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 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/891/old/dfre210.htm

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