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Basil Wilson Duke, CSA
The Right Man in the Right Place
By Gary Roberts Matthews
2005, University Press of Kentucky

Reviewed by Dave Walter

In the Western theater of the Civil War, two cavalry commanders rode into legend: Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan. This book argues, successfully, that Morgan's reputation and military raid tactics were the work of his second-in-command, brother-in-law, and fellow Kentuckian, Basil Wilson Duke. (Do all CSA cavalry generals need at least three names?)

Mr. Matthews is a freelance writer living in Lexington, KY. This is his first book, and it is an engagingly written and ably told biography of a popular Civil War hero whose star has faded due to neglect, not lack of exploits. It should be extremely popular with Civil War buffs who are interested in the personalities and character of the less heralded leaders.

Brig. General Duke was one of those Kentuckians who was pro-Southern, yet had plenty of friends and relatives who "stayed North" and fought for the Union. For instance, his cousin, Patti Duke (!) was married to Maj. Gen. John Buford, of Gettysburg fame, and her sister was married to another Union general. At the time of Ft. Sumter, Duke was practicing law in St. Louis; after marrying John Hunt Morgan's sister in Kentucky, the 23 year old immediately enlisted in the Confederate Army and served as a scout for Gen. William Hardee in Missouri. Making his way back to Kentucky (and almost getting arrested by a young Union soldier of his acquaintance, future Supreme Court Justice John Harlan), Duke joined the Lexington Rifles, organized by his brother-in-law, as a private. Due to his scouting experience and talent for organization, Morgan immediately made him a 1st Lt. and his second-in-command.

Morgan's and Duke's cavalry elements operated, except at Shiloh, as guerrillas. Duke developed the tactics that made them the toast of Kentucky and heroes of the South: with a thousand men, or so, they would ride down on lightly defended Union posts in their Tennessee and Kentucky supply lines, burning railroad bridges, destroying transportation materials, and capturing sorely needed supplies. Duke developed the fast, mobile force which rode to the scene and then dismounted and fought like infantry. They tied down large numbers of Union forces for extended periods of time, and panicked the North every time they struck out for the Ohio River. Morgan's reputation was burnished post-war by Duke's "A History of Morgan's Cavalry." But those who fought Morgan largely credited Duke for the successes: a Louisville journalist once remarked that "someone might hit Duke on the head and knock Morgan's brains out."

Without any attempt to describe details of all the Morgan/Duke raids (a task ably handled by author Matthews) a listing of them demonstrates how they continually panicked the Union supply line guards and citizens in Louisville and Cincinnati. The more prominent actions were the First Kentucky raid of July '62; support of Gen. Kirby Smith's incursion into Kentucky during Aug.-Oct. '62 designed to draw Union Gen. Buell's forces out of Nashville, TN; the Christmas Raid of Dec.'62-Jan.'63; and the Indiana/Ohio raid of July 1863. During the latter, Morgan and Duke crossed the Ohio River, rode north of Cincinnati; and, in attempting to cross back into Virginia, Duke and a portion of the command was captured at Buffington Island. Shortly thereafter, Morgan and the rest were captured just 20 miles from the Pennsylvania border near Steubenville, OH.

Duke then was imprisoned in Cincinnati jail, at Johnson's Island, and at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. From here, Morgan and several others made good their escape back to Kentucky. Union friends helped Duke be transferred to the more comfortable Camp Chase and, from there, to Fort Delaware on March 1, 1864. Officers during the Civil War were granted leeway which we might find hard to believe (some in uniform and carrying sidearms, attended by their slaves who went into captivity with them, were actually permitted to stroll around Columbus!) Duke actually was taken to the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, in uniform, by a Major Johnson who had escorted him from Columbus, interviewed by reporters and then dined with several Union officers.

Duke was kept separately from the 8,000 reb prisoners at Ft. Delaware. He roomed with the only other Confederate officer present at the time, an old acquaintance from Missouri. And the commandant, Col. Schoeph, knew Duke from his days teaching in Lexington, KY. No where in his memoirs did Duke criticize the Federal policies in regard to prisoners in Ft. Delaware, though he must have been aware of some aspects of the "hellhole" endured by the enlisted men. At the end of June, Duke was one of the officers selected to be transported to Charleston and serve as hostage against the Confederates' plan to put 50 Union officer prisoners in the path of shells being fired at Charleston. Cooler heads prevailed, no prisoners were placed in harm's way, and Duke was finally exchanged on August 1, 1864.

Meanwhile, Morgan was botching his assignment to protect southwestern Virginia. When he was killed by Union forces on Sept. 3rd, Duke was given command and elevated to Brig. General. Serving under Gen. Breckenridge, that winter they strive to turn back Gen. Stoneman's Union advances from Knoxville aimed at Saltville and other critical targets in Virginia. Eventually, Duke becomes the cavalry arm escorting Jeff Davis and the Confederate treasury as they flee through the Carolinas. Duke and a handful of men surrendered in Augusta, GA.

Basil Wilson Duke returned to Kentucky and lived comfortably, working as an attorney, lobbyist for the Louisville & Nashville R.R. (which he destroyed during the War), legislator, journalist and historian. He served as editor for "The Southern Magazine" and became friendly with Theodore Roosevelt, who later appointed him a commissioner of Shiloh Battlefield. He died on Sept. 16, 1916, a man who was progressive for his time and place, a man who did not give in to maudlin dreams of the antebellum South yet revered to the end the "Lost Cause" for which he so ably fought.