry force of 3,000 men. Within two months he had created a fine contingent of mounted soldiers, temporarily assuming command of a combined infantry and cavalry division in the department. At the start of 1864, Duffie found himself a brigade leader once again under Averell. Neither man had ever been cordial toward the other, and Averell was particularly bitter over his replacement by the former as cavalry division commander in the Army of the Potomac the previous year. Coming under the abrasive and controlling Averell would only dim Duffie’s chances for independent assignments and further advancement.

In June 1864 Duffie was unexpectedly freed from Averell when he was given command of a two-brigade cavalry division under Maj. Gen. David Hunter in the Shenandoah Valley. During the Battle of Lynchburg on June 17, Duffie’s advancing troopers made little headway against the determined Confederates opposing them, but after the fight he did a good job of clearing the way for Hunter’s arduous 12-day retreat over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Kanawah Valley. The severe trek over hostile terrain in blistering heat ruined Duffie’s command and wrecked Hunter’s army so badly that it was unfit to take the field again for more than a month.

Sacked by Sheridan

Duffie next saw action on July 23 south of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, fighting the gray cavalry to a standstill. The next day, at the Second Battle of Kernstown, Duffie fought competently and with courage, keeping his hard-pressed men under control and unleashing a well-executed mounted charge on the advancing enemy that allowed many blue-coated infantrymen to escape.

For the next three days Duffie’s 1st Cavalry Division skirmished with the enemy while covering the Federal army’s withdrawal toward Martinsburg, West Virginia. Between late July and August, Duffie was engaged in constant fighting as Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early maneuvered against the Federals under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan in the Valley. In early September Sheridan ordered Duffie’s division to Cumberland, Maryland, to be remounted and refitted. On October 19, Sheridan unexpectedly relieved Duffie of command. Sheridan gave no reason why he sacked Duffie, but his ill-concealed dislike for the officer corps of the eastern armies likely had something to do with it.

“He was Captured by His Own Stupidity”

On October 21, Duffie traveled to Sheridan’s headquarters near Winchester to plead for a new field assignment. Sheridan consented, giving Duffie the task of raising and training a new cavalry unit. After leaving the meeting Duffie, traveling without an escort, was captured three days later by Colonel John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers five miles north of Winchester. Upon learning of the Frenchman’s seizure, Sheridan wired Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck: “I respectfully request his [Duffie’s] dismissal from the service. I think him a trifling man and a poor soldier. He was captured by his own stupidity.”

Sent to a prisoner of war camp at Danville, Virginia, Duffie engineered an escape attempt that failed. He was paroled on February 22, 1865, and posted to the Department of Arkansas, then to the Department of Kansas to reorganize and train the cavalry contingents there. On June 5 he was honorably mustered out of the United States Army.

As a result of his status as a war veteran and his in-laws’ continuing influence, Duffie was named United States consul in Cadiz, Spain, in 1869. He died of tuberculosis in that city in 1880 and was buried on Staten Island. 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. It was unveiled on July 10, 1889, by the 1st Rhode Island Veterans Association at Duffie’s gravesite.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons