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The Vice President Flees
Branded a traitor by the government he once served, John C. Breckinridge ran a perilous race for freedom rather than risk capture by the North
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
The weather in the Straits of Florida was turbulent in June of 1865. Throughout that spring the Caribbean boiled from one storm after another, but this latest one was particularly severe. Ocean-going steamers delayed their departures because of it, yet, in its very center, six desperate men bailed and prayed in a sailboat barely seventeen feet long. One of them in particular, a tall, handsome man, might have looked back, if his fevered labors had allowed time for reflection, to a June five years before when, as both senator-elect from Kentucky and Vice President of the United States, he had accepted the nomination of the Democratic party for the Presidency. Now, despised and indicted as a traitor, he was trying to escape the country, certain of imprisonment if captured and fearful of execution.
Before the Civil War, John Cabell Breckinridge’s friends were sure that his was a charmed life. Born in 1821 to a family already prominent in Bluegrass politics, he early assumed a leadership that came naturally to him. After serving in the state legislature, Breckinridge won a seat in Congress in 1851 and held it for two terms, meanwhile revitalizing the ailing Democratic party in his state and winning for himself a meteoric rise in national politics. It came as no great surprise when in the spring of 1856 the Democratic National Convention nominated him to be James Buchanan’s running mate in the coining Presidential contest. Breckinridge, just turned thirty-five, had been constitutionally eligible for the office for only five months. That November he was elected—the youngest Vice President in United States history.
Buchanan’s was a singularly undistinguished administration, and by 1860 his party was fragmented beyond repair. In the growing sectional crisis, most influential Southern politicians favored nominating Breckinridge for the Presidency. Many who actually desired disunion hoped that, if nominated, he would be defeated by the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. This, they felt, would provide an excuse for secession and the setting up of a separate Southern nation. In June, 1860. the Democratic party split, and the Southern faction gave Breckinridge its nomination, pitting him in a four-way battle with Lincoln, the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and John Bell, a tired old Whig. Breckinridge, who was so opposed to slavery that he once declared in private that it should be abolished by force if necessary, was no friend of secession, and had not wanted the nomination. But he felt obliged to accept it, and with it took defeat in November. In a matter of days South Carolina withdrew from the Union and war became inevitable.
Late in 1859, when United States Senator John J. Crittenden announced that he would retire from the Senate at the expiration of his term in 1861, the Kentucky legislature set about selecting his successor. Senators were elected then, not by the public, but by their state legislators, and the Bluegrass lawmakers had chosen Breckinridge to take over the Senate seat. Consequently the former Vice President sat in the special session of Congress called by President Lincoln in July, 1861.
Breckinridge took his seat hill of misgivings. He disagreed completely with Lincoln’s war measures, felt that they were responsible for bringing on the first great battle at Bull Run in July, and accused the Republicans of subverting his beloved Constitution. His attacks on the administration became increasingly frequent and bitter. Though he had committed no disloyal acts, the authorities believed him to be dangerous. Finally, while he worked at organizing a series of “peace” picnics in Kentucky that September, the Union military command in his district gave orders for his arrest. Outraged that a citizen and a United States Senator could not freely voice his opposition without fear of arbitrary arrest, Breckinridge made his escape from his home in Lexington and took the step that many had expected him to make for months. He rode to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, and offered his services to President Jefferson Davis.
Confederates had hoped Breckinridge would join their cause, because they believed his influence could sway the important border state of Kentucky to join them. Davis considered appointing him Secretary of War in his Cabinet but then decided that Breckinridge would be more useful as a brigadier general with the Confederate army quartered at Bowling Green, Kentucky. The new general failed to lure the Bluegrass away from the Union, but his performance in the Battle of Shiloh in early April, 1862, won for him a promotion to major general, and thereafter his star rose as rapidly in war as it had in politics. Breckinridge fought at Corinth, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Stone’s River, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Cold Harbor, and Winchester, commanded his own military department in southwest Virginia, and on May 15, 1864, won what has been termed the most important secondary battle of the war at New Market, Virginia.
By February, 1865, Breckinridge had seen wider service in more areas of the Confederacy than any other general officer in the army. His popularity was at its height, and now Davis gave him the appointment as Secretary of War, hoping that this might quell some of the outcry against Davis’ unsuccessful, and now unpopular, administration.