Vice President, Senator from Kentucky, and Confederate General and Secretary of
In the presidential election of 1860, Bell carried carried Kentucky, with a popular vote of 66,000 to Breckinridge’s 53,000, Douglas’s 25,000, and Lincoln’s 1,300. On December 27, 1860, Governor Magoffin called the Legislature into
session and urged that it call a convention to consider the issue of secession.
The Legislature demurred, instead calling for a Peace Conference which was held
in Washingon, in Feburary 1861. After Lincoln’s call for volunteers, on April 15, 1861, Governor Magoffin again called the Legislature into session for the
purpose of establishing a policy of neutrality between North and South. In the
course of doing this, the State Miltia was called into service, under the
command of Simon B. Buckner. The Legislature resolved that,
“Kentucky will not sever
connection with the National Government nor take up arms for either belligerent
party; but arm herself for the preservation of peace within her borders."
The Kentucky Legislature established this policy because of
the state’s proximity to Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where volunteers, in vast
numbers, were converging on camps to be organized into regiments which could
overwhelm the forces the Legislature might organize for the field.
On June 20, 1861, Governor Magoffin held a special election to
fill seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. The voters chose nine
Union men and one secession man to take the House seats. The vote was 92,000 in
favor of the Union men, 36,000 in favor of the secession men. The Legislature
elected John C. Breckinridge, Vice President during the Buchanan
Administration, to the Senate seat.
In July and August, seccession forces, as well as Union
forces, established camps in the State. In September a new Legislature,
dominated by Union sympatherizers took office and annulled the previous
legislature’s policy of neutrality.By a vote of 71 to 26, it directed the
Governor to order all Confederate troops to leave the state. An attempt to
include Union troops in this was defeated by a similar vote. A new resolution was
then agreed to:
“Resolved, That Kentucky’s peace and neutrality have been wantonly violated, her soil has been invaded, and
the rights of her citizens infronged by the so-called Confederate forces.
Therefore, be it enacted that the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of
Kentucky, that the Governor call out the military force of the State to expel
and drive out the invaders, that the United States be invoked to give aid and
The following day Grant, from his base at Cairo, Illinois, crossed the Ohio River and occupied Paducah with two regiments and a battery.
Confederate forces at the same time occupied Columbus with a force of ten
regiments and six batteries. Major Anderson assumed command of the Department
of Kentucky on September 20 and established his headquarters at Louisville and began recruiting. The Lincoln Government then began arresting persons and
shipping them to New York for incareration at Fort Lafayette.
At this point, John C. Breckinridge, with other Kentuckians
marked for arrest by Lincoln, fled the state capital in the northern part of
the state and passed into the Confederate lines in the southern part.
Shiloh in 1862
The Confederate reserve, 8,500, under Breckinridge, were all
in action before noon. The First brigade going to their extreme left at about
the time Sherman fell from from his first line. The other two brigades went to
the right, south of the Peach Orchard near where Johnston had his HQ in the
saddle.This force, together with the rest of the Confederate army pushed
Grant’s army back to the bank of the Tennessee River
Regiments Drive Sherman to the Banks of the Tennessee
Breckinridge’s Kentucky Brigade led the Confederate charge
on the second day of the battle of Chickamauga.
Drawing by Alfred R. Waud
the dedication of the Kentucky Monument at the battlefield, in 1889, Kentucky
Governor. Bradley said:
“Kentucky has evinced no
partiality in the evidence of loving remeberance. It carries with it no
heart burning, no jealousy, no invidious distinction. It is not an emblem
of honor to the victor and reproach to the vanquished, but an equal tribute to
the worth of all. In the future, the descendants of chivalrous
Confederates may proudly gaze upon it, realizing that the state has honored
their ancestors, and although their cause was lost, their heroism is revered
and their memories perpetuated. And the sons of the brave men who fought
on the other side may look upon it with equal pride, feeling that it fitly
commemorates the gallant deeds of their illustrious ancestors , who preserved
the Nation from destruction. May it endure forever, standing guard over
victor and vanquished, with the statue that surmounts it, in one hand holding
the torch of liberity shedding abroad its benign rays, in the other grasping
the people, ready and anxious at all times to uphold the integrity of one
country, and to drive, wounded and bleeding, from its shores any insolent foe
that shall ever dare invade them."
Missionary Ridge 1863
Breckinridge commanded nine brigades, covering a two mile
front opposite Grant’s center. Attacking the Confederate flanks through most of
the day, Grant tried to break the center toward dusk, throwing three divisions
against Breckinridge’s lines, breaking through and capturing thirty-seven guns
and 2,000 men. This forced the Confederates to fall back five hundred yards to
another ridge where they held Grant at bay till nightfall.
The valley of the Shenandoah, May 1864
In May 1864, while Grant and Lee were
struggling with each other, Breckinridge, with a force of 7,000 men, including
the Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, fought a similar
force, under the Union general, Franz Sigel, to a standstill at New Market, a
village midway between Harrisonburg and Strasburg, in the Shenandoah Valley.
cadets seize one of Sigel’s guns
Cold Harbor June 1864
AfterFranz Sigel retreated down
the valley to be replaced by David Hunter, Breckinridge was called by Lee to Richmond. Marching east across the Blue Ridge, Breckinridge’s little army reached Lee’s
lines at the North Anna, just as Grant was moving beyond the Confederate right,
crossing the Pampunkey and heading toward the Chickahominy in front of
Richmond. Lee sent Breckinridge marching down the line of the Virginia Central
Railroad with R.H. Anderson’s corps and this force reached a point between the
Chickahominy and Grant’s advance, just as the Union infantry was forcing the
Confederate cavalry, under Fitz Lee, to give way.
General Lee sent this message to
Breckinridge as the rebel cavalry was giving way near Salem Church: “I wish you would place your troops on the road to Salem Church." An hour later
Breckinridge’s men were digging trenches across the road as Fitz Lee’s
exhausted cavalrymen came through the line to safety. Several days later, when,
at Grant’s order, Hancock attacked Breckinridge’s front, in the center of Lee’s
line, he broke in but was driven out with the greatest slaugther Grant had ever
seen. After that Grant moved past Richmond and crossed the James to initiate
the nine months seige of Petersburg.
Ten months later, in the afternoon
of Sunday, April 2, Breckinridge, now the Confederacy’s last secretary of war,
stood in Jefferson Davis’s office in Richmond’s old Customs Building and handed
the Confederate President, Lee’s telegram explaining the collapse of his lines
at Petersburg. About midnight, Breckinridge said farewell to the President and
the rest of his cabinet, at the Danville railroad depot, and returned to the
Virginia Capitol and gave the order to fire the James River bridges.
Breckinridge rode across the Mayo Bridge during the early morning hours of April 3 and connected with General Lee late
that day, riding with him through the week to Appomattox. On April 13,
Breckinridge caught up with President Davis at Greensboro, North Carolina and,
there, attending a conference between Davis and General Joseph Johnston, who
was opposing the advance of Sherman. At the conference Davis authorized Johnston to negotiate, if possible, terms of peace with Sherman and he then left Greensboro by horseback and headed for Charlotte. Breckinridge and Johnston went together
to meet Sherman near Hillsboro and were conferring with him when a courier arrived
with the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Soon thereafter Sherman and Johnston
agreed upon the terms of surrender for Johnston’s army and Breckinridge rode
south toward Charlotte and caught up with Davis near Fort Mill on April 27.
By May 3, Davis, Breckinridge,
several other Cabinet members and an escort of a hundred soldiers were across
the Savannah River and at Washington, Georgia. Here, Davis and Breckinridge
parted company, Davis going on toward the Florida line where he was captured
near Irwindale; Breckinridge moved alone through souteastern Georgia and
entered Florida near the east coas and passed down through the center part of
the state to the Atlantic Ocean at Daytona.On June 3, he stepped into a small
boat and sailed down the coast as far as the Keyes and then slipped into the
Gulf Stream which carried him to Cuba.
Breckinridge sailed from Havana for England in August 1865. There he met his wife and children and went on an
extended tour of Europe and the Middle East. He In 1868, he settled his family
at Niagra Falls. On Christmas Day, 1869, President Andrew Johnson issued a
proclamation of general amnesty, and Breckinridge returned to Kentucky where he
practiced law in Lexington, until his death at the age of fifty-four, in 1875.
His remains are buried in a cemetery in Lexington. A State Monument to him sits on the old Courthouse Square.
(The Kentucky Legislature appropriated $10,000 and
commissioned Valentine to design the statute.)