Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Civil War Reminiscences Of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A.: Part Two

Basil Wilson Duke
It is almost impossible to estimate how vastly the chances of Southern success would have been augmented had Missouri been permitted to take her place in the Southern column...But important as was the acquisition of Missouri to the Confederacy, the possession of St. Louis was scarcely less so.  There were in the city abundant supplies of all kinds necessary to the conduct of military operations.  To hold St. Louis was well-nigh equivalent to the complete control of the immense shipping of the great river, at least to the fleet of steam-boats which habitually harboured there; and this would not only have enabled supplies to be distributed at all points of the South where they were most needed, but would have effectually prevented the occupation and control of the lower Mississippi waters by the Federal gunboats. 
But if the possession of Missouri and the city of St. Louis was important to ultimate Confederate success, the seizure of the St. Louis arsenal was a matter of vital and immediate necessity.  The arsenal contained sixty thousand stand of small arms, thirty-five or forty pieces of artillery, and a vast store of ammunition and military equipments.  An almost invincible force could have been promptly armed from this source, and such a force would have been at once recruited; for with the capture of the arsenal by the secessionists all doubt and vacillation would have disappeared from their ranks.  It would have assured the most timid and hesitant, and have been the signal for an instant and overwhelming uprising, both in St. Louis and the state, in behalf of the Southern cause  Such an evidence of purpose and of capacity to deal practically with the situation would have settled in advance the questions which the convention had been called to determine.  The earnest and resolute men on both sides thoroughly realized this, and to seize or defend the arsenal became the watchwords of all who really "meant business." 
Unfortunately for the hopes of the Southern men in St. Louis, however salutary such policy may have proven for the future of the country, their leaders temporized  They admitted the extreme importance of capturing the arsenal, but insisted that it ought not to be attempted until after the convention had acted.  This counsel seemed fatuous to the younger men, who thought that something should be done to influence the election of the delegates and the decision of the convention, and believed that, as matters were being handled, the game was going against them.  They resolved, therefore, to make an organization of their own, with a view to prompt and decisive measures, and also as an offset to Blair's "Wide Awakes," who soon became exceedingly insolent and aggressive.  This movement was inaugurated, as I remember, by Colton Greene, James R. Shaler, Rock Champion, Overton W. Barrett, Samuel Farrington, James Quinlan, Arthur McCoy, and myself.  Greene was subsequently a brigadier-general in the Confederate service.  Shaler was one of the bravest and most efficient colonels whom Missouri gave to the South.  Barrett served gallantly and with distinction, and Champion, Farrington, and McCoy, after winning the highest reputation for courage and fidelity, died under the Southern flag. 
This organization was designated the "Minute Men," and was of a semi-political and military character.  We made no secret of the organization or of our purpose, but openly proclaimed both.  It grew to be about four hundred strong, and was divided into five companies, commanded by Greene, Shaler, Barrett, Hubbard, and myself, which subsequently composed a battalion of the state guard, of which Shaler was elected major.  The chief and primary object of this organization was the capture of the arsenal.  We were handicapped, however, not only by the scruples and remonstrances of the older and more conservative men, but by the difficulty of procuring arms.  The muster-roll of the Minute Men could have been increased to a much larger number, but we wished to enlist only the kind of material which could be relied on for any service and in any emergency, and no more than we could arm in some fashion.  We had no funds with which to purchase arms, and those fitted for the use of soldiers were not to be easily gotten even with money.  During February we secured some sixty or seventy old muskets, but armed the greater number with revolvers and shot-guns, which were indeed better weapons for street fighting.
-The Civil War Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A.

The period that Duke was writing about was January and February of 1861, after the convention called by Governor Jackson had decided against secession but a couple of months before Fort Sumter.

I've read this section of Duke's memoirs numerous times and it never fails to shock me.  I find it very difficult to put myself into his mind and to understand things from his perspective.  The steps that he and his friends were taking and the actions that he was proposing are so alien to me that I just find it impossible to relate to what he's talking about.  And what he was talking about was armed insurrection against the dully constituted government of the United States.  Duke, in early 1861, was formenting rebellion in St. Louis.  He was, to be honest, a traitor.  We can sit here all day and debate the rights of a given state to succeed from the Union but I believe that Duke's actions in early 1861 were treasonous.  It's one thing to take political action to effect succession but it's another to put together an armed militia and plot to seize the United States armory in St. Louis.

I'm not condemning Duke here.  I couldn't tell you what I would have done if I was alive in 1861 and, in his writings, he comes off as a man of honor and integrity.  I have no doubt that Duke was acting on principle and that he believed the Federal government was oppressive and illegitimate.  But that doesn't change the fact that his actions were treasonous.  He was putting together an army and was planning on attacking a government military installation.  That's crazy.  That's John Brown crazy.

The thing is I don't think Duke was particularly a unique individual in 1861 St. Louis.  There were plenty of other men who actively supported what the Minute Men were doing and the other side was also actively organizing during this period.  Duke's Cyclone Club teammate, Merritt Griswold, was a member of the pro-Union Wide Awake militia that Duke mentions above.  The city was divided and I think that any chance of civil discourse was gone.  Both sides were arming themselves and looking for a fight.  The country, and St. Louis, was tearing itself apart and the normal rules and laws were out the window.

And in the middle of all of this craziness, baseball was being played in St. Louis.  It has to be remembered that the men who were playing baseball in St. Louis were not just names in a box score.  They were living, breathing human beings who were personally involved in this great crisis.  Baseball was simply just one part of their lives.  Duke was one of the pioneers of baseball in St. Louis but he was much more than that.  It's important, I think, to put both pioneer baseball and Basil Duke in the context of their times and that's what I'm trying to do here.            

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