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John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) was a politician who served as the 14th vice president of the United States and as a Confederate general during the Civil War (1861-65). A native of Kentucky, Breckinridge began his political career as a state representative before serving in the U.S. Congress from 1851-1855. Breckinridge was elected the 14th vice president of the United States in 1856, and then mounted an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1860. He joined the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War and served as a brigade commander at the Battle of Shiloh. Promoted to major general in 1862, Breckinridge fought at the Battles of Stones River and Chickamauga before taking command of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. He would later play an important role at the Battles of New Market and Cold Harbor before serving as the final Confederate secretary of war in 1865. After the Civil War Breckinridge fled abroad before returning to Kentucky in 1869. He died in 1875 at the age of 54.
John C. Breckinridge: Early Life
John Cabell Breckinridge was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on January 16, 1821. His grandfather had served in the U.S. Senate and as attorney general under President Thomas Jefferson, and his father was a prominent lawyer and state politician. Breckinridge attended Centre College in Kentucky before studying law at Princeton. He then returned to Kentucky and studied at Transylvania University, graduating in 1841.
Breckinridge practiced law in Iowa and Kentucky after leaving school, and in 1843 he married Mary Cyrene Burch. The couple would later have five children. Breckinridge next served as a volunteer during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), but saw no combat.
John C. Breckinridge: Political Career
Breckinridge began his political career in 1849, when he won a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives. In 1851 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat and served until 1855. During this time Breckinridge established himself as a leading Southern politician, known for his eloquent speeches on the House floor. His meteoric rise continued in 1856, when he was elected the 14th vice president of the United States alongside President James Buchanan. Only 35 at the time of his election, Breckinridge was the youngest vice president in American history.
In 1860 Breckinridge ran for president as part of the Southern faction of the Democratic Party. While he campaigned on a pro-slavery platform—in particular, he demanded federal intervention to protect slaveholders in the territories—he was also vocal in his support of maintaining the Union amid rumblings of Southern secession. Breckinridge ultimately finished third in the popular vote behind Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Despite this loss, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Kentucky legislature in March 1861. Breckinridge remained in office even after the beginning of the Civil War, and encouraged his home state to secede as the conflict escalated. Fearing arrest, he fled to the South in September 1861 after Kentucky sided with the Union.
John C. Breckinridge: Civil War
Viewed as a traitor in the North, Breckinridge travelled to Virginia and offered his services to the Confederacy. Commissioned a brigadier general in November 1861, he was placed in command of the so-called “Orphan Brigade,” a Kentucky unit whose troops felt abandoned by their home state. Breckinridge commanded the Reserve Corps at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, and his unit incurred nearly 50 percent casualties during heavy fighting at an area known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” He earned a promotion to major general shortly thereafter.
After making a failed attempt to wrest the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from Union control in August 1862, Breckinridge joined Braxton Bragg’s forces near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was engaged at the Battle of Stones River in January 1863, and his unit suffered heavy casualties after Bragg ordered him to undertake a reckless charge on the Union lines. Breckinridge and Bragg experienced a falling-out in the wake of the battle and remained on poor terms for the rest of their tenure together.
After participating in the defense of Vicksburg in June 1863, Breckinridge served at the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in September. During the battle his unit spearheaded attacks on the Union left flank and sustained roughly 30 percent casualties. Breckinridge next participated in Bragg’s siege at Chattanooga in the fall of 1863. During the Battle of Chattanooga in November, his unit was routed by Union General George H. Thomas’s attack on Missionary Ridge. Bragg would later blame Breckinridge for the loss at Chattanooga and even accused him of being drunk during the battle.
Despite Bragg’s accusations, in February 1864 Breckinridge was called to Richmond and charged with heading the Western Department of Virginia, a massive command that included the Shenandoah Valley. He achieved an unlikely victory at the Battle of New Market in May 1864, when cadets from the Virginia Military Institute fought alongside Breckinridge’s men and drove the superior force of Union General Franz Sigel from the Valley. Breckinridge next reinforced the Army of Northern Virginia for the Battle of Cold Harbor, in which his men repulsed a heavy assault by Union troops.
Breckinridge later joined General Jubal Early for his famous raid on Washington and was engaged at the Battles of Monocacy and Second Kernstown in July. He was then placed in command of troops in southwestern Virginia. After forces in his department won a small battle near Saltville, Virginia, in October 1864, some of Breckinridge’s troops murdered roughly 150 black troops during the Union retreat. Breckinridge was enraged by this misconduct but would have little success in his attempts to arrest the officers responsible. In November 1864 he undertook an expedition into Tennessee and won a victory at the Battle of Bull’s Gap. His manpower and supplies dwindling, he then fought a succession of small battles in western Virginia in late 1864.
In January 1865 Breckinridge was appointed the fifth and final Confederate secretary of war. He performed well in managing the fading war effort prior to the Confederate surrender in April 1865. During this time Breckinridge argued for an organized end to the hostilities and counseled Confederate President Jefferson Davis against extending the war through guerilla actions.
John C. Breckinridge: Later Life
Fearing capture by the Union Army, Breckinridge fled to Cuba at the end of the Civil War and then proceeded to the United Kingdom and Canada. Reunited with his family in Toronto, he then embarked on an extended tour of Europe. Breckinridge would remain in exile until 1869, when a presidential pardon allowed him to safely return to the United States. Ignoring calls to return to politics, he settled in Lexington, Kentucky, and resumed his law practice. He would eventually serve as president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington and Big Sandy Railroad as well as the Kentucky branch of the Piedmont and Arlington Life Insurance Company of Virginia. He died in 1875 at the age of 54.
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Letter to John Breckinridge
Many primary documents relate to multiple themes in American history and government and are curated by different editors for particular collections. In the dropdown menu, we provide links to variant excerpts of the document, with study questions relevant to particular themes.
In the Treaties of Paris (1783), which concluded the war of the American Revolution, and San Lorenzo (1795) with Spain, the United States had laid claim to all the lands east of the Mississippi and south of British Canada, except for the Spanish provinces of Florida. The security of those lands was jeopardized when in 1800 Emperor Napoleon of France reacquired from Spain the vast territory west of the river and east of the Continental Divide known as Louisiana. Napoleon had dreams of establishing a French empire in the New World, which would put him in a position to deny America access to the Mississippi River and the vital port of New Orleans. Alarmed, President Thomas Jefferson ordered American diplomats Robert Livingston and James Monroe to seek to purchase New Orleans and all or part of the Floridas (if the latter had also been ceded by Spain) from France. To the American diplomats’ astonishment, Napoleon—about to resume war with Britain and facing a military disaster in the Caribbean—offered to sell Louisiana as a whole. They almost instantly accepted, without any authority to do so, signing the agreement April 30, 1803. The total cost was $15 million, larger than the entire annual federal budget, but the purchase roughly doubled the size of the nation. Jefferson announced the purchase in Washington on July 4, 1803.
The announcement precipitated a constitutional controversy. The Constitution did not explicitly authorize the federal government to acquire new territories. Nor did it provide for the incorporation of peoples residing in those territories—roughly 50,000 whites, mostly French and Spanish, and free and slave blacks—and perhaps as many Indians. (The population in the Union at that time was 5.3 million.) Nonetheless Jefferson and most of the country embraced the expansionist thrust despite opposition from the Northeast and the Federalist Party. Jefferson contemplated seeking a constitutional amendment but was uncertain it would be adopted. Time was of the essence. He rationalized the legality of his actions by invoking “the laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger”—which, coming from a strict constitutional constructionist, opened wide the scope for future expansion. The president envisioned the immense but essentially unexplored Louisiana region as “an empire for liberty” large enough to absorb the flood of Americans westward for many generations—ideally as part of a greater Union, but possibly going their own way in due time, yet remaining American.
The enclosed letter,  though directed to you, was intended to me also, and was left open with a request, that when perused, I would forward it to you. It gives me occasion to write a word to you on the subject of Louisiana, which being a new one, an interchange of sentiments may produce correct ideas before we are to act on them.
Our information as to the country is very incomplete we have taken measures to obtain it in full as to the settled part, which I hope to receive in time for Congress. The boundaries, which I deem not admitting question, are the high lands on the western side of the Mississippi enclosing all its waters, the Missouri of course, and terminating in the line drawn from the northwestern point of the Lake of the Woods  to the nearest source of the Mississippi, as lately settled between Great Britain and the U.S.  We have some claims to extend on the sea coast westwardly to the Rio Norte or Bravo,  and better, to go eastwardly to the Rio Perdido,  between Mobile & Pensacola, the ancient boundary of Louisiana. These claims will be a subject of negotiation with Spain, and if, as soon as she is at war, we push them strongly with one hand, holding out a price in the other, we shall certainly obtain the Floridas, and all in good time. In the meanwhile, without waiting for permission, we shall enter into the exercise of the natural right we have always insisted on with Spain, to wit, that of a nation holding the upper part of streams, having a right of innocent passage through them to the ocean. We shall prepare her to see us practice on this, & she will not oppose it by force. 
Objections are raising to the eastward  against the vast extent of our boundaries, and propositions are made to exchange Louisiana, or a part of it, for the Floridas. But, as I have said, we shall get the Floridas without, and I would not give one inch of the waters of the Mississippi to any nation, because I see in a light very important to our peace the exclusive right to its navigation, & the admission of no nation into it, but as into the Potomac or Delaware,  with our consent & under our police.  These federalists  see in this acquisition the formation of a new confederacy, embracing all the waters of the Mississippi, on both sides of it, and a separation of its eastern waters  from us. These combinations depend on so many circumstances which we cannot foresee, that I place little reliance on them. We have seldom seen neighborhood produce affection among nations. The reverse is almost the universal truth. Besides, if it should become the great interest of those nations to separate from this, if their happiness should depend on it so strongly as to induce them to go through that convulsion, why should the Atlantic states dread it? But especially why should we, their present inhabitants, take side in such a question? 
When I view the Atlantic states, procuring for those on the eastern waters of the Mississippi friendly instead of hostile neighbors of its western waters, I do not view it as an Englishman would the procuring future blessing for the French nation, with whom he has no relations of blood or affection. The future inhabitants of the Atlantic & Mississippi states will be our sons. We leave them in distinct but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their union, & we wish it. Events may prove it otherwise and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take side with our Atlantic rather than our Mississippi descendants? It is the elder and the younger son differing. God bless them both, & keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better. The inhabited part of Louisiana, from Point Coupée  to the sea, will of course be immediately a territorial government, and soon a state. But above that, the best use we can make of the country for some time, will be to give establishments in it to the Indians on the east side of the Mississippi, in exchange for their present country, and open land offices in the last, & thus make this acquisition the means of filling up the eastern side, instead of drawing off its population. When we shall be full on this side, we may lay off a range of states on the western bank from the head to the mouth, & so, range after range, advancing compactly as we multiply.
This treaty must of course be laid before both Houses, because both have important functions to exercise respecting it. They, I presume, will see their duty to their country in ratifying & paying for it, so as to secure a good which would otherwise probably be never again in their power.  But I suppose they must then appeal to the nation for an additional article to the Constitution, approving & confirming an act which the nation had not previously authorized. The Constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The Executive in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of their country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind them metaphysical subtleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must ratify & pay for it, and throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized what we know they would have done for themselves had they been in a situation to do it. It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory & saying to him when of age, I did this for your good I pretend to no right to bind you: you may disavow me, and I must get out of the scrape as I can: I thought it my duty to risk myself for you. But we shall not be disavowed by the nation, and their act of indemnity will confirm & not weaken the Constitution, by more strongly marking out its lines.
We have nothing later from Europe than the public papers give. I hope yourself and all the western members will make a sacred point of being at the first day of the meeting of Congress for vestra res agitur. 
A. Why did Jefferson fear the establishment of a French empire by Napoleon in the Western Hemisphere? Should he have sought an alliance with Britain had Napoleon refused to deal with the United States? Should the American diplomats have declined the offer of the entire territory and insisted instead just on New Orleans and the Floridas, if France had acquired them as well?
B. How did Jefferson’s plans for dealing with the Indians differ from those of his predecessors (Document 2)? Should Jefferson have sought a constitutional amendment, requiring agreement by all the states (Document 4)? What were the possible consequences of not doing so?
 From Thomas Paine to Breckenridge. Breckenridge (1760–1806) was a senator from Kentucky and Jefferson’s floor leader in the Senate.
 Northwest of Lake Superior, Lake of the Woods forms part of the current border with Canada.
 A convention between the United States and Great Britain signed May 12, 1803, settled this boundary question.
 The Rio Grande, which forms much of the border between Mexico and the United States.
 The Perdido River, which forms part of the border of Florida and Alabama.
 The exact boundaries of Louisiana were undefined and soon became a matter of dispute with Spain, which challenged the validity of the purchase to begin with. One matter of controversy was whether Louisiana included West Florida. Spain insisted that it did not.
 The northeastern states, especially those in New England.
 Rivers in the mid-Atlantic states that flow into the Atlantic.
 Jefferson uses the term “police” in a customary eighteenth-century way, meaning not just those individuals who enforce the law, but more generally all means of maintaining public order.
 The Federalist Party, the party of Jefferson’s opponents.
 Rivers to the east of the Mississippi that flow into it.
 For the opposition of the Federalist Party to the purchase, see Document 5.
 An area of Louisiana near the current state of Mississippi.
 A two-thirds majority of the Senate was required to consent to the treaty, but both houses had to pass legislation appropriating funds for the purchase and for administering the new territory.
Letter to John C. Breckinridge
Many primary documents relate to multiple themes in American history and government and are curated by different editors for particular collections. In the dropdown menu, we provide links to variant excerpts of the document, with study questions relevant to particular themes.
DEAR SIR, The enclosed letter, tho’ directed to you, was intended to me also, and was left open with a request, that when perused, I would forward it to you. It gives me occasion to write a word to you on the subject of Louisiana, which being a new one, an interchange of sentiments may produce correct ideas before we are to act on them.
Our information as to the country is very incompleat we have taken measures to obtain it in full as to the settled part, which I hope to receive in time for Congress. The boundaries, which I deem not admitting question, are the high lands on the western side of the Missisipi enclosing all it’s waters, on the western side of the Missouri of course, and terminating in the line drawn from the northwestern point of the Lake of the Woods to the nearest source of the Missipi, as lately settled between Gr Britain and the US. We have some claims, to extend on the sea coast Westwardly to the Rio Norte or Bravo, and better, to go Eastwardly to the Rio Perdido, between Mobile & Pensacola, the antient boundary of Louisiana. These claims will be a subject of negociation with Spain, and if, as soon as she is at war, we push them strongly with one hand, holding out a price in the other, we shall certainly obtain the Floridas, and all in good time. In the meanwhile, without waiting for permission, we shall enter into the exercise of the natural right we have always insisted on with Spain, to wit, that of a nation holding the upper part of streams, having a right of innocent passage thro’ them to the ocean. We shall prepare her to see us practice on this, & she will not oppose it by force.
Objections are raising to the Eastward against the vast extent of our boundaries, and propositions are made to exchange Louisiana, or a part of it, for the Floridas. But, as I have said, we shall get the Floridas without, and I would not give one inch of the waters of the Mississippi to any nation, because I see in a light very important to our peace the exclusive right to it’s navigation & the admission of no nation into it, but as into the Potomak or Delaware, with our consent & under our police. These federalists see in this acquisition the formation of a new confederacy, embracing all the waters of the Missipi, on both sides of it, and a separation of it’s Eastern waters from us. These combinations depend on so many circumstances which we cannot foresee, that I place little reliance on them. We have seldom seen neighborhood produce affection among nations. The reverse is almost the universal truth. Besides, if it should become the great interest of those nations to separate from this, if their happiness should depend on it so strongly as to induce them to go through that convulsion, why should the Atlantic States dread it? But especially why should we, their present inhabitants, take side in such a question? When I view the Atlantic States, procuring for those on the Eastern waters of the Missipi friendly instead of hostile neighbors on it’s Western waters, I do not view it as an Englishman would the procuring future blessings for the French nation, with whom he has no relations of blood or affection. The future inhabitants of the Atlantic & Missipi States will be our sons. We leave them in distinct but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their union, & we wish it. Events may prove it otherwise and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take side with our Atlantic rather than our Missipi descendants? It is the elder and the younger son differing. God bless them both, & keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better. The inhabited part of Louisiana, from Point Coupee to the sea, will of course be immediately a territorial government, and soon a State. But above that, the best use we can make of the country for some time, will be to give establishments in it to the Indians on the East side of the Missipi, in exchange for their present country, and open land offices in the last & thus make this acquisition the means of filling up the Eastern side, instead of drawing off it’s population. When we shall be full on this side, we may lay off a range of States on the Western bank from the head to the mouth, & so, range after range, advancing compactly as we multiply.
This treaty must of course laid before both Houses, because both have important functions to exercise respecting it. They, I presume, will see their duty to their country in ratifying & paying for it, so as to secure a good which would otherwise probably be never again in their power. But I suppose they must then appeal to the nation for an additional article to the Constitution, approving & confirming an act which the nation had not previously authorized. The constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The Executive in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of their country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind them metaphysical subtleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must ratify & pay for it, and throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized what we know they would have done fro themselves had they been in a situation to do it. It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory & saying to him when of age, I did this for your good I pretend to no right to bind you: you may disavow me, and I must get out of the scrape as I can: I thought it my duty to risk myself for you. But we shall not be disavowed by the nation, and their act of indemnity will confirm & not weaken the Constitution, by more strongly marking out its lines.
We have nothing later from Europe than the public papers give. I hope yourself and all the Western members will make a sacred point of being at the first day of the meeting of Congress for vestra res agitur.
Accept my affectionate salutations & assurances of esteem & respect.
The Man Who Came in Second
“The Political Quadrille, Music by Dred Scott” satirized the four candidates for president in 1860, along with their supporters. Lower left: Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas dancing with an Irishman. Upper left: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge arm in arm with retiring president James Buchanan, who was nicknamed “the Buck.” Lower right: Constitutional Union Party nominee John Bell mixes it up with a Native American. Upper right: Republican Abraham Lincoln steps to it with an African-American slave. Middle: Dred Scott plays the tune to which all must dance.
--Image Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
The 1860 election that made Abraham Lincoln president is sometimes recalled as the ultimate showdown between two politicians—Lincoln and Stephen Douglas—whose dueling arguments in the previous decade helped determine the course of slavery in America and the likelihood of war. What is rarely mentioned is that Douglas not only lost the 1860 election, he didn’t even come in second. In the Electoral College, he came in fourth behind John Bell, the candidate for the Constitutional Union Party.
The man who came in second, the candidate who came closest in electoral votes to defeating Lincoln, was John C. Breckinridge, the standard-bearer of Southern Democrats. But for a split among the Democrats, Abraham Lincoln, who garnered much less than 50 percent of the popular vote, might not have placed first.
It is surprising that Breckinridge is not better known. He was the youngest vice president ever, elected at the age of thirty-five, and he was the second former vice president, after Aaron Burr, to be accused of treason. A look at his career reveals a man with politics in his blood, but whose personal convictions made it difficult to navigate a moderate course in an era of moral and political extremes. And a look at the 1860 election shows a Democratic Party in severe disarray, such that it could not unite to defeat the Republican upstart from Illinois. Although history is, of course, the study of what did happen, the facts of the 1860 election make it hard to avoid wondering what might have happened instead.
That John Cabell Breckinridge became a political force was not surprising. Born on January 16, 1821, in Lexington, Kentucky, he was named after his grandfather, who represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and served as Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general. Breckinridge’s father also made a mark on Kentucky politics until a sudden illness felled him in September 1823. Polly Breckinridge, nicknamed “Grandma Black Cap” because of her perpetual mourning attire, took her son’s family into her home. She doted on her grandson, telling him stories of his namesake’s political career, stories that celebrated honor and duty to one’s country. “This teary-eyed old lady and her talk of the law and politics and the principles for which her husband had fought so hard had a profound impact on ‘little Breckinridge,’” writes William C. Davis, author of Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol. It is to Davis that a debt is owed for assembling the details of Breckinridge’s life.
In the fall of 1834, Breckinridge headed to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, for a more formal education. He developed a taste for the classics, committing to memory the orations of Demosthenes, a Greek statesman known for his political rhetoric, and Pericles, general and “first citizen of Athens.” His studies seem to have made a lasting impression, as Breckinridge would gain renown for his oratory. Upon completing his four years, Breckinridge’s uncle Robert arranged for him to study at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) for six months.
Breckinridge had decided to read law and began his studies at Princeton, continuing them upon his return to Kentucky under the direction of Judge William Owsley, a prominent Whig jurist and politician. Owsley worked him hard, making him read all four volumes of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England—twice. After six months under Owsley’s tutelage, Breckinridge wrote his uncle: “I am much pleased with the study of law, and having worked the science with something like shape and symmetry, in my mind, I begin to apprehend with some clearness, the leanings of one part of it upon another, and the great principles which govern the system.” A year studying law at Lexington’s Transylvania University followed. In February 1841, he graduated and was found fit to practice law. Breckinridge was all of twenty years old.
Like many young men, Breckinridge wanted to make something of himself and loosen the apron strings that tied him to his prominent family. In the fall of 1841, he borrowed $100 from his uncle and set out for the newly created Iowa Territory. Joining him on his frontier adventure was his cousin Thomas Bullock, with whom he intended to open a law practice. The two men settled in Burlington, the territorial capital and a jumping-off point for settlers venturing farther west. “No doubt I shall suffer many of the trials and hardships incident to a new country,” Breckinridge wrote home, “but if I can preserve my health I have the strongest confidence in attaining my wishes and supporting the honor of our name.” Business, however, developed slowly, and payment frequently came in grain and produce.
Map of Kentucky in 1836 from A New Map Of Kentucky With Its Roads & Distances from place to place, along the Stage & Steam Boat Routes by H.S. Tanner.
In between rendering legal services and cutting a swath as an elegant young bachelor, Breckinridge also flirted with the Democratic Party, which dominated Burlington politics, a development that appalled his Whig relations. The elite families of Kentucky supported the Whigs and their elder statesman, Henry Clay, not those Democrats who hero-worshipped Andrew Jackson. “I felt as I would have done if I had heard that my daughter had been dishonored,” his uncle William wrote Breckinridge upon hearing the news.
Breckinridge’s Iowa sojourn was cut short after a visit home in the summer of 1843 resulted in an engagement to Mary Cyrene Burch, the seventeen-year-old cousin of his partner, Bullock. Rather than bring Mary out to Iowa, Breckinridge closed down his practice in Burlington. He and Mary settled first in Georgetown, Kentucky, before moving to Lexington in 1846. It was by all accounts a loving marriage, producing six children. Years later, their daughter Mary would remark, “I never knew any human love more devoted and loyal than that of my Mother for my Father.”
At the end of 1845, the United States annexed Texas, touching off a dispute with Mexico over who owned the land and whether the border should be drawn at the Nueces or the Rio Grande. The Mexican president refused to negotiate (he knew U.S. President James Polk intended to offer him a bum deal), so Polk sent American troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor into the disputed territory. Near the end of April 1846, a Mexican contingent attacked Taylor’s troops, resulting in sixteen American casualties. Shortly thereafter, Polk asked Congress to declare war: “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.”
For a man like Breckinridge, war offered a chance for both adventure and career advancement. He applied for a commission in the Kentucky Volunteers, only to have his application rejected. Commissions were available for Whigs only. As his friends and colleagues marched off to war, Breckinridge consoled himself by building up his law practice.
In July 1847, Breckinridge was called on to deliver the eulogy honoring officers from Kentucky regiments killed at the Battle of Buena Vista. Speaking at the state cemetery before a crowd estimated between ten and twenty thousand, Breckinridge praised the bravery and lamented the loss of Kentucky’s sons and fathers. Legendary statesman Henry Clay, who mourned a son, wept at Breckinridge’s words. The eulogy is also said to have inspired Theodore O’Hara’s poem “The Bivouac of the Dead,” stanzas of which later adorned Confederate war monuments and headstones, as well as Arlington Cemetery.
The Mexican-American War became an arena for West Point graduates and ambitious men, like Breckinridge, to prove themselves. This hand-tinted lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier depicts the Battle of Churubusco fought near Mexico City on August 20, 1847.
In August, Governor William Owsley called up two more regiments. Owsley retained a fondness for his former apprentice, and like many other Whigs he admired Breckinridge’s recent eulogy. Breckinridge thus became the only Democrat to become a commissioned officer. At the beginning of November, Major Breckinridge and the Third Kentucky Volunteers boarded a steamboat for the journey downriver to New Orleans. From there, they steamed to Veracruz, Mexico, making port in late November. By the time Breckinridge and his men marched through the gates of Mexico City in mid-December, the American force had become an army of occupation.
In between his duties, Breckinridge found time to join the Aztec Club, which had been founded by the Army officers who conquered the capital. Within the walls of the club’s headquarters, a palace originally built for the viceroy of New Spain, Breckinridge met men he would later fight with and against on Civil War battlefields: Lieutenants P. G. T. Beauregard, Richard S. Ewell, Ulysses S. Grant, and George B. McClellan and Captains Robert E. Lee and John C. Pemberton.
Breckinridge’s legal talents also embroiled him in a political conspiracy. When General Winfield Scott seized the port of Veracruz and captured Mexico City, he became a national hero. Scott made no secret of his presidential ambitions. Major General Gideon J. Pillow, a Democrat and Polk’s former law partner, feared that Scott’s popularity would lead to Polk’s defeat in the next election. To poison Scott’s record, Pillow manufactured letters and reports, giving himself credit for Scott’s victories. When Scott brought charges in early 1848, Breckinridge agreed to defend Pillow. The trial became a newspaper sensation, making Breckinridge a national figure as journalists chronicled his monthlong cross-examination of witnesses. The court-martial concluded without reaching a verdict.
Major Breckinridge Goes to Washington
Upon his return from the war, Breckinridge’s political career began to soar. In June 1849, the Democrats drafted him to run for the Kentucky House of Representatives. The campaign proved challenging on a personal level: His uncles William and Robert endorsed the Whig candidate, and his law partner died in the cholera epidemic that engulfed Lexington. Breckinridge, however, prevailed.
In the legislature, Breckinridge made his first official statements on the issue that would define his political career. Slavery, he believed, was a “wholly local and domestic” question, and Congress did not have jurisdiction to regulate or outlaw it. Slaves were also property that needed to be protected. While advocating states’ rights, Breckinridge declared his loyalty to the Union, discounting the notion that disunion could solve the political challenges presented by slavery.
Whereas abolitionists believed slavery to be a moral issue, Breckinridge regarded it as a political matter. The Constitution, he thought, had left it to the states to decide the slavery question. He also had a complicated relationship with slavery personally. As a young man, he advocated the return of slaves to Africa, yet after he returned to Kentucky, he purchased a handful of slaves to help manage the demands of his growing family. At the same time, he represented freed men as part of his legal practice. He was a product of a culture that couldn’t quite transcend the peculiar institution.
While he was in the state legislature, Breckinridge’s political ambitions received a blessing from none other than Henry Clay, who had been at the center of Kentucky and American politics for more than fifty years. At a festival to honor Clay in October 1850, Breckinridge delivered the main toast, praising Clay’s character and career. Moved by the young man’s words, Clay told the crowd that he hoped Breckinridge would use his talents for “the benefit of the country,” as his father and grandfather had. Clay then embraced Breckinridge as a father would a son to a roar of approval from the crowd.
That Clay, an elder Whig statesman, had blessed this rising Democrat didn’t go unnoticed. Sensing an opportunity, Democrats enlisted Breckinridge to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. The seat they picked was the Eighth District, which encompassed Lexington, a traditional Whig stronghold, and Ashland, Henry Clay’s plantation. Breckinridge squared off against General Leslie Combs, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. Stumping for six months, he sometimes delivered up to six speeches a day. His hard work paid off. At the age of thirty, Major Breckinridge became Congressman Breckinridge.
He spent two terms in Congress, playing a key role in the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. In the early 1850s, the slavery issue telescoped around the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Southern congressmen wanted the territories organized without any restrictions on slavery. The problem was that the Nebraska territory was subject to the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30' parallel in states derived from the Louisiana Territory. Southern Whigs proposed repealing the Missouri Compromise. U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, countered with popular sovereignty: Let the citizens of Kansas and Nebraska vote on whether to own slaves. Douglas’s proposal accorded with Breckinridge’s own views, prompting him to help corral support for the bill. At the end of May 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Douglas, Breckinridge, and others who supported the popular sovereignty approach hoped that it would settle the slavery issue. Breckinridge believed that the constant debate over slavery at a national and federal level “distracted the country and threatened the public safety.” Instead, the act touched off what became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” a brutal struggle between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces, the violence of which made many Northerners sympathetic to the goals of the nascent Republican Party.
Mr. Vice President
After serving two terms in Congress, Breckinridge declined another run. While he was in Washington, the Whig machine in Kentucky had redrawn the lines of his district, making defeat in the next election inevitable. Instead, he returned to his law practice and worked the twenty-six acres of land his family called home. He even turned down an offer from President Pierce to serve as ambassador to Spain.
With the 1856 presidential election on the horizon, Democratic politics once again beckoned. Breckinridge journeyed to Cincinnati in June to attend the nominating convention as a delegate from Kentucky. Three men vied for the nomination: incumbent Franklin Pierce, Stephen Douglas, and James Buchanan. Four years earlier, Pierce had campaigned on a platform of uniting the country, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act had only made the slavery issue more divisive and Pierce unelectable. The same went for Douglas. That left Buchanan, a sixty-five-year-old bachelor with a resume that included representing Pennsylvania in both the House and Senate and serving as Polk’s secretary of state. In Buchanan’s favor was that he had nothing to do with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, having been in England acting as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s from 1853 to 1856. After seventeen ballots, the nomination belonged to Buchanan.
That left the vice presidential slot. Congressman William Richardson of Illinois decided that his good friend Breckinridge would make a fine vice president and quietly lobbied his fellow delegates. A Breckinridge candidacy made sense: He had a national reputation, Douglas and the Northern Democrats would regard him as an ally, and Southern Democrats could claim him as their own. There was, however, a problem with Richardson’s plan: Linn Boyd, also from Kentucky, had been campaigning for the job. That meant the Kentucky delegation couldn’t put Breckinridge’s name forward.
When the call came for nominations for vice president, Breckinridge was stunned to hear the Louisiana delegation offer his name. His supporters had chosen to keep their plan secret, giving him no advance warning. Standing on a chair so he could be seen and heard, he offered gratitude followed by regret. He would not oppose Boyd. One delegate, J. Stoddard Johnson, wrote of the scene: “That speech was irresistible . . . though sincerely declining made him more votes on the first ballot than . . . Boyd secured after a year or two’s active electioneering and wire pulling.” After the end of the first round of balloting, Breckinridge polled second, behind John Quitman of Mississippi and ahead of Boyd. The next round delivered the nomination to Breckinridge, sending the convention into a deafening round of cheers and applause.
The convention delegates also approved a party platform that endorsed states’ rights, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the annexation of Cuba, which allowed slavery.
Campaign poster from the 1856 presidential election showing Buchanan and Breckinridge as the Democratic ticket.
-Duke University Special Collections
Buchanan and Breckinridge were in for a tough fight. Bleeding Kansas and the slavery issue had led to the collapse of the Whig Party and the birth of the Republican Party. In July 1854, Free Soilers, anti-slavery Democrats, and disaffected Whigs held a meeting in Jackson, Michigan, to organize a new party devoted to repealing slavery, which they regarded as “the great moral, social, and political evil.” Over the next two years, the Republican Party made inroads in the North and West, making it the country’s first major sectional party. It is important to note that not everyone who joined the Republican Party was an abolitionist or opposed slavery on moral grounds. Some merely wished to maintain the status quo or stop its spread for economic reasons. Many Northern businessmen believed that slavery gave the South an unfair economic advantage.
The Republicans held their first nominating convention in June 1856 in Philadelphia. The delegates picked John C. Frémont, an explorer whose maps and reports helped guide thousands of settlers over the Rocky Mountains to California, as their presidential candidate and William Dayton, a former Whig senator from New Jersey, for vice president. The Republican platform called for Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a free state, no further extension of slavery, and the construction of a transcontinental railroad.
To make things interesting, former president Millard Fillmore ran as the candidate for the Know-Nothing Party. Born of a secret society founded in the early 1840s in New York, the Know-Nothings were anti-immigration and anti-Catholic. They believed that only native-born Americans should hold elected office, and citizenship should be conferred only after an individual had lived in the United States for twenty-one years. Their party platform advocated popularity sovereignty in the territories and preservation of the Union.
The fall of 1856 saw a flurry of picnics, mass meetings, torchlight parades, and scathing editorials—along with beatings, riots, and dirty tricks—as the parties campaigned. Placards and posters celebrated Buchanan and Breckinridge as defenders of the Union. There were even songs:
Oh! Buck and Breck are bound to win—
No power can stop their coming
The Pennsylvania steed is lucky
And so [is] the one from Old Kentucky
Pennsylvania is safe and lucky
So’s the hoss from Old Kentucky.
Buchanan heeded the convention of the era, which dictated candidates abstain from campaigning. Breckinridge, however, put his oratorical skills to work, giving speeches around the country.
The Democrats triumphed in November, earning 45.3 percent of the popular vote (174 electoral votes), with the Republicans earning 33.1 percent (114 electoral votes). The victory made John C. Breckinridge the youngest vice president in the history of the country, a distinction he still holds.
Once installed in the White House, Buchanan had no use for his wunderkind vice president, rarely meeting or consulting with him. Buchanan regarded Breckinridge with suspicion, because Breckinridge initially backed Douglas for president.
Breckinridge’s primary duty while serving as vice president was presiding over the Senate. In early 1859, he cast a tie-breaking vote to defeat the Homestead Act, but the chamber regrouped and passed the measure, only to have Buchanan veto it. Breckinridge also presided over the final session of the Senate in the Old Chamber, delivering a much-printed speech that celebrated the institution, while also reminding his colleagues that they had an obligation “to preserve, to extend, and adorn” the inheritance passed down to them by the Founding Fathers. In a country where talk of secession by the Southern states had gone from hushed whispers to outright calls, Breckinridge made a plea for unity.
In December 1859, the Kentucky General Assembly appointed Breckinridge to the U.S. Senate, with his term to start in March 1861. His return to Washington was assured, but there was no reason he couldn’t return to the White House. Rumors began to swirl of a possible presidential candidacy. Breckinridge, however, played his hand close to his vest, letting people speculate as to his intentions. He told his uncle, “I have neither said or done anything to encourage [such talk]—and am firmly resolved not to do so.”
That Breckinridge was being talked of as a candidate indicates how much Democratic fortunes had shifted. In the previous two elections, the party had been able to unify behind a Northern Democrat with a moderate approach to the slavery issue. The advent of the Republican Party made that approach more difficult. The Democrats faced a conundrum: how to appeal to Northern voters sympathetic to abolition, while maintaining the support of proslavery Southerners. For some Southern Democrats, Breckinridge represented a possible solution—a candidate who could unify the party and have mass appeal.
The Democratic convention was set for Charleston, South Carolina, in late April 1860. For Northern Democrats, traveling to South Carolina, a hotbed of secession fever, was akin to traveling into hostile territory. Since John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, the South had been boiling with indignation at Northern interference in its affairs. Brown, a firebrand abolitionist, assaulted the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in order to procure weapons that could be used to start slave uprisings. Local militia and a contingent of U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee foiled the assault. Brown was found guilty of treason and sent to the gallows at the end of December.
“John Brown’s ghost stalked the South as the election year of 1860 opened,” writes James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. The Harpers Ferry raid and Brown’s plans to incite mass slave uprisings represented the daylight manifestation of Southern whites’ worst nightmare. While the slave-holding South contended that slaves were treated well and happy, they also lived in fear of a mass slave rebellion. Their fears weren’t without foundation: In 1860, there were four million slaves in the South. “Keyed up to the highest pitch of tension, many slave holders and yeoman alike were ready for war to defend hearth and home against those Black Republican brigands,” writes McPherson.
The Southern Democrats came to the convention ready to fight for the preservation of slavery—and a candidate other than the Northerner, Douglas. Breckinridge, who did not attend the convention, asked his friends not to nominate him. Another Kentucky son, James Guthrie, president of Louisville and Nashville Railroad, was keen on the nomination, and Breckinridge had pledged to support him. Breckinridge’s friends reluctantly agreed, even withdrawing his name when it was placed into consideration.
But before the nominations for president and vice president could begin, the convention had to settle on the party platform. When Southern Democrats demanded a plank calling for federal protection of slavery and its extension into new territories, the Northern Democrats refused. They wanted popular sovereignty as the party plank. The Northern Democrats prevailed after two days of intense bargaining, but then the Southern delegates walked out. Unable to agree on a platform or a candidate—Douglas couldn’t muster the required two-thirds votes—the convention dissolved.
In June, the Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, their ranks consisting mostly of Northern states. They nominated Douglas for president and adopted a popular sovereignty platform. Shortly after, the Southern Democrats met in the same city and selected Breckinridge as their presidential candidate. Breckinridge, who was in Washington, D.C., learned of his nomination by letter. In the time between the two conventions, Breckinridge’s attitude toward a candidacy had changed, owing in part to the acrimonious proceedings in Charleston and the Democratic Party’s refusal to accommodate the wishes of its Southern wing. In accepting the nomination, Breckinridge wrote that “I feel that it does not become me to select the position I shall occupy, nor shrink from the responsibilities of the post to which I have been assigned. Accordingly I accept the nomination from a sense of public duty, and, as I think, uninfluenced in any degree by the allurements of ambition.”
It was a disingenuous acceptance from a politically ambitious man, but Breckinridge also accepted out of a desire to preserve the Union. “It is well to remember that the chief disorders which have afflicted our country have grown out of the violation of State equality, and that as long as this great principle has been respected we have been blessed with harmony and peace,” he wrote. The party he represented, however, advocated states’ rights, slaves as personal property, entry of territories into the Union whose citizens vote for slavery, and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Breckinridge may have seen himself as defending a constitutional principle, but the new party—the Southern Democrats—defended slavery. And many in the party were prepared to secede if the Republicans were elected.
By accepting the nomination, Breckinridge knowingly allowed the Democratic Party to split. It was one thing for the Southern wing to hold a convention, quite another for it to field its own candidate. The Democrats and Republicans both understood that the split would almost guarantee a Republican victory. Indeed, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi tried to broker a withdrawal of both Breckinridge and Douglas in favor of a candidate acceptable to both factions of the party, but his efforts came to naught. In the end, Douglas proved to be the main obstacle. He felt betrayed by the Southern Democrats and believed that he alone was acceptable to Northern Democrats.
Lincoln, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell divide the country in 1860.
Image Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Breckinridge found himself in a four-way race for the presidency. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois beat out Senator William Seward of New York to secure the Republican nomination. The remnants of the Whig Party coalesced into the Constitutional Union party, devoted to the preservation of the Union. They nominated John Bell of Tennessee, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives as their candidate.
With the Republicans not even on the ballot in ten Southern states, the election of 1860 devolved into a sectional contest: Lincoln versus Douglas in the North and Breckinridge versus Bell in the South. All of the candidates, except for Douglas, who actively campaigned, stayed home and let their lieutenants and parties campaign for them.
Breckinridge’s silence enabled critics on both sides to make hay of his record. Because he had never made militant proslavery remarks, it was easy to paint him as sympathetic to emancipation. His oft heard plea to preserve the Union didn’t sit well with those clamoring for secession. In September, he decided to confront his critics in the one and only speech he gave as a presidential candidate. Before a crowd gathered at Henry Clay’s Ashland estate, Breckinridge challenged anyone in the audience to name a time when he had voiced sympathy with emancipation. No one offered a challenge. He then turned to the question of secession, arguing that he and his party were running to preserve the Union. Breckinridge, however, refused to engage the question of whether the Southern states would be justified in seceding if Lincoln was elected. “The address won great applause, and wide praise,” writes Davis, “but it was, nevertheless, a disappointment. Breckinridge said nothing that he had not said before, and he left too many questions unanswered.”
When the votes were tallied, Lincoln had earned 180 electoral votes, Breckinridge 72, Bell 39, and Douglas 12. Douglas, however, placed second in the popular vote, earning 29.5 percent to Lincoln’s 39.8 percent. Breckinridge earned only 18.1 percent, with Bell claiming 12.6 percent. Breckinridge won eleven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas—but failed to win Kentucky. He lost his home state to Bell by almost 13,000 votes. “By and large, what Breckinridge did represent in this election was the spirit of moderation and conciliation,” writes Davis. “Those who stood the most to lose by emancipation or abolition, and the most to gain by disunion, had gone for Bell.”
What would have happened if the Democratic Party hadn’t split? Could the Democrats have won? The answer lies in the math. With 303 votes up for grabs in the Electoral College, a candidate needed 152 votes to win. Lincoln won 180 electoral votes. There were only three states where combining the votes earned by Breckinridge, Douglas, and Bell would have handed those electoral votes to a unified Democratic ticket: California, New Jersey, and Oregon. Together, they account for only 11 electoral votes, which still leaves Lincoln on top with 169. There were two other states, where Lincoln’s margin of victory was slim: Indiana (51.1 percent) and Illinois (50.7 percent). Lincoln would have needed to lose both states—and their combined 24 electoral votes—in order to give the Democrats a victory. Could Breckinridge alone have delivered those votes? It’s not likely as voters in those states overwhelmingly preferred Douglas to him. A Breckinridge-Douglas ticket? That just might have been a game changer.
Lincoln’s election triggered what became known as “Secession Winter,” as seven states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861.
Breckinridge returned to Washington in early 1861 to conclude his duties as vice president and take up his Senate seat. His home state of Kentucky still remained in the Union. On February 13, Breckinridge, acting as president of the Senate, announced the results of the election: “Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, having received a majority of the whole number of electoral votes, is elected President.” In March, he swore in the new vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and took his seat in a greatly reduced Senate. Even though his heart lay with the South, he had come to Congress, he told his colleagues “with a lingering hope that something might yet be done to avert a war.”
It was a short road from secession to war. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor, kicking off the Civil War that would grip the country for the next four years. Despite his misgivings, Breckinridge stayed in Washington, frequently casting the single vote against Lincoln’s policies. He opposed the blockade of the Southern coast and what he regarded as the president’s usurpation of the Constitution. He also dreaded what lay ahead for the nation: “grim war, with death and devastation in train, with ruin for every interest, and sable for many a hearthstone.”
At the end of the Senate term, Breckinridge returned to Lexington, only to watch as both Union and Confederate troops invaded Kentucky during the fall. When Kentucky renounced its neutrality and sided with the Union, Breckinridge became a wanted man, fleeing to Confederate territory. There he joined the Confederate cause, assuming the rank of brigadier general. In a manifesto published in October 1861, Breckinridge explained that Lincoln’s despotism had forced him to abandon the Union: “I exchange with proud satisfaction a term of six years in the United States Senate for the musket of a soldier.”
Breckinridge’s oratorical powers and embrace of the newly formed Democratic Party helped him climb quickly in Kentucky and national politics. But his moderate stance in an era of extremes could only take him so far. Breckinridge’s moderation also perhaps accounts for his not being better known. A man who tries to chart a middle way through a provocative period in history doesn’t lend himself to a dramatic story in the same way as a firebrand abolitionist or an upstart lawyer. When it comes to an issue like slavery, we are also perhaps uncomfortable with those who tried to find accommodation on an issue that appears morally non-negotiable more than 150 years later.
John C. Breckinridge - HISTORY
General John Breckinridge. Courtesy Florida
Six haggard men running from Union soldiers arrived at the Indian River on June 1, 1865.
On the run were General John Breckinridge, his aide Colonel James Wilson, Tom Ferguson, the general's slave, Colonel John Taylor Wood, and two Confederate soldiers, Sergeant Joseph O'Toole and Corporal Richard Russell, from the Second Florida Cavalry. O&rsquoToole and Russell were helping the group escape to The Bahamas.
Breckinridge was a Confederate general and the Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America. Since the CSA had surrendered, the Union army had been searching out and arresting the leaders of the Confederacy. Prior to hostilities, Breckinridge has served as vice president of the United States under James Buchanan and as a senator from Kentucky. He even ran for the presidency in 1860. A nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Wood served in the Confederate Navy and had captured thirty-five Union vessels.
Colonel John Taylor Wood. Public
Once the rag-tag group arrived on the Indian River, the men rowed south passing Union lookouts during the night. They reached the Jupiter Inlet on June 4. From there, they continued their journey southward stopping on present day Palm Beach to rest and search for food. However, they were almost captured by a Union naval patrol. The quick thinking Wood convinced their would-be captors that they had been paroled and just looking for turtle eggs which they exchanged with Union sailors for food and tobacco.
After their close encounter with the Union Navy, the men left Palm Beach and continued southward. In the area of Boynton Beach, the men traded with some Seminoles and on June 7, they spotted and stole a sailing vessel from some Union deserters at New River (Fort Lauderdale).
Map of possible escape route of General Breckinridge and
group through Florida. Courtesy HSPBC.
When they reached Miami, the men exchanged gunfire with a group of armed men. In the end, they stopped firing and obtained supplies from the group. Afterwards, a schooner appeared and chased the group through Biscayne Bay. Only by crossing over a reef did they escape the schooner which had fired their cannon at them. They spent the night at Elliot&rsquos Key then sailed on to Cuba.
Once they arrived Cárdenas, Cuba, the local officials learning who they were, sent word to Governor-General Concha. Breckinridge and his companions were well-received and traveled to Havana where they met the governor-general.
Breckinridge went on to Europe and later to Canada. He returned to Kentucky after President Andrew Johnson pardoned him. While Breckinridge returned home, Wood would not.
Wood was born in the Northwest Territory, Minnesota, in 1831. His mother, Margaret Mackall Taylor, was the daughter of General and US President Zachary Taylor and the older sister of Sarah Knox Taylor who was the wife of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis.
During the Mexican-American War, Wood served in the U.S. Navy on two warships, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. At the beginning of the Civil War, Wood resigned and entered service with the navy of Virginia then with the Confederate Navy.
He served on the CSS Virginia, Jefferson&rsquos aide-de-camp, appointed a colonel in the cavalry, commanded the CSS Tallahassee, and captured numerous Union vessels. After the General Robert E. Lee&rsquos surrender, Wood accompanied Jefferson on his flight south. When Union forces captured Jefferson, Wood escaped and joined Breckinridge. After the group made it to Cuba, Wood traveled to Nova Scotia where he lived until his death in 1904.
According to an article written by Wood in 1885, Russell and O&rsquoToole returned to Florida, both Breckinridge and Wilson had &ldquocrossed the great river,&rdquo and Tom Ferguson&rsquos fate was unknown.
Dillon, Rodney E. Jr. &ldquoThe Civil War On The Gold Coast,&rdquo New River News XIX, no. 4, (1981): 3-6.
Snyder, James D. A Light in the Wilderness: The Story of Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & The Southeast Florida Frontier. Jupiter: Pharos Books, 2006.
Wood, John Taylor. &ldquoEscape of General Breckinridge,&rdquo Famous Adventures and Prison Escapes of the Civil War, edited by G.W. Cable, 298-338. New York: The Century Company, 1893. PDF e-book.
Wynne, Nick andJoe Crankshaw. Florida Civil War Blockades: Battling for the Coast. Charleston: The History Press, 2011.
phone: 561.832.4164 | fax: 561.832.7965 | mail: P.O. Box 4364, W.P.B., FL 33402 | visit: 300 N. Dixie Hwy, W.P.B., FL 33401
© 2009 Historical Society of Palm Beach County | all photos courtesy HSPBC unless otherwise noted
John C. Breckinridge was unanimously voted for as a vice presidential candidate in the second round of election after polling 55 votes in the first round which placed him second. John C. Breckinridge actively joined the campaign of the presidential nominee James Buchannan and was able to win the election with 14 electoral votes over 114 of the Republican&rsquos John C. Fremont and Know-Nothing candidates William L. Dayton who had eight votes. Breckinridge who was 36 years then became the youngest vice president in the United States history. However, his relationship with President Buchannan continued to strain and had almost no power.
During the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South California, John C. Breckinridge he was nominated by his supporters to contest for the presidential candidacy but that went to Lincoln and at the end was elected as a senator. His disagreement with the unionist government and denouncing the Unionist state legislature coupled with and aimed to Confederate Kentucky and his sympathy for the Southern cause. John C. Breckinridge then enlisted in the Confederate army and was therefore indicted for treason in the U.S. federal district court in Frankfort on November 6, 1861, and was declared a traitor on of US on December 2, 1861, and expelled from the Senate.
John C. BreckinridgeJohn Breckinridge
John Cabell Breckinridge graduated from Centre College in 1839 and, after studying law at Transylvania University, was admitted to the bar in 1840. During the Mexican-American War Breckinridge served as major of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers. He was elected to Congress twice in the early 1850s and in 1856 was elected vice president under President James Buchanan. In 1860 he ran for president, but lost to Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. When the South began to secede in response to Lincoln's election, Breckinridge, having been elected to the US Senate, stressed the right of secession.
However, when Kentucky remained in the Union, Breckinridge resigned his Senate seat and joined the Confederate army, receiving a commission as a brigadier general. He was promoted to major general following the Battle of Shiloh, in which he was wounded. Breckinridge developed an intense disdain for fellow Confederate officer, General Braxton Bragg, considering him to be incompetent. Bragg likewise had an immense dislike for Breckinridge, accusing him of being a drunk. The sentiments of both individuals came to a head at the Battle of Stones River during which Bragg ordered Breckinridge's men to make a near suicidal assault against the Union lines. Breckinridge lost one third of his command and was himself emotionally devastated. He did however continue to serve under Bragg at the battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge.
In 1864 Breckinridge was brought east to command troops in the Shenandoah Valley. There he defeated Major General Franz Sigel at the Battle of New Market in May. Breckinridge was briefly attached to General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia before being ordered once again to the Shenandoah Valley. Following the successful defense of Lynchburgh Breckinridge joined Lieutenant General Jubal Early's Army of the Valley District and participated in the Battle of Monocacy. He was the second highest ranking officer in Jubal Early's army and moved with it to the outskirts of Washington and then back into the Shenandoah Valley.
John C. Breckinridge's last major battle was fought on September 19, 1864, Third Winchester. Following the Confederate defeat, Breckinridge was ordered by the Confederate War Department to take command of the new Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee, he was to leave the majority of his forces in the Valley with Early. In February 1865 he was appointed Secretary of War by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As the Confederate government abandoned Richmond, Virginia, it was Breckinridge who saw to it that the archives of the Confederacy were not destroyed, preserving the records of the Confederate government and war effort for history.
Following the war, Breckinridge fled the country in a self-imposed exile that lasted until 1869. He then returned to his native Lexington, Kentucky and resumed his law practice until his death of cirrhosis in 1875.
John Cabell Breckinridge (1821 - 1875)
John Cabell Breckinridge (January 16, 1821 – May 17, 1875) was a lawyer and politician from the U.S. state of Kentucky. He represented the state in both houses of Congress and in 1857, became the 14th and youngest-ever Vice President of the United States (1857–1861). Serving in the U.S. Senate at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was expelled after joining the Confederate Army. He remains the only Senator of the United States convicted of treason against the United States of America by the Senate. He was appointed Confederate Secretary of War late in the war. 
Major General commanding Trans-Allegheny Department, his most significant victory: The Battle of New Market. Participated in Jubal Early's 1864 campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley. Served as Secretary of War in the Cabinet of the Confederate States from January until April 1865
The subject of this sketch, although a young man, is one of the most popular men X of the day. His family is one of the oldest and most respectable of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. His grandfather, John Breckinridge, was a staunch Democrat—a party-leader in his day. He was elected to the Senate of the United States in 1801, and was United States Attorney-General in 1805-6. He was the author and advocate of the resolutions of 1788-89 in the Virginia Legislature. Many members of the family have been celebrated as statesmen and divines. The celebrated clergyman, Robert C. Breckinridge, is an uncle of the present Vice-President. John Cabell Breckinridge is the only son of Cabell Breckinridge, a distinguished member of the bar, deceased some years since. John was born at the family-seat, Cabellsdale, near Lexington, Fayette County, Ky., January 21, 1821. He was educated at Center College, Danville, Kentucky, from which he graduated with distinction. His talents for composition and elocution were early developed and although full of boyish fun and frolic, he could accomplish wonders on close application. After graduating at Danville, Mr. Breckinridge entered the Transylvania Institute, where he studied law under Chief-Justice George Robinson, Judge A. K. Wooley, and Thomas F. Marshall. On receiving his license, Mr. Breckinridge emigrated to Burlington, Iowa, where he commenced the practice of his profession,. as the associate of Mr. Bullock, a relative. Not satisfied with his prospects in Iowa, he returned to Kentucky, and for a time was settled in Georgetown, where he was married to Miss Birch, of that place. Soon after his marriage, from inducements offered, Mr. Breckinridge returned to Lexington, where, except during his absence on official business, he has since remained, one of the leading members of the bar. On the breaking out of the Mexican war, Mr. Breckinridge early came forward to aid in sustaining our national reputation. He was elected Major of the third regiment of Kentucky Volunteers. Unfortunately, this regiment was not mustered into the service until late in the campaign. When it did arrive in the enemy's territory, it was placed on the line between Vera Cruz and the City of Mexico and, excepting an occasional brush with a band of guerrillas, or other marauders, it experienced no active service, and did not arrive at the Halls of the Montezumas until after the American flag was waving over them. On his return to Lexington, Mr. Breckinridge was elected a member of the lower branch of the Legislature of the State of Kentucky. He soon gave evidences of his ability as a debater, and the other valuable qualities as a legislator. In 1851, General Leslie Coombs was the Whig nominee for Congress in the Ashland District. For twenty years no Democrat had been elected from it. It was the home of Mr. Clay, and it was deemed idle for a Democrat to make the race. Breckinridge resolved to try. His opponent, General Coombs, was well known as a popular orator, and he possessed, in a high degree, the affections of the Whig party. When they took the stump, according to Western custom, it soon became apparent that Breckinridge was decidedly an overmatch for his antagonist. After an animated contest, Breckinridge was returned by over 600 majority. His party became so proud of his services, and the distinction he won during the first two years he was in the National Legislature, that they unanimously gave him a re-nomination in 1853. The Whigs determined to conquer their enemy in their old stronghold, and brought out Robert Letcher to run against him. This gentleman had been in political life for thirty years. He had been repeatedly in Congress, was Governor of the State for one term, and had just then returned from a Mexican mission, to which he had been appointed by General Taylor. He had been, and was then, one of the most popular men in the State, and one of the best stump-orators. When "Black Bob," as Governor Letcher was familiarly called, was put upon the track, the Whigs declared that " Old Boston" was entered, and that he would distance his competitor. Never was so much feeling elicited in any Congressional canvass in that State. They began speaking together early in May, and there was not a day, except Sunday, until the first Monday in August, that they did not meet, and fight foot to foot, and hand to hand. Mr. Breckinridge was re-elected by a majority of 520 votes. On the accession of President Pierce, Mr. Breckinridge was nominated as Minister to Spain. Family affairs compelled Mr. Breckinridge to decline, and Mr. Soule was appointed. Mr. Breckinridge was a delegate to, and active member in, the Cincinnati Convention. When the nomination for the Vice-Presidency was about being made, his name, among others, was proposed. On the first ballot Mr. Breckinridge received fifty-five votes, and on the second he was nominated unanimously.  BRECKINRIDGE. John Cabell (grandson of John Breckinridge, father of Clifton Rodes Breckinridge, and cousin of Henry Donnel Foster), a Representative and a Senator from Kentucky and a Vice President of the United States born at "Cabell's Dale," near Lexington, Ky., January 21, 1821 attended Pisgah Academy, Woodford County, Ky. was graduated from Centre College, Danville, Ky., in 1839 later attended Princeton College studied law in the Transylvania Institute Lexington, Ky. was admitted to the bar in 1840 moved to Burlington, Iowa, but soon returned and began practice in Lexington, Ky. major of the Third Kentucky Volunteers during the Mexican War in 1847 and 1848 member of the State house of representatives in 1849 elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-second and Thirty-third Congresses (March 4, 1851-March 3, 1855) was not a candidate for renomination in 1854 was tendered the mission to Spain by President Pierce, but declined elected Vice President of the United States in 1856 on the Democratic ticket, with James Buchanan as President, being the youngest Vice President who had ever held that office defeated as a candidate for President in 1860 by Abraham Lincoln elected to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1861, until expelled by resolution of December 4, 1861 entered the Confederate Army during the Civil War as brigadier general and soon became a major general Secretary of War in the Cabinet of the Confederate States from January until April 1865 resided in Europe for a year or more returned to Lexington, Ky., and resumed the practice of law vice president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad Co. died in Lexington, Ky., May 17, 1875 interment in Lexington Cemetery. 
Enslaver and a Former Slave in the Union Army
His former slave, George King, served with the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first regiment in the United States made up entirely of enlisted men of color.
One of the men killed, George King, last place of residence, Toledo, Ohio, was once a slave, belonging to Gen. [John Cabell] Breckinridge, rebel army, and his mother and one sister are yet slaves, now  in Richmond, Va. 
Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Fayette, Kentucky, USA Plot: Section G, Lot 1 
John C. Breckinridge rose to prominence during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. Widely respected, even by his enemies, for his dedication to moderate liberalism, Breckinridge’s charisma and integrity led to his election as Vice President at age 35, the youngest ever in America’s history.
After a decade of being out-of-print, Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol returns as the quintessential biography of one of Kentucky’s great moderates. Historian William C. Davis sheds light on Breckinridge’s life throughout three key periods, spanning his career as a celebrated statesman, heroic soldier, and proponent of the reconciliation.
A true Kentucky hero, “Old Breck’s” bravery in battle, dedication to the pursuit of truth, and unique ability to win the loyalty of others rank him alongside Henry Clay and Simon Kenton. Drawing from a remarkable collection of sources, including previously unknown documents and letters, as well as the papers of his associates and extensive aid from the Breckinridge family, Davis presents the legacy of a man often overlooked.
William C. Davis, director of programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and professor at Virginia Tech, is the author or editor of more than fifty books, including the Virginia at War series. He was also the chief consultant for The History Channel’s Civil War Journal.
"A substantial and needed contribution to the Confederate biography."—American Historical Review
"This is a first-rate biography—well-written, well researched, and with a good balance. . . . At last John C. Breckinridge has found his biographer."—Journal of Southern History
"Davis tells the remarkable life story of the prominent congressman, senator and vice president and noted Civil War figure."—Lexington Herald-Leader
"Davis explains the importance of Breckinridge’s often overlooked contributions and his dedication to American politics. The book presents the story of a Kentucky hero whose life and legacy give insight into our nation’s rich history."—kydirect.net
"[Breckinridge] is the quintessential biography of one of Kentucky’s most important but underappreciated figures. Davis’ work is the first to delve into the life of a man who lived to serve, and it focuses on his roles as statesman, soldier and diplomat. Davis weaves a detailed narrative, pulling previously unpublished information from a variety of sources."—civilwar.com
"Breckinridge came, of course, from one of Kentucky’s most distinguished families. He added his own considerable luster to the lineage."—Kentucky Gazette
"Author Davis, considered the first to write a definitive Breckinridge biography, utilized a variety of sources, including previously unknown documents and letters and papers from associates and the Breckinridge family."—Eithne O’Leyne, Book News Inc.
"This biography is well worth the time and investment."—H-Net Reviews