Levi Bird Duff
Forget the musket ball in his lung, and the amputated leg. What caused him the most pain was slavery.
Were it not for his revulsion of slavery and the outbreak of the Civil War, Levi Bird Duff might likely have been a simple, peace-loving lawyer in Western Pennsylvania.
Instead, it was his fate and the Union's good fortune that Duff would lead and serve with distinction at many of the most famous battles of the war, surviving a musket ball through his lung and another through his leg in two separate conflicts. It is through his personal letters that we're able to learn about Duff's convictions, experiences and feelings throughout the period leading up to and during the Civil War.
The letters, recently donated to Duff's alma mater, Allegheny College show an intense and reserved man. Not given to alcohol or swearing, he was composed and committed to change as he roiled at the ongoing injustice faced by blacks while practicing law in Pittsburgh in the years leading up to the war.
After just one year as a lawyer, Duff enlisted in Company A, Ninth Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. His personal letters to his first wife, Harriet Nixon, speak vividly of the passion he brought to his new life as a soldier.
Far more than the simple missives of a gentleman and dutiful soldier, many of them contain volatile criticisms directed at regimental commanders, generals, governors - including the then governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin - and even President Lincoln. Duff initially believed Lincoln to be a sympathizer to Border States and concerned only with swaying the votes of those in the North who supported slavery, he doubted early on Lincoln's inability to lead the country. He was convinced that the onset of the war was Divine punishment for America's role in subjugating Blacks, and that the conflict would continue until America ceased its participation in that practice.
From the onset of his military career, Duff rose swiftly through the ranks. He took a shot through the lung in the battle of Fair Oaks, an injury he would survive and in turn return to active duty from. In 1862, promoted to captain and serving alongside future luminaries like General Joseph Hooker, Duff led his troops forward in battles that would ring through American history, places named Bull Run and Fredericksburg. He retired from military life in 1864, receiving an honorable discharge after previously leading his regiment through Gettysburg, Spottsylvania Court-House, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, where a ball shattered his right thigh, necessitating the amputation of his leg.
Following his discharge, Duff returned to practicing law in Pittsburgh "with a determination and enthusiasm that physical disability could not quench." In 1865, he was elected as the district attorney of Allegheny County and in 1881, he unsuccessfully ran for the office of lieutenant governor.
Levi Duff remained a respected and leading citizen of Pittsburgh in his post-war years. In 1877, Harriet Nixon Duff passed away, and Duff would again marry, this time to Agnes Feree Kaufman in 1882. Agnes passed away in 1913, and that same year Duff retired. Levi Bird Duff died on January 18, 1916 at the age of 79.
Duff lives on as a soldier, citizen and husband in the frequent war letters to his wife, often enclosing flowers from the battlefields in with the letters. These flowers were pressed into books by Harriet and kept as mementos. After nearly 150 years, they have been preserved and can be read at Allegheny College.
Information for this section was contributed by Terri Blanchette.
Image Courtesy of Allegheny College
- Lieutenant-Colonel Levi Bird Duff, U.S.V.
- Helmrich, Jonathan E. “Levi Bird Duff: Political Views of a Union Soldier.” Western Pennsylvania History, Fall 2008 p.24-35.
- Fleming, George T. et al. “History of Pittsburgh and Enviorns.”