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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 some effort the boat was righted, and the Confederates sailed on uneventfully to the west until morning. With the dawn they saw the head of a bay and, as they made for it, the white houses and docks of Cardenas. After some difficulty explaining who they were to the port officials, they were finally allowed to come ashore. Cardenas was already well populated with refugee Confederates, and the Cubans themselves, despite their mother country Spain’s official stance of neutrality in the war, seldom hid their sympathy for the Southern cause. As a result, when word of the fugitives’ arrival spread, the town turned out to give Breckinridge a hero’s welcome. It was June 11, 1865, thirty-five days since he had left his escort near Washington, Georgia. Only one other Cabinet member, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, did as well. All the others were captured.
And now, safe at last, the band of adventurers went their separate ways. Their little boat, dubbed the No Name , was sold. Captain Wood soon sailed to Nova Scotia, where he lived out his days. Russell and O’Toole returned to Florida, and Tom Ferguson, now a free man, went back to Alabama to join his family, carrying with him a letter of safe passage and commendation from Breckinridge. Colonel Wilson eventually returned to Kentucky and opened a hotel, writing his old commander, “If my plan of feeding guests on the scantiest cheap fare and charging them the most enormous bill succeeds, I am bound to do well until I am one day killed by some infuriated victim.”
For John C. Breckinridge, however, even arrival in Cuba did not end his trials. Still under indictment in the United States, he lived as an exile in Canada and Europe for the next three and a half years. Not until the general amnesty of Christmas, 1868, did he feel free to return to his beloved Kentucky. When he did, he took up again his law practice. Eschewing politics completely, he nevertheless remained a potent force in the postwar South. At every opportunity he spoke in favor of peaceful reconciliation between North and South, damning the Ku Klux Klan and all other manifestations of extremism. Finally, on May 17, 1875, aged only fifty-four, he died, spent by the labors of an extraordinary life, his death hastened by the hardships of his perilous escape. He breathed his last just ten years from the day when he rode across the Suwannee toward Gainesville to find a boat for his flight to freedom.