John Cabell Breckinridge
By John T. Marck
John Breckinridge was born in Lexington, Kentucky on January 21, 1821. Very few men of the nineteen century can claim the type of rise to success as did Breckinridge. After studying law, he practiced for several years, then won a seat in his state legislature in 1849. This was followed by two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1851-1855. In 1856, he was nominated by the Democratic party to run with James Buchanan in the presidential election. Although against his desires, Breckinridge did run with Buchanan, and began the youngest vive-president in U.S. history at the age of thirty-five.
As a person who endorsed and attempted compromise, Breckinridge was against secession, yet found himself identified with Southern radicals. These radicals nominated him for president in 1860 when the Democrats split. Although Breckinridge was against his nomination, he was influenced to run as by doing so, he believed that Stephen A. Douglas would withdraw from the race, therefore opening the way for a compromise Democrat, who could defeat Abraham Lincoln. However, Douglas did not withdraw, and as a result, both Southern and Northern party Democrats ran presidential candidates in 1860.
John Breckinridge was an honest man, who had committed no crimes, yet in spite of this, he was suspected of treason as the authorities accused him of being a Confederate sympathizer. While he was still serving his term as a U.S. Senator, it was ordered that he be arrested in Washington, D.C. in September 1861. Learning of this, he escaped before he could be taken into custody and traveled to the South. Although he accepted and admired the South, he did advise his friends there that the South could never win a war against the North.
In spite of his belief that the South would lose the war, he joined the Confederate army and was promoted from brigadier general to major general on April 14, 1862. He had an outstanding military record during the Civil War. He commanded troops at Shiloh, Baton Rouge and Stones River. After Stones River, Breckinridge found himself in an argument and controversy with General Braxton Bragg over the treatment of troops in Kentucky, a situation that lasted for more than one year.
Breckinridge's military leadership continued at Jackson, Mississippi, and Missionary Ridge. He then went on to command the Department of Southwestern Virginia, and won a very decisive battle at New Market on May 15, 1864. He then served at Cold Harbor, and was a part of General Jubal Early's Raid on Washington, as well as fought against Union General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Near war's end in February 1865, President Jefferson Davis appointed him secretary of war. In this position, he worked tirelessly to achieve an honorable surrender for the South. It was Breckinridge who organized the evacuation of Richmond, and was a major figure in the surrender negotiations between General Joseph E. Johnston and Major General William T. Sherman.
After the war, in May 1865, he went to Cuba where he remained in exile. He returned to the United States in 1869, where he settled in Kentucky and again practiced law. Having never fully recovered from his total exhaustion by the war, he died at his home in Lexington, Kentucky on May 17, 1865 at the young age of fifty-four.
Copyright © 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.