Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place
by Gary Robert Matthews, foreword by James A. Ramage, The University Press of Kentucky, 2005, 358 pages, $39.95.
In his preface Gary Matthews notes Basil Duke’s reticence and modesty. These traits won Duke admirers but raised difficulties for would-be biographers. Duke’s fame is so intertwined with that of his brother-in-law, John Hunt Morgan, Matthews forewarns, “The history of Morgan’s cavalry is also Duke’s war story, and the two must be told in tandem.”
Basil Wilson Duke, CSA is an excellent life study, not merely a recounting of battles and leaders. A native Kentuckian, Duke graduated with a law degree from Transylvania College in 1858. Law was his business and politics his love—along with John Hunt Morgan’s sister, the beautiful Henrietta “Tommie” Morgan, whom Duke married in June 1861.
Duke joined Morgan’s Lexington Rifles as a private; the men soon elected him first lieutenant. In careful prose Matthews emphasizes that while Morgan dominated his command by sheer charisma, it was Duke who quietly provided the discipline and balance necessary to maintain an effective fighting force. Wounded at Shiloh in April 1862, Duke was absent when Morgan’s raid of early May resulted in the fight and flight dubbed the “Lebanon Races.” “Morgan’s setbacks,” Matthews observes, “nearly always occurred while Duke was absent from the command.”
Morgan was a brigadier and Duke a full colonel when they were captured during the raid into Ohio and Indiana in July 1863. In his elegiac A History of Morgan’s Cavalry of 1867, Duke said Morgan’s proposal to cross the Ohio River had been approved by General Braxton Bragg. But in an 1891 article in Century Magazine, Duke admitted this contention had come from Morgan. Duke remained incarcerated until the summer of 1864. After his release, he rejoined Morgan in Abingdon, Va. Duke prudently did not follow Morgan on his last raid into Tennessee, where he was killed on September 4, 1864.
The waning months of the war saw Duke, now a brigadier general, reinvigorate Morgan’s command. Heading east to join General Joseph Johnston’s army, Duke instead served as an escort to the fleeing presidential party.
In 1868 Duke moved his growing family to Louisville, where he practiced law with former Mosby Ranger A.E. “Dolly” Richards. He became a consummate railroad lobbyist, and in the upheavals of Kentucky postwar politics Duke reluctantly turned Republican.
Matthews explores the manner in which Duke, unlike many veterans, concerned himself more with current affairs than with veterans organizations. He was one of the founders of the Filson Club, and co-editor of Southern Bivouac. (His conciliatory articles drew the disapproval of Jubal Early.)
After Duke heard Theodore Roosevelt speak to the Filson Club, the two began a long correspondence, with Duke advising Roosevelt on Republican strategy in the South. Duke became editor of The Southern Magazine in the 1890s.
Duke died in New York City on September 16, 1916, and was buried next to Tommie in Lexington, Ky. From serving as the conscience of a flamboyant command to an intelligent voice on the New South scene, Duke was always, as Morgan himself declared, “the right man in the right place.”
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.