Young Basil Duke is Part of Missouri’s Civil War History

Basil Duke

Basil Duke

If you’ve visited the page “About the Thunderbolt Raiders” on this site, you know that Gen. Basil W. Duke is the protagonist of the screenplay we’re writing. The story is set in 1913with flashbacks 50 years to the Civil War.  The material, though, doesn’t tell about the very earliest days of the war when Duke was a young lawyer in St. Louis.

Duke was an ardent secessionist who wanted Missouri, a slave state, to join the Confederacy.  He visited Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked for guns and cannons his men could use to take over the Federal Arsenal in St. Louis.  He got the weapons, and put them on a river boat heading up the Mississippi. 

But he almost lost his life when he returned to Missouri and was accosted by ardent Federal loyalists.  They didn’t know about the weapons but they were sure Duke was up to something and they threatened to kill him.  Duke talked his way out of that scrape and soon returned to his home state of Kentucky and joined brother-in-law John Morgan’s militia.

Missouri, meanwhile, was going through an agonizing period.  Like Kentucky, the state actually had two governments for a time—one as part of the Union, the other the Confederacy.  A star was added to the Confederate flag in recognition of Missouri’s joining, but it was only symbolic because by then the pro-Confederate governor was in exile in Texas and the Union army controlled Missouri.

Even so, the people of the state remained divided in their loyalties.  By war’s end, an estimated 40,000 Missourians had joined the Confederate army, 110,000 the Union army.

Jefferson Barracks

Artist Rendering of Jefferson Barracks Circa 1861

The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has an excellent exhibit about the state’s important role in the war and the major battles fought within its borders.  Museum admission is free, but there is an $8 charge for this special exhibit.

While in St. Louis, we recommend spending a bit of time at the Jefferson Barracks, a U.S. military installation since 1826.  Army and Air Force National Guard units are still stationed there and a Missouri Civil War Museum is being constructed in one of the Barracks’ century-old buildings. The museum is scheduled to open in 2013.

Over its many, many decades of service Jefferson Barracks has housed military hospitals, recruiting facilities and training camps as well as being headquarters for many active-duty personnel. When war with Mexico broke out in 1846, John Morgan, his brother Calvin and uncle Alexander Morgan joined Company K of the 1st Regiment of Kentucky Mounted Volunteers.  As was the custom at the time, the men elected their officers and John became a First Lieutenant.

En route to Mexico they would have spent at least a few days at Jefferson Barracks, the jumping-off point for American troops.  The three Morgan men served well in Mexico and John developed a love of the military life.

But the most memorable part of Jefferson Barracks is the National Cemetery, established in 1866.  The remains of about 170,000 service men and women are interred there, and burials of veterans of WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan continue every day. Row after row of white tombstones remind visitors to ponder the service of those who served our country.

A less significant, but interesting, bit of Civil War history is in the town of Ste. Genevieve, MO, about 60 miles south of St. Louis.

In August of 1861 Union Major General John D. Fremont was worried that the Merchants Bank in the tiny, isolated town might be a Confederate target. Confederates had been known to finance their operations by robbing banks owned by Union sympathizers. 

Gen. Fremont ordered Major John McDonald of the 8th Missouri Regiment to take the bank’s $58,000 in cash to St. Louis for safe-keeping.

The bank president was reluctant to turn over the money but had no choice as the 250 soldiers were insistent.  So he complied, but accompanied the soldiers and the cash to St. Louis to be sure it was safe. 

The soldiers, by the way, were gaudily dressed in Zouave style, copied from elite French units of the time.

Zouave uniforms had baggy pantaloons, leggings, a tight-fitting short jacket and a 10-foot-long sash. A fez adorned with a colorful tassel topped off the ensemble.

Various elements of both the Union and Confederate armies wore Zouave uniforms, at least early in the war.  As time went on, they became too expensive and normal outfits were used.  Zouave uniforms can be seen in several Civil War movies including “Gods and Generals,” “Gettysburg” and “Glory.”

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