Sunday, March 9, 2008

Basil Duke

Basil Wilson Duke, a member of the Cyclone Club, was born in Kentucky in 1838. He attended Georgetown College and Centre College before obtaining a law degree at Transylania University in 1858. After graduating from law school, Duke decided to move to St. Louis where his cousin, also named Basil Duke and a lawyer, had a thriving practice.

According to Gary Robert Matthews' Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place, "(from) the very beginning of Duke's legal career, it was obvious that his attention was held, not by the practice of law, but by politics." The politics of the day, of course, was dominated by questions regarding slavery, succession, and the impending Civil War. Louis Gerteis, in Civil War St. Louis, describes Duke as one of the leaders of Pro-Southern St. Louisans and the Minute Men, "their paramilitary organization." Gerteis writes that Duke was a "young man of twenty-five and a Douglas supporter in the election of 1860...(who) joined the Minute Men as a conditional Unionist. The arrival of federal troops in St. Louis (to guard the Arsenal and the Subtreasury) convinced him that Lincoln's administration intended to use coercion against the seceded states, and his loyalty shifted decisively to the Confederacy..."

Duke played a rather prominent role in the chaos in St. Louis in the first half of 1861. On February 13, according to Gerteis, "Basil Duke's Minute Men" were mustered into the State Guard. On March 3, as the Missouri State Convention was about to meet, Duke's men raised the Confederate flag over the St. Louis Courthouse and their headquarters in the Berthold Mansion at Fifth and Pine Street, the former headquarters of the Missouri Democratic Party. This escapade, which resulted in a violent clash between the Minute Men and the Wide Awakes, puts the actions of the Home Guard at the Empire Club's 1861 anniversary game in a new context. After the municipal elections on April 1, 1861, an anti-Republican coalition took political control of the city, electing a new mayor. As this coalition attempted to consolidate their control, Governor Jackson appointed a new police board in St. Louis that included Basil Duke.

After Fort Sumter came under fire and war officially began, Jackson sent Duke and Colton Greene to Montgomery, Alabama on April 17 to ask Jefferson Davis for siege guns and mortars to use in an attack on the Arsenal. The delegation, according to Matthews, was "warmly received" by Davis, who "agreed to provide Jackson the weapons and wrote to inform him that several howitzers and siege guns were being shipped for his use against the Arsenal." Duke and Greene picked up the guns and ammunition in Baton Rouge, took them to New Orleans, and loaded them on a steamboat, the Swan, to have them shipped up the Mississippi. While Greene stayed with the guns on the Swan, Duke went ahead by land as a scout. His trip was uneventful until he reached Cairo, Illinois, which had been recently occupied by Federal troops. In Cairo, Duke ran into James Casey, the brother-in-law of U. S. Grant, a Confederate sympathizer, and a friend from St. Louis. Casey warned Duke that his mission to Montgomery had become common knowledge and that he was in danger of being arrested. Not only was Duke endangered by the presence of Federal forces in Cairo but, according to Duke's Civil War memoir, he also was suspected by pro-Confederate forces of being a Union spy.

Duke was saved from numerous predicaments in Cairo by the arrival of the Swan, which he quickly boarded and which arrived safely in St. Louis on May 9. The weapons were delivered to the State Militia at Camp Jackson. It's unclear if Duke was at Camp Jackson when Union forces attacked on May 10, 1861. Most likely, Duke arranged to have the weapons delivered and then immediately left for Jefferson City to meet with Governor Jackson. Based on Duke's memoir, it appears that he received the news of the surrender of Camp Jackson while in Jefferson City. It also seems reasonable to conclude that the timing of Lyon's attack on Camp Jackson was prompted by the completion of Duke's mission and the delivery of the weapons to the pro-Confederate forces.

After these events, Duke moved back to Kentucky where he married Henrietta Morgan and joined the Second Kentucky Calvary under his new brother-in-law, John Hunt Morgan. His activities during the Civil War, when he rose from private to brigadier general, can be found at the Civil War St. Louis website.

Following the end of hostilities, Duke settled in Louisville where he resumed his law practice and played a prominent role in Kentucky politics. Throughout the rest of his life, he was a voice for reconciliation with the North and spent much of his time attempting to preserve the history of the Confederacy. In the 1880's, Duke was the editor of Southern Bivouac, a prominent veterans' magazine, and also helped to found the Filson Club Historical Society. He was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as the first commissioner of Shiloh National Park and authored two books about his Civil War activities, Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke and History of Morgan's Cavalry. Basil Duke died in New York City on September 16, 1916.

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