By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal
Louisville, Kentucky, April 24, 1911: Local attorney, former professional baseball player, assistant to President Teddy Roosevelt, Civil War Brigadier General for the Confederacy, member of the fierce Confederate Cavalry known as Morgan’s Raiders, and perceptive author, Basil W. Duke, 73, has just completed his second book titled: “The Civil War Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, CSA.”
For decades in various magazines throughout the country, this highly intelligent, twice-wounded officer and consummate Southern gentleman has written articles describing the Civil War from a Confederate’s point of view. He never advocated slavery in his life but neither did he apologize for it. However, as one of the last surviving Civil War generals, Duke has written many times that it was “a good thing slavery was abolished.”
One of the more poignant passages in a book filled with perceptive passages is the general’s view of youth and of him growing old. He writes toward the end of his book:
“The hardest lesson that age has to learn is to acknowledge, with becoming modesty, the superiority of all that is modern; to abandon querulous and unavailing protest, and listen in seemly deference to the inspired dicta of youth. It is a severe strain on the feeble senile comprehension, but sooner or later we must realize that experience, whatsoever gathered and however valuable, per se, to the septuagenarian who has it, possesses no negotiable quality or exchangeable value, and will not pass current translated into advice or admonition.
“All things have moved so rapidly and so far in the last half century that experience (of age) seems to have been left out of sight. Brief time is required to render any idea, in a measure, obsolete. The first battle of the Civil War is farther removed from us by lapse of time than is Waterloo from that battle; yet the men of the Civil War and the men who fought at Waterloo were, probably, more like in thought and sentiment to those who dwelt in medieval Europe than to the men of this generation.
“The world rushes along the path of progress with greater velocity than the earth whirls in its annual orbit, and innovations come quicker than the years. The invention which surprised us yesterday seems simple compared with the one which startles us today. The most elaborate scientific work, written a year ago, is regarded as stale and of slight authority if it conflicts with the latest magazine article on the same subject; and that will, in turn, be superseded by another to appear next month.
“Why then should youth listen to age? How can the ancients instruct the moderns? Especially when modern information is supplemented by modern intuition. How can one who grew to manhood at a time when people yet rode to church on horseback possibly hope to teach the ethereal intelligence which soars seven thousand feet nearer to Heaven in an aeroplane? No! Let age gracefully recognize its limitations and try to be happy. Content with the past and its recollections, and with no pretense that we can enlighten our juniors, we will admit as candidly, if as sadly, as did the Knight of La Mancha when cured of his illusions that, ‘The birds of this year are not found in last year’s nests.’”
For those of us who – like the General – are, now, little more than observers of youth, the Duke makes timeless, valid points in an extraordinary book.
Basil Duke died at age 78 in a New York City hospital in 1916. Among his final visitors was Theodore Roosevelt. The former president and Duke became good friends in 1904 when Roosevelt appointed Duke commissioner of Shiloh National Military Park, site of the 1862 Civil War battle in which Duke was wounded.
“Reminiscences” was re-published in paperback in 2001 – some 90 years after it first came out. The book is still a good read.
Here’s one more excerpt from his 1911 book:
“It is well to bear in mind that even those who disagree with us may possibly be right, and, at any rate, in the absence of convincing reasons to the contrary, are entitled to think so.” A thought that stands the test of time and yet another reason why Gen. Basil W. Duke, CSA, should be a part of all our Southern Memories.