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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
With the aid of General Joseph Finegan, Confederate commander in Florida for over three years, Breckinridge planned his flight through the state. While at Finegan’s home he was joined by Captain John Taylor Wood, grandson of President Zachary Taylor and commander of the Tallahassee , a fugitive Confederate privateer whose captures were second only to the Alabama ’s. Wood had been taken with Davis but managed to get away, and now he would be a great asset to Breckinridge. Together they decided to pass down the Atlantic coast and try to reach the Bahamas.
Breckinridge left his son Cabell and all others but Wood, Wilson, and Ferguson in Madison, for the danger seemed to be increasing. Crossing the Suwannee River, he rode southeast into Gaines ville on May 18, with one Federal patrol moving ahead of him on the same road and another one behind him. A lifeboat captured from the Federal gunboat Columbine was placed at his disposal for the trip down the St. Johns River, and lodgings were arranged ahead for his party as they journeyed to meet it.
The Secretary and his party finally reached the St. Johns on May 26, and their boat was waiting for them. “It was a small, open craft, about 17 or 18 feet long …” wrote Breckinridge. “I thought it might do for the river, but it seemed a very frail thing to go on the ocean in.”
Before embarking down the river, the Kentuckian performed his last official act as Secretary of War, indeed the last official act of the Confederate government. He helped play a joke. Seeking to reward a lieutenant who had acted as guide during the past week, he told him: “You shall be a major; I will make out your commission now.” But the lieutenant seemed unimpressed.
“Well, my friend,”said Breckinridge.
“Well, you see, gineral, thar’s a feller in our regiment what hain’t done nothin', and he is a major and a quartermaster; and if its all the same to you, I would just like to rank him for onst.”
Without delay the Secretary of War wrote out a commission for a lieutenant colonelcy.
With this last act out of the way, Breckinridge’s party boarded the lifeboat and pushed out into the stream. Friends had sent along three recently paroled Confederates, Sergeant Joseph O’Toole, Corporal Richard Russell, and Private P. Murphy, to assist in the escape attempt, so now the fugitive band numbered seven.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when they began rowing down the St. Johns, and Breckinridge soon discovered that leaving his pursuers behind did not end his troubles. A heavy storm came up in the evening. He anchored the craft in midstream to ride it out but found that there was no room in the boat for anyone to lie down. They passed the night sleeping as they sat, drenched by the downpour, only to discover by morning’s light that the rain had ruined most of the two weeks’ supplies they had purchased. Just as unfortunate was the loss of much of their gunpowder. Breakfast that morning was gloomy: cornmeal mush, with rum and water.
New discomforts presented themselves daily. The mosquitoes were so thick on the banks that the Confederates were forced to anchor in midstream, while in the water itself there were other, more menacing foes. Breckinridge saw “great numbers of crocodiles [actually alligators] who sunned themselves on the bank, and slid into the river with a sullen plunge on our approach. Sometimes they would swim just across our bow with their black scaly backs just visible, like a gun boat low in the water.” The Secretary shot one with his pistol, and it took three more bullets “through the place where his brains should have been” to kill it. And here it was indeed fortunate for the fugitives that Colonel Wilson was along. He seemed inevitably to possess more enthusiasm than good sense, a failing that kept the company in good spirits even in the worst situations. Now, having found a bag of aromatic musk under the alligator’s throat, the enterprising colonel declared that he would put it in a smelling bottle to present to a lady friend whom he proposed to marry. He soon lost the intended gift, but it may not have mattered. He also discovered that he could not remember his beloved’s name.
Private Murphy left the party on the morning of May 29, while the rest rowed on down to Cooke’s Ferry. Here, by prearrangement, a man was ready to haul their boat overland to the Indian River, on which they would continue their flight. Breckinridge spent the night at the Cooke home, and here he was introduced to two of his host’s daughters. They were old friends of Sergeant O’Toole’s, and it did not escape the Secretary’s attention that the swelling middle of one of them indicated a more than casual relationship.
The portage to the Indian was torturous, thanks largely to the indolent wagon driver, his lazy oxen, and the broken-down wagon. “It would have been less labor,” declared Captain Wood, “to have tied the beasts, put them into the boat, and hauled it across” themselves. And now the mosquitoes became so bad at night that they were forced to sit up around a fire in the protection of its smoke. There was no rest.