18 June 2015 by Published in: Union Cavalry 6 comments

In this image, Duffié is seen wearing his medals from the Crimean War.

In this image, Duffié is seen wearing his medals from the Crimean War.

It seems like it’s been forever since I last profiled a forgotten cavalryman. I’ve been too wrapped up in preservation stuff and in writing another book manuscript. However, it’s time to change that and do a new forgotten cavalrymen profile. Today, we’re going to commemorate Brig. Gen. Alfred N. Duffié, who is memorable for being both incompetent and a fraud. I normally do not include references in these profiles, but in this particular instance, I have elected to do so. You will find my sources at the bottom of this blog post.

Born Napoléon Alexandre Duffié, he carried the nickname “Nattie.” Duffié was born in Paris, France, on May 1, 1833, the son of a well-to-do bourgeois French sugar refiner who distilled sugar from beets. [1] At age 17, Duffié enlisted in the French 6th Regiment of Dragoons. Six months later, he was promoted to corporal, and received a second promotion, this time to sergeant, in March 1854. He served in French campaigns in Africa and in the Crimean War from May 1, 1854, to July 16, 1856, and received two decorations for valor during this period.

In 1855, the 6th Regiment of Dragoons, along with two other mounted units, made a brilliant cavalry charge at the Battle of Kanghil, near the Black Sea port of Eupatoria in the Ukraine, leading to the issuance of his decorations. In February 1858, Duffié was made first sergeant in the 6th Dragoons and then transferred to the 3d Regiment of Hussars. Although he would have been eligible for discharge from the French Army in 1859, Duffié signed on for another seven-year enlistment that spring after being graded “a strong man capable of becoming a good average officer.”

On June 14, 1859, Duffié received a commission as second lieutenant in the 3d Regiment of Hussars. Just two months later, Duffié tried to resign his commission, stating a desire to go into business. He had met thirty-two-year-old Mary Ann Pelton, a young American woman serving as a nurse in Europe’s charnel houses. Duffié’s regimental commander rejected the attempted letter of resignation, stating his “regrets that this officer so little appreciates the honor of recently having been promoted sous-lieutenant, and that he would prefer a commercial position to that honor.” [2] When the French army refused to allow Duffié to resign, he deserted and fled to New York with Miss Pelton. He was listed as absent without leave and court-martialed in 1860. He was convicted and sentenced to dismissal without benefits for desertion to a foreign country and stripped of his medals. On December 20, 1860, by decree of Emperor Napoléon III, Duffié was sentenced, in absentia, to serve five years in prison for deserting and was dishonorably discharged from the French army. [3]

After arriving in New York, he adopted the first name Alfred, perhaps trying to disguise his true identity from prying eyes. He also married Miss Pelton, the daughter of a wealthy and influential New York family. Mary Ann Duffié’s father was a dealer in boots and shoes and shoemakers’ supplies, and was “an energetic and successful businessman” who lived in an enclave of strong abolitionists in Staten Island.[4] When the Civil War broke out, Duffié received a commission as a captain in the 2d New York Cavalry. He quickly rose to the rank of major, and was appointed colonel of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry in July 1862.[5]

Duffié took great pains to hide his military history, spinning an elaborate web of lies, convincing all that cared to hear his story that he was the son of a French count, and not a humble sugar refiner. He changed the reported date of his birth from 1833 to 1835. He claimed that he had attended the preparatory Military Academy at Vincennes, that he had graduated from the prestigious military college of St. Cyr in 1854, and that he had served in Algiers and Senegal as lieutenant of cavalry.[6]

Duffié also claimed that he had been badly wounded at the Battle of Solferino in the War of Italian Independence in 1859, a conflict between the forces of Austria on one side and the allied forces of Piedmont, Sardinia, and France on the other. Solferino was a huge and bloody affair, involving more than 300,000 soldiers and nearly 40,000 casualties. However, his unit, the 3d Hussars, was not part of the Army of Italy and did not fight at Solferino. Although Duffié said that he had received a total of eight wounds in combat, his French military records do not suggest that he ever received a combat wound. He also asserted that he had received the Victoria Cross from Queen Victoria herself.

Finally, Duffié claimed that he had come to the United States to take the waters at Saratoga Springs, not because he had deserted the French army and fled to America in the company of a woman who was not his wife. Perhaps the Peltons created the myth of Alfred Duffié, French nobleman and war hero, to make their new son-in-law more palatable to their prominent social circles. Because of his martial bearing, he soon persuaded both his superior officers and the men who served under him that he had noble roots and a superb military pedigree.[7]

dufee“Confronting us, he presents the aspect of the beau ideal soldat . . .with his tall symmetrical form erect in saddle and severe facial expression emphasize by a mustache and goatee of formal cut waxed to a point a la militaire,” observed a war correspondent. “A Frenchman I judged him on sight, from his tout ensemble, and his first utterance, which launched without instant delay, proved my surmise correct.”[8] He wore an unusual uniform of his own design, based closely upon the attire of the French Chasseurs, knee boots, and an ornately embroidered cap patterned after the French Chasseur design.[9]

Duffié spoke fractured English. “His attempts were interlarded with curious and novel expletives, which were very amusing.”[10] In assuming a new command, the Frenchman would say, “You no like me now. You like my bye and bye.” He was right. Before long, they would follow him when he ordered a charge. “Once, in preparing to make a charge where the situation looked a little desperate,” recalled a New Yorker, Duffié “encouraged his men, who were little more than boys, by saying, ‘You all have got to die sometime anyway. If you die now you won’t have to die again. Forward!’ His charge was successful.”[11]

Although the Gallic colonel got off to a rough start with his Rhode Islanders, he soon won them over. The men of his brigade liked him. “Duffié is in command of the Brigade. He is a Frenchman,” observed Albinus Fell of the 6th Ohio Cavalry, “he is a bully little cuss.”[12] Another predicted that the Frenchman would quickly receive a promotion and leave the 1st Rhode Island. “He is a bully man,” observed Sgt. Emmons D. Guild of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. “I tell you he will not stay long, so you will have to look out if you want to see him. His name is A. N. Duffié.”[13] Duffié’s experience showed, and he performed competently if not spectacularly. “Whatever may have been the faults of Colonel Duffié,” recorded his regimental sergeant major, “there is no gainsaying the fact that he was probably the best regimental cavalry drill-master and tactician in the army.”[14] His veteran brigade, which saw heavy action during the Second Bull Run Campaign of 1862, consisted of the 1st Rhode Island, the 1st Massachusetts, 6th Ohio, and 4th New York.

Duffié performed admirably at the March 17, 1863 Battle of Kelly’s Ford while commanding his brigade, in what was unquestionably his finest hour. He was recommended for promotion after his good fight that day, and when his division commander, Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell, was scapegoated for the Union defeat at Chancellorsville and unceremoniously relieved of command of his division and shunted off to West Virginia. As the senior officer in the division, the Frenchman became commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Cavalry Division, proving the truth of the Peter Principle: the Gallic sergeant was in way over his head. Unduly cautious and insistent on obeying his orders to the letter at the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station, Duffié permitted his division’s advance to be held off for most of a day by a single regiment of Confederate cavalry, the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry. After finally brushing the grayclad horsemen aside, Duffié and his division arrived at Brandy Station too late to make a difference in the outcome of the battle. A few days later, when the Cavalry Corps was restructured, the Frenchman was relieved of divisional command and returned to command the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry.

Duffié returned to the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. “I know that there was not the most cordial feeling between him and the controlling officers in the cavalry,” recalled a Northern horseman. “I suspected that he was more or less a thorn in the side of the higher officers. He was not companionable with them; did not think as they did; had little in common, and, was perhaps inclined to be boastful.”[15] However, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, had other plans for ridding himself of the Frenchman.

On June 17, 1863, Pleasonton dispatched Duffié and the 1st Rhode Island on a reconnaissance to Middleburg, in Virginia’s lush Loudoun Valley. The vastly outnumbered Rhode Islanders were cut to pieces. They lost 6 killed, 9 wounded, and 210 missing and captured, leaving a fine regiment gutted. Pleasonton apparently sacrificed the 1st Rhode Island to rid himself of a hated foreigner.[16] “Had any native born officer been in command the regiment would, without doubt, have cut its way out that night,” observed one of his officers, “[but] Colonel Duffié was a Frenchman, he had received positive orders [to remain in the town that night] and thought it his duty to obey them.” When the Gallic colonel reported to Hooker after escaping from Middleburg, he learned that he had been recommended for immediate promotion to brigadier general, prompting him to declare, “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!”[17] John Singleton Mosby, the notorious Confederate partisan commander, offered his opinion of the Frenchman’s leadership skills: “Duffié’s folly is an illustration of the truth of what I have often said—that no man is fit to be an officer who has not the sense and courage to know when to disobey an order.”[18]

Several weeks earlier, Hooker had endorsed a promotion for Duffié as a consequence of his good work at Kelly’s Ford. A few days after the debacle at Middleburg, President Lincoln forwarded a letter to Secretary of War Stanton recommending that Duffié be promoted as a consequence of the Frenchman’s good service at Kelly’s Ford.[19] In spite of the mauling received by the Rhode Islanders, Duffié was promoted to brigadier general and was transferred out of the Army of the Potomac in a classic bump upstairs. He never commanded troops in the Army of the Potomac again. He ended up under Averell’s command again, leading a brigade of cavalry in the Department of West Virginia. When the division commander was badly wounded, Duffié assumed command of the division, while Averell served as chief of cavalry in the Army of the Shenandoah. The two men came into conflict as a result of the clumsy command structure.

In September 1864, just after the important Union victories at Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the new leader of the Army of the Shenandoah, relieved both Averell and Duffié from command. Sheridan directed Duffié to go to Hagerstown, Maryland, to await further orders.[20] On October 21, 1864, Duffié boarded an army ambulance to go see Sheridan about getting another command. Sheridan wanted Duffié to equip and retrain another cavalry force, duty for which the Gallic general was abundantly qualified.[21] After receiving his instructions from Sheridan, on October 24, as Duffié was headed back to Hagerstown to prepare for his new assignment, Mosby’s guerrillas fell upon the Frenchman’s wagon train. Mosby captured Duffié and quickly sent him back to Richmond as a prisoner of war. He sat out the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Danville and was not exchanged until March 1865. After Duffié’s capture, Sheridan put an exclamation point on the Frenchman’s career in the U.S. Army. “I respectfully request his dismissal from the service,” sniffed Sheridan in a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, “I think him a trifling man and a poor soldier. He was captured by his own stupidity.”[22] Duffié never served in the U.S. Army again, although he remained in public service for the rest of his life.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Duffié as U.S. consul to Spain, and sent him to Cadiz, on the Iberian Peninsula’s southwest seacoast. While he served in Spain, the Frenchman contracted tuberculosis, which claimed his life in 1880. Because of his conviction for desertion, Duffié never was able to return to his native France. His body was brought home and buried in his wife’s family plot in Fountain Cemetery in Staten Island, N.Y. Unfortunately, the cemetery was abandoned long ago, and the grave is badly overgrown with vegetation. It is nearly impossible to find, and is as forgotten to history as the proud soldier that rests there. The veterans of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, who remained loyal to their former commander, raised money to erect a handsome monument to Duffié in the North Burying Ground in Providence. Capt. George Bliss, who commanded a squadron in the 1st Rhode Island, wrote a lengthy and eloquent tribute to Duffié that was published and distributed to the veterans of the regiment. [23]

In addition to being a flagrant fraud, Alfred Duffié was incompetent to command anything larger than a regiment, and even then, he was only marginally successful. Other than his one good day at Kelly’s Ford, Duffié left no real mark. But his fraud is a fascinating study of the efforts to reinvent the life’s story of a French deserter who became a general in the United States Army. Here’s to Nattie Duffié, forgotten cavalryman.

With gratitude to Jean-Claude Reuflet, a French descendant of Duffié’s, for providing me with much of the material that appears in this profile.

[1] His father, Jean August Duffié, served as mayor of the village of La Ferte sous Juarre. At least one contemporary source states that the Duffié family had its roots in Ireland, and that the family fled to France to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Reign of Terror. See 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 (Chicago: 1907), 395–96.
[2] Napoléon Alexandre Duffié Military Service Records, French Army Archives, Vincennes, France. The author is grateful to Jean-Claude Reuflet, a relative of Duffié’s, for making these obscure records available and for providing the author with a detailed translation of their contents.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jeremiah M. Pelton, Genealogy of the Pelton Family in America (Albany, N.Y.: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1892), 565. The true state of the facts differs dramatically from the conventional telling of Duffié’s life, as set forth in Warner’s Generals in Blue.
[5] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 131–32.
[6] A document prepared by Duffié’s son indicates that Duffié attended the cadet school at Versailles, that he took and passed the entrance examinations for the Military College of St. Cyr, and that he was admitted to St. Cyr in 1851. Daniel A. Duffié claimed that his father dropped out of St. Cyr after a year to enlist in the 6th Regiment of Dragoons. Procuration executed by Daniel A. Duffié, heir of Jean August Duffié, March 16, 1885, Pelton-Duffié Family Papers, Staten Island Historical Society, New York, N.Y.
[7] For an example of the elaborate ruse spun by Duffié, George N. Bliss, “Duffié 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 6 (Providence: Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society, 1890), 316–376. Bliss presents a detailed biographical sketch of Duffié that includes all of the falsehoods. Duffié himself apparently provided Bliss with most of his information. See pages 317–20 for the recitation of this litany of falsehoods.
[8] James E. Taylor, The James E. Taylor Sketchbook (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside, 1989), 134.
[9] Gregory J. W. Urwin, The United States Cavalry: An Illustrated History (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1983), 98–99.
[10] Benjamin W. Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1891), 113.
[11] William H. Beach, The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry from April 19, 1861, to July 7, 1865 (New York: Lincoln Cavalry Association, 1902), 399.
[12] Fell to Dear Lydia, March 8, 1863.
[13] Emmons D. Guild to his parents, March 20, 1863, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Archives, Fredericksburg, Va. (FSNMP).
[14] Jacob B. Cooke, “The Battle of Kelly’s Ford, March 17, 1863,” Personal Narratives of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Being Papers Read Before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society 4 (Providence: Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society, 1887), 9.
[15] George Bliss, The First Rhode Island Cavalry at Middleburg (Providence, R.I.: privately published, 1889), 48.
[16] For a detailed examination, see Robert F. O’Neill, Jr., The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville: Small but Important Riots (Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard 1994), 66–76.
[17] Bliss, The First Rhode Island Cavalry at Middleburg, 50.
[18] John S. Mosby, Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign (New York: Moffatt, Yard, 1908), 71.
[19] Abraham Lincoln to Edwin M. Stanton, June 22, 1863, Pearce Civil War Collection, Navarro College Archives, Corsicana, Tex.
[20] O.R. vol. 37, part 2, 896–97.
[21] New York Times, October 7, 1864.
[22] O.R. vol. 43, part 2, 475.
[23] See Bliss, “Duffié and the Monument to His Memory.”

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Comments

  1. Mark Wade
    Thu 18th Jun 2015 at 8:48 pm

    Good piece, very interesting

  2. Richard Deardoff
    Thu 18th Jun 2015 at 9:37 pm

    What did he do at Kelly’s Ford to credit him?

  3. Thu 18th Jun 2015 at 9:49 pm

    Richard, Duffié’s command did the bulk of the fighting at Kelly’s Ford, and they were the ones who forced the crossing of the Rappahannock River. He actually did have a good day there.

  4. Ulric Dahlgren
    Thu 18th Jun 2015 at 9:53 pm

    Tres interessant!

  5. Jon duffie
    Sat 25th Jul 2015 at 8:08 am

    Very opinionated, stick with the facts when telling history. Also do you know of any of his children or where I might find a lineage?

  6. Jeff Mancini
    Sat 01st Aug 2015 at 12:26 am

    Eric: Can you say with any certainty as Duffie and the 1st Rhode Island dismounted at Middleburg on the afternoon July 17, 1863 that he indeed sent word around 4pm to Kilpatrick positioned at Aldie to send reinforcements? If so we all know that by 7pm that evening the 1st Rhode Island was routed by the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Was Kilpatrick aware of the request? If so did he attempt to deploy reinforcements? I ask this as Duffie’s audacity or recklessness was a clumsy reach but as we learn no other unit that Pleasonton deployed was able to penetrate the Confederate cavalry screen to reveal the intentions of the ANV during the Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville battle phases of the Gettysburg campaign. Ultimately Stuart did secure the gaps of the Blue Ride and Lee was able to maneuver in Pennsylvania. I get that Duffie takes the blame for getting the 1st Rhode Island destroyed but was Kilpatrick’s absence a factor?

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