Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review: Basil Wilson Duke, C.S.A.: The Right Man in the Right Place

Basil Wilson Duke, C.S.A. : The Right Man in the Right Place
Author: Gary Robert Matthews
University Press of Kentucky
Copyright 2005

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a fellow Civil War enthusiast and the topic turned to John Hunt Morgan and some of his exploits. After a few minutes, the name Basil Duke came up and I admitted I did not know a lot about him. My friend told me that he was the brains behind Morgan’s operation, that Morgan was the famous one, with personality and charisma to attract others to his side, while Duke worked on strategy and training and disciplining the men Morgan attracted. 

As he said this, I recalled that I had a book about Duke in my “to be read” collection of Civil War books and I decided to read it. It turned out to be Matthews’ work, and I am glad that was the case.

Basil Wilson Duke: CSA is a terrific biography of a fascinating man. The writing is easy to read, with a very smooth flow and style, and it makes this work a quick read as well.

Of course, part of the reason this book is a fine read is the subject himself. Basil Duke was a native Kentuckian, born with good family connections, intellectual curiosity and a variety of talents.

This book starts with an exploration of Duke’s family background, his youth and education, as well as his pre-Civil War career. It tells of his early war days in Missouri, learning ideas and techniques that he would use when he joined his brother-in-law’s cavalry unit. This background is an important part of this work, setting the stage for the rest of Duke’s career and life.

It continues by describing Duke’s adventures with Morgan’s command through several raids, showing how Duke’s strategies and handling of the troops helped Morgan achieve frequent success, and then goes into detail about Duke’s time as a prisoner-of-war. Being away from his wife and children was something that bothered Duke, especially during his time as a prisoner, when receiving letters from loved ones was difficult. The idea of Duke missing his family is one that appears often throughout the book. 

Duke’s prison time also was a major factor for Morgan, who missed the knowledge, decision-making, and discipline Duke provided. Morgan’s soldiers were not as good or as disciplined fighters as in previous years and this combined with Duke’s absence to doom Morgan’s 1864 “ Final Raid.”

When Duke finally got out of prison, much had changed. Morgan was dead and Duke soon became a General in charge of Morgan’s former command. Duke also recognized that the future of the Southern cause did not appear promising.

Matthews does a fine job of describing how Duke faced the end of the Confederacy, including Duke’s time with the party accompanying Jefferson Davis to Georgia. Duke helped convince Davis that guerilla war was a bad idea and he also accepted the difficult task of guarding the remaining Confederate gold as Davis and other leaders continued to flee.

Duke’s transition into the post-war era is another valuable section of this book. He lived for more than 50 years after the Confederacy ceased to exist and never was the wealthy Southern gentlemen of the common stereotypes of former Confederate leaders. Duke held several different position to make ends meet, including jobs incotton sales, writing and editing books and magazines and renewing his pre-war career as a lawyer. He became involved with a building and loan company, but a national financial panic struck at a bad time for him. He also held political office and his legal experience helped gain him work with the L&N Railroad. 

Each chapter of his post-war life receives plenty of attention in this work, even when several overlap, which they frequently did. This last part of the biography is especially fascinating, showing how a man who strongly believed in the Confederate cause could adjust to a new world, as Duke accepted the need for national reconciliation as a means of helping his beloved region recover from the war. Duke changed careers and even adapted his political views as he saw the world, the political parties and life evolve. He was a modest man, but not afraid of change or of trying something new, again perhaps different from the stereotype of the overly proud and stubborn Southern gentleman.

Matthews did not deeply explore Duke’s feelings towards African-Americans, though he makes it clear that Duke supported slavery, opposed the Reconstruction Amendments and favored the “Lost Cause” view of the war. Like many people of the era, he viewed the reunion of the country as a necessary step, but protecting or expanding the rights of freedpeople was not a consideration for him. He was a product of his times and upbringing in this regard.

Duke’s friendship with Theodore Roosevelt - who appointed the General as a Commissioner of Shiloh National Military Park - serves as one more interesting subject of this book, reminding me a bit of the post-war life of John Mosby. On the other hand, his bitter opposition with Kentucky politician William Goebel, a fierce opponent of the L&N Railroad, is also an informative story and look into Kentucky politics around the start of the twentieth century.

Duke also worked in the field of history, being among the group that founded what is today the Filson Historical Society, one of the best-known historical groups in Kentucky, and some of his writings are among the first and most intimate looks into Morgan’s cavalry, another important contribution to the study of Civil War and Kentucky history.

Like many biographies, this book does offer a mostly positive interpretation of its subject, but does so based on a lot of research and with many sources supporting the author’s conclusions, especially his claims of Duke’s importance to the success Morgan and his men achieved. 

It was not all praise, however, as Matthews did point out times when Duke was less than perfect, such as at the end of the 1863 raid when neither Morgan nor Duke took enough security precautions at night, probably due to fatigue and perhaps a bit of overconfidence.

This work contains several helpful photographs and maps. The author also succeeded in keeping the focus of the text on Duke and not Morgan. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of writing much about the more famous chieftain, especially his1864 raid without Duke, but Matthews smartly avoided that mistake.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable and informative book about an often overlooked soldier and Kentuckian, a modest man who found crucial roles to play during and after the Civil War. The story of Basil Duke remains an important one for students of the Civil War, especially the western theater, John Hunt Morgan and the operations of cavalry raiders, as well as to students of Kentucky history. Basil Duke was a talented man, one who used his skills in many different manners, both as a soldier and a civilian.

I gladly recommend this fine book.

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