Alfred B. Peticolas reads Richardson

The Reader

After breakfast I got a novel, “The Monk Knight of St. John,” and read it about through. I got in one of the large wagons belonging to [wagonmaster] Burgess’ train, and with my feet plunged into a mass of blankets and my overcoat on, I spent the time very comfortably.

Self-portrait of Alfred Peticolas

It was March 13, 1862 and it was snowing at Tijeras, a small village in New Mexico, but Sgt. Alfred B. Peticolas seems to have found a spot to rest and recuperate. [2] Born in Virginia in 1838, Peticolas was well-educated and worked for a time as a schoolmaster to finance his law studies. In 1859, he moved to Texas, where he opened a law office. In September 1861, Peticolas joined the Confederate army and was mustered into Company C, Fourth Regiment, Texas Mounted Volunteers, where he was promoted to Sergeant. In March 1862, he found himself in a late-winter storm as part of Brig. Gen. Henry H. Sibley’s ill-fated New Mexico campaign.

The Book

The Monk Knight of St. John was written by Canadian novelist John Richardson and first published in 1850. At a first glance, the book was a typical gothic novel set in 11th century Palestine during the crusades, featuring among others a lost manuscript, palace intrigues and a description of the Battle of Hattin. However, it soon becomes clear that more is going on, as Richardson weaves an intricate net of seduction and desire around his protagonists.

And indeed, the book produced a scandal when it was published, because it not only openly dealt with sexual love but also promoted sexual emancipation. Without taking a moral standpoint, Robertson treated homosexual relationships as well as adultery as legitimate expressions of love – something that went squarely against Victorian norms. The novel was not pornographic and, what may be difficult to understand today, had a religious message at its core: namely that carnal knowledge leads to an understanding of God. [3] Still, it is very open in its description of the various combinations of affairs and relationships between men and women as well as Christians and Moslems.

The novel is clearly written in the tradition of the enlightenment, with its attacks on social conventions and Christianity. This may have appealed to Peticolas, whom the editor of his diary characterises as a “freethinker”. [4] From what we can gleam, he seems not to have been appalled by the scandalous book but rather devoured it, spending a couple of enjoyable hours with it during a gruelsome campaign.


The Monk Knight of St. John is digitally available at The small Canadian publisher Davus offers a print edition with a foreword by a leading scholar on Richardson.

[1] Alberts, Don E. (ed.): Rebels on the Rio Grande: the Civil War Journal of A.B. Peticolas. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, New Mexico 1984, p. 69.

[2] For the background of this campaign, see Alberts, Don E.: The Battle of Glorieta. Union Victory in the West. Texas A&M University Press1998, p. 17f.

[3] Beasley, David A.: The Canadian Don Quixote: The Life and Works of Major John Richardson, Canada’s First Novelist. Davus Publishing: Simcoe, ON 2004, p. 251.

[4] Alberts (ed.): Rebels on the Rio Grande, p. 4.

Levi Bird Duff reads Gibbon

The Reader

This morning I sat down before a large camp fire after breakfast to read. I had Gibbon’s second volume of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I was reading the description of Constantinople. But I did not read to much profit. Around a general camp fire there are too many loafers, for industriously disposed people to accomplish much. I was interrupted and annoyed and finally had to give over my reading.


Levi Bird Duff was born on September 18, 1837 in Pennsylvania. He received a good education at the local college and worked as a lawyer before the war. In May 1861, he enlisted in the Pittsburgh Rifles, which would become Company A of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves (38th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry). He quickly rose through the ranks and, by the time he wrote this letter, he was a major. In October 1863, he was in camp near Catlett’s Station. Duff was trying to read his Gibbon while the Army of the Potomac was maneuvering to catch Lee in Virginia. [2]

Not only the constant marching kept him from his book. Duff was also appalled by the “roughs”, as men from lower classes were called. He complained about their “tendancy to loaf, and talk nonsense and obscenity” and longed for a place where he could retreat and read quietly. Duff shows how class-conscious he was and how reading, for him, was not just a diversion. The act of reading had meaning in itself. It distinguished a gentleman, a man of good habits who uses his time to improve himself and his education, from the uncouth idlers. [3]

The Book

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in six volumes between 1776 and 1789 and told the story of Rome from the Republic to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Influenced by the philosophy of Voltaire, Gibbon wrote a secular history that put human agency at the centre. His was not a history of great men, but of multiple, flawed actors, many of them shortsighted and deluded. Gibbon also took sides: He celebrated the achievements of Roman civil society and lamented the rise of the Emperors. In his interpretation, the loss of civic virtues destroyed Rome and made it susceptible to barbarian invasions. His work caused misgivings among contemporaries because Gibbon was critical of Christianity. However, his books counts as a pioneering work for the discipline of history, as he was one of the first to extensively use footnotes. Those provided not only an erudite foundation for his deliberations, but also a space to discuss contemporary topics and make fun of 18th century Britain.

The part Duff read in October 1863, the description of Constantinople, is today considered to be one of his weakest achievements. For Gibbon, Byzantium was a degeneration, a step towards the decline of Roman civilization, without its people realising it: “A people elated by pride, or soured by discontent, are seldom qualified to form a just estimate of their actual situation.” [4] One wonders what Duff thought when he read those lines. Did they stir thoughts about his own time? We know that he had strong political opinions and was deeply committed to the fight against slavery. For him, the war against “the slaveholder’s rebellion”, as he called it, gave the United States a new purpose and forged it into a new nation. Did he associate the people of Constantinople with the people of the Confederacy, who could not yet see that their time was over?

Unfortunately, we do not know his thoughts on Gibbon. We also don’t know if he actually finished the book. We know that in April 1864, he felt his “old habits readily come back”, meaning that he returned to the study of the law. [5] Still trying to improve himself while the army was moving towards the carnage of the Wilderness, he swapped Gibbon’s history for more practical readings.


Gibbon is still considered a classic and therefore many editions are in print. Penguin offers an abridge paperback version as well as the full six volumes with editorial notes. A digital version is available on Project Gutenberg.

[1] Helmreich, Jonathan E. (ed.): To Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac. The Civil War letters of Levi Bird Duff, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2009, p. 152.

[2] For the campaign, see Hunt, Jeffrey W.: Meade and Lee at Bristoe Station: The Problems of Command and Strategy after Gettysburg, from Brandy Station to the Buckland Races, August 1 to October 31, 1863. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie 2019.

[3] For an excellent analysis of the role of class in the Union Army, see Foote, Lorien: The gentlemen and the roughs. Manhood, honor, and violence in the Union Army. New York: New York University Press 2010.

[4] Gibbon, Edward: History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. Volume 2. Accessible online at

[5] Helmreich: To Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac, p. 176.

What Civil War Soldiers Read

At the review to day I was thrown from my horse by foolishly attempting to read a newspaper, the rattling of which frightened him. I had the left side of my face skinned slightly & my knee bruised. I will be well again in a day or two.

Union officers reading letters (LOC)

Major Levi Bird Duff’s mishap shows how avidly many Civil War soldiers read. The literacy rate in mid-19th century Northern America was high: 90% for the Union and 70% for the free male population of the Confederacy. [2] Many soldiers had at least rudimentary schooling and most officers were quite well-eductated.

What did they read? Soldiers’ favorite reading material certainly were letters from home. Regular correspondence with wives, family and relatives played an important part in maintaining a link to the home front, expressing, forming and discussing political and ideological views and, most important of all, upholding morale. Union soldiers probably wrote more than a million letters per month and a well-organised postal system made it possible to receive as many from home. Soldiers treasured these letters and often kept them close by, reading and re-reading them whenever they felt lonely. [3]

Newspaper vendor in camp (LOC)

Newspapers were also very popular. The Union army negotiated a franchise with a news agency which distributed newspapers to the army for a nickel per copy. [4] Pickets sometimes exchanged newspapers between the lines and studiously read and discussed the enemies’ reports. Some regiments even produced their own papers, using field presses or commandeered publishers’ presses.

Soldiers also devoured books. There was an astonishing variety of sources for books in the field: sutlers sold them, family members sent them and religious societies gave them away for free or circulated them through libraries. Some “foraged” for books and stole them from occupied houses.

Bookcase of the Christian Commission library.

Books were read for a variety of reasons. Some soldiers studied military theory and history to improve their leadership skills, others read religious tracts to find guidance and solace. Many read novels to whittle away the hours and, at least for a couple of hourse, escape the harsh world they inhabited. Reading for pleasure had been frowned upon before the war as it was seen as a waste of time, and some soldiers kept away from light reading material and preferred reading for self-improvement. But the monotony and boredom of camp life tended to make any book attractive, especially to soldiers who abhorred other, more raucious ways to spend the time, such as playing cards or drinking alcohol.

Confederate soldier with book

In their letters and diaries, soldiers sometimes mention the books they read. Some of those are well-known and still considered classics, while others are obscure today and no longer read. In a lose series of short blog articles, I want to shed some light on the books Civil War soldiers read. Each article will present a quote from a letter, diary or memoir, a portait of the reader and then a short characterisation of the book he read. This is in no means intended to give a representative sample of Civil War readings – my selection is based on my own eclectic reading and on whatever arouses my curiosity. But I hope it will offer an impression of the variety of Civil War readings.

[1] Helmreich, Jonathan E. (ed.): To Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac. The Civil War letters of Levi Bird Duff, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. 2009, p. 120.

[2] Kaser, David: Books and Libraries in Camp and Battle. The Civil War Experience. Greenwood Press: Westport, Conneticut 1984, p. 3.

[3] Delahanty, Ian: “Soldiers’ Diaries and Letters,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, online at Levi Duff kept the letters from his wife in a special black oil- cloth toilet kit she made for him, cf. Helmreich (ed.): To Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac, p. 1.

[3] Kaser: Books and Libraries, p. 78.