The Vice President Flees

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Breckinridge hoped to rejoin Davis to aid the president’s attempt at escape. First, however, he had to take precautions against being recognized. His years in national politics had made his face well known even in the remote backwoods of Georgia. To combat this the Secretary cut short the long flowing mustache which had become his trademark during the war, put on a black broadcloth suit and his “battle coat”—an old hunting shirt—in place of his uniform, and assumed an alias, “Colonel Cabell.” He rode eleven miles this first day and forty miles on the next, and decided that henceforth he would head for Madison, Florida, a refuge for a number of Confederate fugitives. Before setting out again, however, he sent Clifton and young Clay back to Kentucky. From here on the journey would be too rugged, its outcome too uncertain.

Heavy rains slowed his progress on Monday, May 8, and it was late when his little party finally reached Dublin, Georgia, on the Oconee River. They badly needed food for the ride ahead, and Breckinridge decided to take a chance and send a scout into town for provisions. The Confederates made the necessary purchases without mishap, but at midnight, as Breckinridge and his party were encamped, a patrol of Federal cavalry swooped out of the night and narrowly missed them, riding by so close that the Secretary could make out every detail of their uniforms in the moonlight.

Spurred by this close call, Breckinridge pushed on nearly sixty miles the next day, all of it through rains that turned the country roads into sticky mires. At least the water washed away all sign of his passing. Thus, it was well after midnight when the party, chilled and exhausted, reined up a few miles north of the Ocmulgee River crossing at Jacksonville, Georgia. The Secretary made camp in a dense thicket. When morning came, they were all in a sorry state, the horses utterly broken down. Their only comfort lay in their belief that they were momentarily safe from Federal patrols. They could not know that at that very moment, just forty miles west of them at Irwinville, President Jefferson Davis and his escort were being captured by Union cavalry.

The fugitives needed rest, and Breckinridge stopped for most of the day at a nearby farmhouse, where he was hospitably received, in part because he looked strangely familiar to his hosts. Word got out that important people were here, and soon neighbors “happened” by to visit. They kept staring at him and then at a portrait of Davis on the wall, but no one revealed his true identity. After passing the night the Secretary set out the next morning to cross the Ocmulgee.

They failed to find the expected boat awaiting them at the crossing, and Breckinridge’s guide set out in search of it. The day was pleasant for a change, and the party unsaddled their horses, Ferguson spreading a blanket for the Secretary under the shade of a tree. Then, with the Confederacy—and with it his own career and all hopes for his future—collapsing all around him, Breckinridge lay down to read. The book was, of all things, Plutarch’s Decline and Fall of Athens .

 

Finally the boat was found, and slowly the Confederates ferried themselves across until only Breckinridge remained on the north bank. Bringing the boat back to get him, Wilson found the Secretary standing on the bank, lost in thought, his eyes looking to the west. He seemed not to hear Wilson’s calls, and when finally he did, he motioned him to wait. Then he spoke softly the words of a popular poem, “Oh! Come to the South,” its last stanza tragically appropriate as he prepared to fly ever farther from his native and beloved land:

Oh! here would thy beauty most brilliantly beam, And life pass away like some delicate dream; Each wish of thy heart should realized be, And this beautiful land seem an Eden to thee.

Those in the boat found themselves “spell-bound by the grandeur of the occasion”; one later noted that “not a word was spoken until after we had crossed, when Breckinridge, springing to his saddled horse, called for us to ‘mount and away.’”

 

Now the Secretary was deep into Georgia, and on May 11 he stopped at Milltown, just short of the Florida border. He intended to wait here for President Davis, but when word came three days later of the president’s capture, there was nothing to keep him longer, especially with news of a Federal patrol just a few miles north of him. The next day he crossed into Florida, to Madison.