The Civil War Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A.

By Basil W. Duke; Introduction by James A. Ramage. 1911; reprint, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. 512 pp. $19.95 softcover.

Lt Col Harold E. Raugh, Jr., United States Army (Retd) reviews these books exclusively for DJ.

“In writing them I had chiefly in mind the experiences of the soldier,” recorded Confederate Brigadier General Basil W. Duke, “the atmosphere of the camp, the gossip of the bivouac.” This sets the tone for the occasionally witty, frequently insightful, generally interesting, and always elegantly written reminiscences of Duke, originally published in 1911 and now republished for the first time in a paperback edition.
Born in 1838 in Kentucky, Duke joined the Confederate 2nd Kentucky Cavalry - commanded by his brother-in-law, John Hunt Morgan - in October 1861. He participated in numerous daring guerrilla operations with “Morgan’s Raiders” and fought at Shiloh and in many other engagements. Duke’s battlefield prowess and bravery earned him rapid promotion to colonel. He served as Morgan’s “right-hand man” during the unit’s celebrated raid into Ohio in July 1863 where he, Morgan, and many others were captured. Morgan escaped from the penitentiary where they were held, and Duke was exchanged in 1864. Duke then unhesitatingly rejoined Morgan, who had become a brigade commander. When Morgan was killed in September 1864, Duke replaced him and was promoted to brevet brigadier general. Near the end of the war, Duke and some of his cavalry escorted Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Georgia. Duke returned to Kentucky after the war and practiced law, participated in state politics, and served in veterans’ organizations. He died in 1916.
Duke met many Confederate generals during his wartime service and was not shy about recording his impressions of them. Of General Albert Sidney Johnston, killed at Shiloh, Duke believed, “He exercised control and leadership without effort, and under all circumstances displayed the inborn faculty of command.” Duke was convinced General John C. Breckenridge’s, “capacity as a soldier was not fully appreciated by his Southern countrymen,” and that General Braxton Bragg, “almost unrivalled as a subordinate and lieutenant, could never have become a great commander.” Other insightful assessments appear often.
Duke’s comments on slavery and Reconstruction, while not politically correct today, may have been common a century or more ago. “The advance made by many of the [negro] race in education and general intelligence has been extraordinary,” observed Duke, “but a much greater number have not so advanced, while they have retrograded in morality and integrity.” Duke also opined that, “the stories told by Northern antebellum writers of the brutal usage of the slaves in those states were grossly exaggerated.” Duke’s perspective on slavery and related issues is interesting, thought provoking, and worth reading.
Duke, in his fascinating Reminiscences, has provided a glimpse of Civil War campaigning with Morgan’s Raiders, of the character and leadership of a number of prominent Confederate generals, and of a Southerner’s perception of the pre-war South and of reconstruction. The reader of this volume will gain a greater appreciation of the human element of leadership in conflict and will enjoy reading this colourful anecdotal account as much as Duke seemingly enjoyed writing it.