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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
Breckinridge took his Cabinet portfolio convinced that the Confederacy was dying. During his brief service he directed his every action toward seeing that its demise was an honorable one. When Petersburg and Richmond fell to Grant in April, he organized the escape of Davis and the Cabinet to Danville, Virginia, while he himself rode out of the capital to join Robert E. Lee’s army in its retreat toward Appomattox. After consulting with Lee, the Secretary set out to join the fleeing government and reached Danville on April 11, only to find that Davis had gone on to Greensboro, North Carolina. Upon finally joining the president, Breckinridge repeatedly advised capitulation, later taking part in the surrender negotiations between General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the only remaining Confederate army in the East, and General William T. Sherman. After the discussions were concluded, Sherman took Breckinridge aside and quietly advised him that the people of the North were particularly bitter toward him.
The North was bitter indeed. Some officials were incensed that a man who had been Vice President and a Presidential candidate should have gone over to the Rebels. The Senate had declared him a traitor in December, 1861, and several Federal courts now held indictments against him for high treason. In 1863, when his death in battle was erroneously reported, the New York Times rejoiced, declaring, “Of all the accursed traitors of the land there has been none more heinously false than he—none whose memory will live in darker ignominy.” Breckinridge, Sherman urged, would be well advised to escape the country.
At the same time that he planned for his own flight, the Secretary was also making plans to get Davis out of the country, and the best route seemed to be through Florida. On April 26 they set out, the president and his Cabinet accompanied by a cavalry escort of two to three thousand men, with Breckinridge in command. They rode across the Catawba and into South Carolina, through Unionville, and on to Abbeville, arriving on May 2. There Davis called his last Cabinet meeting, still with the faint hope of continuing the war. It was a wasted effort. His ministers had lost their heart and were resigning almost daily. General Basil Duke, leading part of the escort, felt that of the government leaders only Breckinridge “knew what was going on, what was going to be done, or what ought to he done.”
That night intelligence came that the enemy’s patrols were in the vicinity, already on their trail, and at eleven o’clock they rode off again into the night. The next morning Breckinridge was faced with a near-mutiny when men of the escort refused to go farther without receiving some of their back pay. It took until late in the evening to distribute among them some of the Confederate funds. It was precious time lost. Davis, unable to wait, had gone on ahead with a small party, and now Breckinridge hastened to rejoin him. He arrived in Washington, Georgia, on the morning of May 4, barely an hour after Davis had left.
Here Breckinridge transacted his last business. He put the remaining Confederate monies, about twentyfive thousand dollars, into responsible hands, drew a thousand dollars to help in his escape, and then disbanded the War Department. He also accepted the last official resignation of a Confederate officer, that of Lieutenant James B. Clay, Jr., grandson of Henry Clay, the compromiser who had fought so long and hard to prevent the tragedy that was now in its last act. The next morning Breckinridge dismissed most of the escort, unpacked his valise, and divided his shirts and tobacco among the couriers who had so faithfully followed him this far. Then he set off with about forty-five volunteers as a decoy to lure Federal troops away from the path of the fleeing Davis.
By the next day Breckinridge had gone only eleven miles, waiting for the enemy to find him in hopes that he could delay their pursuit of the president. He had just taken up quarters in a farmhouse when word came that 250 Union cavalrymen were approaching. The Secretary mounted his escort to face the enemy but gave orders that a fight should be avoided. He wished only to win time. There was a parley, with the Federals demanding surrender, and while the talking went on Breckinridge quietly slipped away into the woods, accompanied by his sons Cabell, twenty, and Clifton, eighteen; young Lieutenant Clay; his adjutant, Lieutenant Colonel James Wilson; a black slave named Tom Ferguson, who belonged to a former staff officer; and a handful of friends. He shortly sent back instructions that his escort surrender and go home. “I will not have one of these young men to encounter one hazard more for my sake,” he said, and then rode off to the south.