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Basil W. Duke

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Basil Wilson Duke
Basil W. Duke.jpg
Born(1838-05-28)May 28, 1838
Georgetown, Kentucky
DiedSeptember 16, 1916(1916-09-16) (aged 78)
New York City, New York
Place of burial
AllegianceConfederate States of America
Service/branchConfederate States Army
Years of service1861–1865
RankConfederate States of America General-collar.svg Brigadier General
Unit2nd Kentucky Cavalry
9th Kentucky Cavalry
Commands heldMorgan's Raiders
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War
Other worklawyer, lobbyist, writer

Basil Wilson Duke (May 28, 1838 – September 16, 1916) was a Confederate general officer during the American Civil War. His most noted service in the war was as second-in-command for his brother-in-law John Hunt Morgan; Duke would later write a popular account of Morgan's most famous raid: 1863's Morgan's Raid. He took over Morgan's command after Morgan was shot by Union soldiers in 1864. At the end of the war, Duke was among Confederate President Jefferson Davis's bodyguards after his flight from Richmond, Virginia, through the Carolinas.

Duke's lasting impact was as a historian and communicator of the Confederate experience. As a historian he helped to found the Filson Club Historical Society and started the preserving of the Shiloh battlefield. He wrote numerous books and magazine articles, most notably in the Southern Bivouac. When he died, he was one of the few high-ranking Confederate officers still alive. Historian James A. Ramage said of Duke, "No Southerner was more dedicated to the Confederacy than General Basil W. Duke."[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Basil Wilson Duke was born in Scott County, Kentucky, on May 28, 1838; the only child of career naval officer Nathaniel W. Duke and his wife, the former Mary Pickett Currie. He was 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m), slightly-built, with a resonant voice.[2] A relative described him as "essentially a man of the 17th century, that century in half armor, torn between chivalry and realism".[3][4] The family, members of the Episcopal Church, had originally been of Catholic English stock, descended from a 1634 immigrant from Devonshire named Richard Duke, who came to Maryland aboard the "Ark."[5] Through his mother, Basil was of partial Scottish descent, with his grandfather James Currie having served several years in the British Navy before settling in the United States.

Duke's parents died during his childhood: Mary, when Basil was eight, and Nathaniel when Basil was 11; save for an instance in his Reminiscences, he seldom mentioned them. He attended Georgetown College (1853–1854) and Centre College (1854–1855), before studying law at Lexington, Kentucky's Transylvania University. After graduating in 1858, he went to St. Louis, Missouri in 1858 to practice law, as his older cousin, also named Basil Duke, was practicing law there, and there were already a multitude of lawyers in Lexington.[6][7]

Civil War service[edit]

When the American Civil War started in 1861, Duke was still in Missouri, where he helped in the initial forays for Missouri's secession from the United States. (Missouri would have both Federal and Confederate governments during the War.) On January 7, 1861, he and four others created The Minute Men, a pro-secession militia-like organization, in response to many pro-Northern politicians being recently elected in St. Louis. Duke quickly became the leader, despite being only 23 years old. He formed the organization into five companies and sought to acquire the federal arsenal in St. Louis for the secessionist movement. He made a habit of placing secessionist flags at prominent locations, looking to start fights with pro-Union forces. He would eventually be indicted for arson and treason but managed to escape back into Kentucky.[8][9][10]

Once back to Lexington, Kentucky, Duke married Henrietta Hunt Morgan, sister of John Hunt Morgan. Their wedding took place on June 19, 1861. Duke would return to Missouri to help Confederate forces in Missouri under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Hindman, but would eventually return to Kentucky at Brigadier General William J. Hardee's insistence. By October 1861, he had enlisted in his brother-in-law's (Morgan's) command and was subsequently elected Second Lieutenant.[8][11][12]

Duke was twice wounded during the War. At the Battle of Shiloh, he was swinging his saber at a Union soldier when he was shot in the left shoulder by a Brown Bess musket. The bullet exited his right shoulder, barely missing the spine. After recuperating, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and a few months later, to colonel. Duke's second wound came at Elizabethtown, Kentucky's Rolling Fork River during Morgan's Christmas Raid of 1862, when, on December 29, he was hit by a shell fragment while leading the back guard as the rest of Morgan's men crossed a stream; his men initially assumed he was dead.[8][10][11][13]

Duke was the principal trainer for mounted combat for Morgan's Raiders and participated in Morgan's audacious Ohio Raid, during which he was captured at the Battle of Buffington Island on July 19, 1863, while leading troops in a delaying tactic which allowed other Confederate forces either to escape across the Ohio River with Adam "Stovepipe" Johnson or to advance further into Ohio with Morgan, although shortly thereafter, he too was captured. Duke would remain in captivity until August 3, 1864, when he was exchanged. He could probably have escaped with Morgan and Thomas Hines but felt that to do so would hurt their chances, as Morgan was easily replaced in his cell by his brother, but no similar replacement as a temporary deception was there for Duke.[8][11]

After Morgan was killed on September 4, 1864, Duke assumed command of Morgan's forces and on September 15, 1864, was promoted to brigadier general and sent to Virginia. He was with Jefferson Davis shortly after the Confederate President fled Richmond. Duke was in the final Confederate war council at the Burt-Stark Mansion in Abbeville, South Carolina, on May 2, 1865. Duke surrendered to Union officials on May 10, 1865, in Washington, Georgia.[11][14][15]

As an officer, Duke's way of "gently ordering" soldiers under his command allowed him to have friendly relations with his men. He loved fighting, was steadfast during difficult moments in conflicts, and was described as a "spit-and-polish" officer.[1]


Basil W. Duke's grave. John Hunt Morgan's grave is the white one behind Duke's.

After the war, Duke moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in March 1868, where he would live for most of his remaining life. He returned to practicing law later that year, with his primary client being the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. He served as their chief counsel and lobbyist, despite the L&N Railroad being a favorite victim of Morgan's raiders during the war. He briefly served in the Kentucky General Assembly from 1869 to 1870, resigning as he felt a conflict of interest being a lobbyist for the L&N. Duke also served as the Fifth Judicial District's commonwealth attorney from 1875 to 1880.[2][8][11][16]

Duke became greatly involved in writing the history of the Civil War and related topics. He helped to found Louisville's Filson Club (now The Filson Historical Society) in 1884, writing many of their early papers. From 1885 to 1887 he edited the magazine Southern Bivouac. He also wrote three books: History of Morgan's Cavalry (1867), History of the Bank of Kentucky, 1792-1895 (1895), and Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke (a collection of various magazine articles he wrote) (1911).[11] A prominent writer of the Southern experience, he neither advocated slavery, nor apologized for it; although thinking it a good thing to have been abolished, he insisted that Northern claims of excessive abuse of slaves was exaggerated.[17]

After 1900, Duke began to withdraw from his public career. By 1903 he ceased doing work for the L&N. In 1904 he was appointed commissioner of Shiloh National Military Park by President Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he had become friendly after their having been introduced to each other at the Filson Club. Duke was devastated when, on October 20, 1909, his wife of fifty years, Henrietta, died of sudden heart failure. Afterward, he lived with his daughter Julia and her family in Louisville's Cherokee Park. Prior to his death in 1916, Duke had been one of the last surviving Confederate general officers. In his final years he spent much of his time handling requests made by those with questions about the Confederacy, even during the time that he was recovering from cataract surgery in 1914. Two years later, during a visit to his daughter, Mary Currie, in Massachusetts, Duke underwent surgery in a New York City hospital, first, on September 1, to have his right foot amputated and then, on September 11, to have his right leg amputated at the knee. Five days later, on September 16, 1916, he died, one of the last surviving high-ranking Confederate officers. Duke was buried beside his wife in front of the John Hunt Morgan grave in the Hunt family plot in Lexington Cemetery. In addition to his exploits as a Confederate commander, perhaps his lasting fame is as a master chronicler of Confederate military history.[8][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Duke p.xiii
  2. ^ a b Matthews p.xiii
  3. ^ Brown pp.27, 28
  4. ^ Christensen p.264
  5. ^ Matthews, Gary (4 November 2005). Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0813123752. Retrieved 16 April 2017 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ Kleber pp.256, 257
  7. ^ Matthews pp.12,16-18
  8. ^ a b c d e f Heidler p.625
  9. ^ Matthews pp.24, 25
  10. ^ a b Duke p.xiv
  11. ^ a b c d e f Kleber p.257
  12. ^ Matthews p.34
  13. ^ Brown pp.50, 153
  14. ^ Brown p.242
  15. ^ Christensen p.265
  16. ^ Duke p.489
  17. ^ Matthews p.16
  18. ^ Matthews pp.297,300-304


  • Brown, Dee Alexander (1959). The Bold Cavaliers. White Mane Publishing Co.
  • Christensen, Lawrence O. (1999). Dictionary of Missouri Biography. University of Missouri Press. ISBN 978-0-8262-1222-1.
  • Duke, Basil W. (2001). The Civil War Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A. Cooper Square Publishers, Incorporated. ISBN 978-0-8154-1174-1.
  • Heidler, David (2002). Encyclopedia of the American Civil War. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-04758-5.
  • Kleber, John E. (2001). Encyclopedia of Louisville. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2100-0.
  • Matthews, Gary (2005). Basil Wilson Duke, CSA: The Right Man in the Right Place. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2375-2.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]