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John C. Breckinridge in his younger years.

John Cabell Breckinridge (January 16, 1821 – May 17, 1875) was an American lawyer and politician. He served as a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from Kentucky and was the 14th Vice President of the United States, to date the youngest vice president in U.S. history, inaugurated at age 36.

In the 1860 presidential election, he ran as one of two candidates of the fractured Democratic Party, representing Southern Democrats. Breckinridge came in third place in the popular vote, behind winner Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and Stephen Douglas, a Northern Democrat, but finished second in the Electoral College vote.

Following the outbreak of the American Civil War, he served in the Confederate States Army as a general and commander of Confederate forces prior to the 1863 Siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, and of the young Virginia Military Institute cadets, at the 1864 Battle of New Market in Lexington, Virginia. He also served as the fifth and final Confederate Secretary of War.

A member of the prominent Breckinridge family of Kentucky, Breckinridge was the grandson of John Breckinridge (1760–1806), who served as a Senator and Attorney General; the father of congressman and diplomat Clifton Rodes Breckinridge; and the great-grandfather of actor John Cabell "Bunny" Breckinridge.

Early life and education[]

Breckinridge was born at Cabell's Dale near Lexington, Kentucky, to Joseph Cabell Breckinridge and Mary Clay Smith. He graduated from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky in 1839 and later attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He then studied law at Transylvania University in Lexington and was admitted to the bar in 1840.

Legal, military, and political career in the antebellum period[]

He moved to Burlington, Iowa but soon returned to Lexington and commenced the practice of law there. He was married to Mary Cyrene Burch on December 12, 1843, in Georgetown, Kentucky. In 1847 and 1848, during the Mexican–American War, Breckinridge was a major of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers.

Breckinridge was a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849 as a Democrat. He was then elected to the Thirty-second and Thirty-third Congresses (March 4, 1851 – March 4, 1855). He did not run for reelection, and instead was nominated as Minister to Spain by President Franklin Pierce, but declined. He was elected Vice President of the United States in 1856, on the Democratic ticket with James Buchanan as president. He was the youngest Vice President in U.S. history, elected at the age 35, the minimum age required under the United States Constitution.

Breckinridge was an unsuccessful candidate for president in the 1860 election. Nominated by the Southern faction of the split Democratic Party, he was supported by incumbent Democratic president Buchanan and ran on a pro-slavery platform. The race put Breckinridge at odds with his uncle, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, who had supported Lincoln.

Far from expectant of victory, in a letter to Varina Davis Breckinridge bemoaned "I trust I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope." In a four-way contest, he came in third in the popular vote, with 18.1%, but second in the Electoral College, winning the states of the Deep South as well as the border states of Maryland and Delaware.

However, Breckinridge received almost no support in the most of the Northern states (which Lincoln swept except for split electoral votes from New Jersey going to Douglas and Lincoln), but as the candidate of the Buchanan faction did outpoll Douglas in Pennsylvania and won Delaware and received some support comparable to Douglas in Connecticut. Breckinridge lost to Douglas in Missouri, and lost to Constitutional Union Party nominee John Bell in Virginia, Bell's home state of Tennessee, and even Breckinridge's own home state of Kentucky.

Despite losing the presidency, he was elected the same year to the United States Senate by the Kentucky Legislature. He served from March 4, 1861, and as the outgoing vice president swore in Lincoln's vice president, Hannibal Hamlin.

Despite the secession of the Southern states and the formation of the Confederate States of America, Breckinridge remained in the Senate until he was expelled by resolution on December 4, 1861 for supporting the South; ten Southern Senators had been expelled earlier the same year. Fearing arrest, he fled to the Confederacy. Unlike other Confederate leaders, such as Robert E. Lee, who claimed obeisance to the will of their states, Breckinridge broke with his state after the Kentucky Legislature voted to remain in the Union.

Civil War[]

Breckinridge entered the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War as a brigadier general and soon became a major general, originally commanding the 1st Kentucky Brigade - nicknamed the Orphan Brigade, because its men felt orphaned by Kentucky's state government, which remained loyal to the Union. He fought in many battles in the Western Theater, beginning with the Battle of Shiloh, in which he was wounded. He served as an independent commander in the lower Mississippi Valley, securing Confederate control of the area by taking Port Hudson.

Breckinridge developed an intense personal dislike of General Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Army of Tennessee. He considered him incompetent, a point of view shared by many other Confederate officers. Furthermore, Breckinridge felt that Bragg was unfair in his treatment of Kentucky troops in Confederate service, such as the Orphan Brigade. Throughout the war, Breckinridge felt a strong personal need to see to the welfare of his fellow Kentuckians. For his part, Bragg despised Breckinridge and tried to undermine his career with accusations that he was a drunkard. At the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Bragg ordered Breckinridge's division to launch a near-suicidal attack on the Union lines on January 2, 1863. Breckinridge survived the attack, but his division suffered heavy casualties. Breckinridge was devastated by the disaster; he lost nearly one-third of his Kentucky troops, primarily the Orphan Brigade. As he rode among the survivors, he cried out repeatedly, "My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans."

Breckinridge continued to fight with Bragg's army, figuring prominently in the Confederate assaults on the second day, September 20, 1863, of the Battle of Chickamauga, and in the unsuccessful defense of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, November 25, 1863.

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Breckinridge as major general

In early 1864, Breckinridge was brought to the Eastern Theater and put in charge of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. He defeated a superior Union force at the Battle of New Market, which included the famous charge of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. Shortly thereafter, Breckinridge reinforced Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and played an important role in the Battle of Cold Harbor, where his troops repulsed a powerful Union attack.

In the summer, Breckinridge participated in Lieutenant General Jubal Early's Raid on Washington, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley and crossing into Maryland. He fought at the Battle of Monocacy in early July and was with Early when the Confederate force probed the defenses of Washington, D.C.. Since Lincoln was watching the fight from the ramparts of Fort Stevens, this was only time in American history when two former opponents in a presidential election faced one another across battle lines.

File:John C. Breckinridge statue Lexington KY.jpg

Breckinridge's statue at the Lexington History Center

Following his service with Early's command, Breckinridge took command of Confederate forces in southwestern Virginia in September, where Confederate forces were in great disarray. He reorganized the department and led a raid into northeastern Tennessee. Following a victory outside of Saltville, Breckinridge discovered that some Confederate troops had killed scores of black Union soldiers of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry the morning after the battle, an incident that shocked and angered him. He attempted to have the commander responsible, Felix Huston Robertson, arrested and put on trial, but was unable to achieve this before the Confederacy disintegrated.

In early 1865, Breckinridge was made Confederate States Secretary of War, a post he would hold until the end of the war. Breckinridge saw that further resistance on the part of the Confederacy was useless and worked to lay the groundwork for an honorable surrender, even while President Jefferson Davis fiercely desired to continue the fight.

During the chaos of the fall of Richmond in early April 1865, Breckinridge saw to it that the Confederate archives, both government and military, were not destroyed but rather captured intact by the Union forces. By so doing, he ensured that a full account of the Confederate war effort would be preserved for history. Breckinridge went with Davis during the flight from Virginia as the Confederacy collapsed, while also assisting General Joseph E. Johnston in his surrender negotiations with William T. Sherman at Bennett Place. Breckinridge continued to try to persuade Davis that further resistance would only lead to greater loss of life, but he also felt honor bound to protect the President from harm. Eventually, the two became separated in the confusion of the journey.

Postbellum career and legacy[]


John Breckinridge in his postbellum years.

File:John C. Breckinridge grave.jpg

Breckinridge's Gravestone

Breckinridge feared that he would be put on trial for treason by the United States government and resolved to flee the country. He and a small band sailed from Florida in a tiny boat to reach safety in Cuba. He continued to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United Kingdom again. He returned to Lexington, Kentucky, in March 1869 after being granted amnesty, and resumed the practice of law. While turning down suggestions that he become active in politics again, he spoke out strongly against the Ku Klux Klan. He became vice president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington, and Big Sandy Railroad Company. He died in Lexington of complications from cirrhosis[1] and was interred in Lexington Cemetery.

Breckinridge had ample reason to fear charges of treason. In 1863, premature rumors of his death prompted the New York Times to print what is perhaps the most vituperative obituary ever written about a nationally elected American official.[2]

The towns of Breckenridge, Colorado; Breckenridge, Minnesota; Breckenridge, Missouri; and Breckenridge, Texas, were named in honor of the Vice President (despite the different spelling). The Colorado town deliberately changed the spelling of its name when its namesake joined the Confederacy.[citation needed]

Breckinridge was the first Sovereign Grand Inspector General of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in Kentucky.

A memorial to Breckinridge was placed on the Fayette County Courthouse lawn (now known as Cheapside Park) in Lexington in 1887. In 2009, the monument was relocated closer to Main Street as part of a reworking of Cheapside Park.

See also[]



  1. Woodworth, p. 360, n. 192.
  2. "John C. Breckinridge" (Editorial). New York Times. 1863-12-07. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 

External links[]

Preceded by
James Seddon
Confederate States Secretary of War
February 6, 1865 – May 10, 1865


Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Succeeded by
Hannibal Hamlin
United States Senate

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United States House of Representatives

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Preceded by
James Buchanan
Democratic Party presidential candidate²
Succeeded by
George McClellan
Preceded by
William R. King
Democratic Party vice presidential candidate
Succeeded by
Herschel Vespasian Johnson
Joseph Lane¹
Notes and references
1. The Democratic party split in 1860, producing two vice-presidential candidates. Johnson was nominated by Northern Democrats; Lane was nominated by Southern Democrats.
2. The Democratic party split in 1860, producing two presidential candidates. Breckinridge was nominated by Southern Democrats; Stephen A. Douglas was nominated by Northern Democrats.

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Template:Kentucky Breckinridges

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