Of all my civil war ancestors, probably the most interesting and certainly the most enigmatic is my great (x4) grandfather, Dr. Pierre Paul Noel D’alvigny...
Pierre Paul Noel D’alvigny was born in Paris on April, 13 1800. The only information available on his early life comes from family lore, which says that he was the son of minor aristocrats who came very near to losing their heads during the revolution. As a young man growing up during the Napoleonic Wars, Noel joined with the legions of Napoleon, serving as a surgeon’s assistant, and at some point won the Legion of Honor (the highest gallantry award) for his quick thinking that saved the life of either a general or a surgeon. (1).
Until recently, this is all the information known about D’alvigny, before his immigration to America. However, after a lot of research, I have discovered a few more pieces to the puzzle. In 1826 a Parisian named Noel D’alvigny had a daughter named Louis Julie D’alvigny by a woman named Marie Louis Prou. (2) Then, in 1832, Noel was involved in the Paris riots made famous by Victor Hugo. When later called as a witness to testify about his involvement, D’alvigny claimed he was only there helping the wounded. Also around this time, Noel’s house was raided by the police (although whether this occurred before or after the trial is unclear).
Sometime in the next three years, D’alvigny left France and immigrated to America. In 1835, he was working as a dentist in New York. In the same year, he received a patent on a new type of vapour bath (an early form of shower).
In 1836, D’alvigny married Emiline de la Foy, another descendant of French aristocracy, whose father had fought at Waterloo. Later that year, the couple moved to Charleston, where their first son, Eugene Victorine D’alvigny was born. Unfortunately, the child died in infancy. Their next child, Louise Elizabeth D’alvigny, lived only two years, before dying in 1843. Thankfully, on September 13, 1843, Emiline gave birth to Charles Frederick Stanislave D’alvigny, who would live to a ripe old age. (3)
1848 proved to be a huge year for the young family. Another daughter, Pauline, was born; however, later that year, her mother, Emiline, died of consumption. Noel picked up the family and moved to Atlanta, where he had been offered the job as curator of the museum at the Atlanta Medical College. He also married Caroline M. Crovatte. According to family lore, she had been the children’s nurse, and Emiline had requested the marriage before her death.
From this time, until the outbreak of the Civil War, Noel seems to have been a minor figure in the Atlanta Social Scene. He was also heavily involved with the Free Masons, a connection which certainly stretched back to Charleston, and possibly further than that. Despite owning a slave, Noel doesn’t seem to have taken issue with working with African Americas, and there are several stories of his working with the black community, both before and after the war.
Although Noel was sixty when the Civil War started, he volunteered his services to the Confederacy, serving a brief stint as the surgeon for the Ninth Battery of Georgia Artillery, before ill health forced him home. However, although Noel couldn’t go to the war, the war eventually came to him. The aging doctor applied his medical skills throughout the siege of Atlanta, and when the Confederate forces eventually pulled out, he was apparently the only doctor left in the city. It was at this time, that Pierre Paul Noel D’alivgny performed his most famous deed.
When D’alvigny learned that Sherman’s men were coming to burn the Atlanta Medical College, he got several of his helpers drunk on whisky, dressed them up as patients, and put them in bed. When the soldiers showed up with their torches, Noel stood on the steps and shouted at them. He said that he’d lived through revolutions, but never seen anything so evil as soldiers who would burn a hospital filled with the sick. The confused soldiers replied that they’d been told the hospital was empty, whereupon Noel showed them his “patients”. The soldiers gave Noel one day to have the sick moved somewhere else, before they returned with their torches. The next day, Sherman ordered his army out of Atlanta, and the torch wielders never returned to the Medical College.
After this incident, Noel continued his work as a surgeon, though as often treating Northern soldiers as Southern ones. According to family lore, he was given a commission in the Union Army, as a Southern surgeon wouldn’t have been allowed to treat Northern soldiers. (4)
After the war, Noel once again went to work with the black community, taking a post in the Black Georgia Hospital which had been established by the Freedman’s Bureau. In 1868, Noel became deathly ill after injuring himself during an autopsy. He pulled through, however, living nearly another ten years, before he finally died in Atlanta in 1877 from causes unknown. He is buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.
Although Dr. D’alvigny is not a widely known figure, he has achieved a degree of immortality, having apparently been used as the basis for the character of Dr. Mead in Gone With the Wind.
(1) The medal won by D’alvigny was passed down my family until it was stolen from the house of my Great Grandfather while he was off fighting in World War I.
(2) It is perhaps worth noting that D’alvigny is an extremely unusual name, even in France.
(3) Charles would also fight for the Confederacy, more on him in the future.
(4) If this is true, it make Noel the only one of my ancestors that I know about who served in the Union Army.