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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
Her three occupants, Federal deserters, seemed terrified at first. After a month of hardship Breckinridge and his companions, unshaven and browned by the sun, looked every bit like buccaneers. The Secretary, in an old blue flannel shirt, wore a gigantic straw hat with a brim so huge that it “flapped over his head like the ears of an elephant,” noted one observer.
The deserters were silent, sullen, when Wood and Breckinridge told them they were prisoners and their boat a prize of war. The renegades were well armed and, though outnumbered, Wood saw that “they were desperate and not disposed to surrender their boat without a tussle.” The Confederates wasted no time. The captain and the Secretary stepped into their boat. When one of the deserters hesitated to step forward as ordered, Breckinridge drew his pistol and pointed it in his face. Wood did the same, and they held him at gunpoint while Wilson disarmed all three. Thoroughly subdued, the deserters made no further resistance.
Wood, the old seaman, could appreciate the situation better than the other Confederates and now acted the part of a buccaneer. He set his vivid imagination to concocting aloud all manner of tortures to inflict upon the captives but finally gave in at letting them off with an exchange of boats. Breckinridge joined in the macabre speculation, and the deserters must have been vastly relieved when the two groups switched boats and they were on their way with their lives. They must have been surprised, too, when at the last minute the Secretary gave them a twenty-dollar gold piece for their boat. As for the Confederates, they rejoiced at their good fortune and decided now to make for Cuba in their new, and much better, craft. Breckinridge himself may have mulled with amusement over his new accomplishment—becoming the first Vice President in history to turn pirate. Only the irrepressible Colonel Wilson was disappointed. He expressed considerable sorrow that they had not made their captives “walk the plank.”
If the Secretary thought his adventures had ended with piracy, though, the next morning proved him dreadfully wrong. Needing supplies for their voyage to Cuba, they moved on down the coast toward a small trading post said to be at Fort Dallas (now Miami). It was daylight when they approached the wharf, only to see twenty or thirty renegades—deserters from both armies and navies, outlaws, and Caribbean cutthroats—awaiting them. “A more motley and villainouslooking crew never trod the deck of one of Captain Kidd’s ships,” Wood later recalled. One ruffian hailed the Confederates and was told that they were wreckers who had left their ship a few miles to the north. Wood hoped to intimidate them with the thought that he had more men back at this fictitious vessel.
The renegades ordered the Confederates to land, but Wood and Breckinridge remained suspicious. A canoe put out from the wharf, but the fugitives refused to be persuaded to trust their boat close in to shore. Finally they told the cutthroats that they would buy their supplies elsewhere and started off down the river. Minutes later they saw five canoes loaded with twenty or more of the desperadoes bearing down on them.
Outnumbered three to one, the Confederates decided to make a stand, and Breckinridge prepared to direct their fire. As soon as the lead canoe came into range, Russell fired a shot that broke two paddles and hit one man. That canoe dropped back, but then the men in the others opened fire, shooting wild. Breckinridge and Ferguson tried shots but missed, and then the Secretary ordered that they conserve their powder for sure shots. Soon Russell and Wilson fired together and hit the lead man in the nearest canoe, nearly tipping it over. Their pursuers now paddled their canoes together and spoke briefly, soon sending one boat forward with a white flag. The Confederates could come and buy whatever they wanted.
After some discussion it was decided that O’Toole would go ashore with one hundred dollars. If he didn’t return safely with provisions within two hours, Wood and Breckinridge threatened to leave and come back with the first Union gunboat they could find, their emptiest threat yet. Time was short now, for they could see a column of black smoke rising near Fort Dallas. The Confederates felt certain it was a signal to bring in more of the cutthroats to overwhelm them.
Breckinridge and Wood waited their two hours, and a half hour more, but still O’Toole did not return. They were forced to conclude that he had been robbed and murdered. Sadly they began to row off down the river. Then a canoe appeared astern. It was the sergeant, bringing with him bread, pork, fresh fruit, water, and a small keg of rum. The famished but relieved Confederates ate their first real meal in weeks while O’Toole recounted his experiences and confirmed their suspicions that the renegades had signalled to friends, who fortunately did not arrive in time.