JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE: A GREAT AMERICAN
The New York Times Calls For Breckinridge’s Arrest
Breckinridge’s “Treason” Speech
The New York Times Gets Its Wish.
Breckinridge went to Richmond.
John C. Breckinridge in Confederate Uniform
(Lawyer, Union Vice President and Senator from Kentucky, Confederate General and Secretary of War)
In the presidential election of 1860, Bell carried Kentucky, with a popular vote of 66,000 to Breckinridge’s 53,000, Douglas’s 25,000, and Lincoln’s 1,300. On December 27, 1860, Governor Magoffin called the Legislature into session and urged that it call a convention to consider the issue of secession. The Legislature demurred, instead calling for a Peace Conference which was held in Washington, in February 1861. After Lincoln’s call for volunteers, on April 15, 1861, Governor Magoffin again called the Legislature into session for the purpose of establishing a policy of neutrality between North and South. The Legislature resolved that,
“Kentucky will not sever connection with the National Government nor take up arms for either belligerent party; but arm herself for the preservation of peace within her borders.”
The Kentucky Legislature established this policy because of the state’s proximity to Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where volunteers, in vast numbers, were converging on camps to be organized into regiments which could overwhelm the force the Legislature might organize for the field.
Two months later, on June 20, 1861, to fill Kentucky’s seats at the extra session of Congress, commencing July 4, a congressional election was held which resulted in the election of nine Union (Bell) party members and one Breckinridge (States Rights) party member to the House of Representatives. The vote was 92,000 in favor of the Union men, 36,000 in favor of the secession men. The Legislature, at this time, elected John C. Breckinridge, Vice President during the Buchanan Administration, to occupy a vacant Senate seat.
In July and August, secession forces, as well as Union forces, established camps in the State. On August 5, regular legislative elections were held which resulted in the return of a large Union party to the general assembly. In September the new Legislature annulled the previous legislature’s policy of neutrality: by a vote of 71 to 26, it directed the Governor to order all Confederate troops to leave the state. An attempt to include Union troops in this was defeated by a similar vote. A new resolution was then agreed to:
“Resolved, That Kentucky’s peace and neutrality have been wantonly violated, her soil has been invaded, and the rights of her citizens infringed by the so-called Confederate forces. Therefore, be it enacted that the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that the Governor call out the military force of the State to expel and drive out the invaders, that the United States be invoked to give aid and assistance.”
The following day Grant, from his base at Cairo, Illinois, crossed the Ohio River and occupied Paducah with two regiments and a battery. Confederate forces at the same time occupied Columbus with a force of ten regiments and six batteries. Major Anderson assumed command of the Department of Kentucky on September 20 and established his headquarters at Louisville and began recruiting. The Lincoln Government then began arresting politicians and newspaper editors and shipping them to New York for incarceration at Fort Lafayette.
At this point, John C. Breckinridge, with other Kentuckians marked for arrest by Lincoln, fled the state capital in the northern part of the state and passed into the Confederate lines in the southern part.
Shiloh in 1862
On April 6, 1862, Breckinridge was a brigadier-general in the Confederate army of the Tennessee, in command of 2,400 Kentuckians organized as the Kentucky Brigade. The brigade, along with two others, constituted the Confederate reserve of about 8,500 men, and Breckinridge commanded this force during the two day battle. Without any education as a military officer and with no experience in battle. The Kentucky Brigade’s 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Kentucky volunteer regiments joined the combat in the center and left of the battle about noon. Breckinridge, splitting his command into two wings, drove the Union troops from their camps toward the river over the afternoon, eventually enveloping Prentiss’s division in the hornets’ nest, by repeated charges against the flanks and center of the redoubt, and forced its surrender. On the second day of the battle, two fresh Union divisions from Buell’s army, and one of Grant’s not engaged the first day, attacked. The confederates fought for most of the day to hold Grant against the river. Breckinridge’s command fought Kentuckians, in Union General William Nelson’s division, at Shiloh Church; until Beauregard gave the order to retreat from the battlefield toward Corinth. “It was most horrible, “someone said, “when Kentuckians fought Kentuckians.”
Kentucky Regiments Drive Sherman to the Banks of the Tennessee
Stones River 1862-63
Breckinridge, now a major-general, commanded five brigades in the battle which extended over three days. Rosecrans, with an army of 44,000, had followed the Army of the Tennessee from Nashville and had attacked it as it was settling into winter quarters. Breckinridge had both successes and failures in this battle which resulted in Bragg moving away deeper into Tennessee. Rosecrans did not follow.
Six months later, the Army of Tennessee met Rosecrans again, this time near a stream called Chickamauga Creek, ten miles south of Chattanooga. Breckinridge commanded a division in D.H. Hill’s corps. Breckinridge led the Kentucky Brigade in a series of charges against Rosecrans’s left, coming against the extreme end of the Union line, splitting the brigade in two. One half of the brigade poured into the Union rear, right up to a line of guns, capturing two of them, while the other half battled hand-to-hand with the enemy holding the Union breastworks. Despite several charges that carried them into the Union trenches, and with reinforcements coming up behind them, the brigade could not hold its ground and was driven back.
At this point Breckinridge appeared in the midst of them and shouted, “Come on you wild Kentuckians! Charge em out!” And again in a mass they pressed forward, this time over the breastworks, over the guns, and, as dusk spread through the woods, pushed the enemy back from the Chattanooga road. The price paid was ghastly: Of the 1,000 Kentuckians that overpowered the Union left and made Rosecran retreat from the field, 53% were either killed or wounded. The Kentucky Brigade’s commander during this battle was Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law of Lincoln’s. Helm was killed in the last charge that carried the brigade to the Chattanooga Road. When Lincoln was informed of Helm’s death he is supposed to have exclaimed: “I feel as David of old did when he was told of the death of Absalom.”
Drawing by Alfred R. Waud
At the dedication of the Kentucky Monument at the battlefield, in 1889, Kentucky Governor. Bradley said:
“Kentucky shows no partiality in the evidence of loving remembrance. It carries with it no heart burning, no jealousy, no invidious distinction. It is not an emblem of honor to the victor and reproach to the vanquished, but an equal tribute to the worth of all. In the future, the descendants of Confederates may proudly realize that, although their cause was lost, Kentucky reveres their memories. And the sons of Confederates can look upon the sons of the brave men of Kentucky who fought for the Union with equal pride. May Kentucky endure forever, standing guard over victor and vanquished, in one hand hold the torch of liberty shedding its golden rays, while in the other grasping, in a lightening rod, the power of the people.”
Missionary Ridge 1863
Breckinridge commanded nine brigades, covering a two mile front opposite Grant’s center. Attacking the Confederate flanks through most of the day, Grant tried to break the center toward dusk, throwing three divisions against Breckinridge’s lines, breaking through and capturing thirty-seven guns and 2,000 men. This forced the Confederates to fall back five hundred yards to another ridge where they held Grant at bay till nightfall.
The valley of the Shenandoah, May 1864
Cold Harbor June 1864
After Franz Sigel retreated down the valley to be replaced by David Hunter, Breckinridge was called by Lee to Richmond. Marching east across the Blue Ridge, Breckinridge’s little army reached Lee’s lines at the North Anna, just as Grant was moving beyond the Confederate right, crossing the Pampunkey and heading toward the Chickahominy in front of Richmond. Lee sent Breckinridge marching down the line of the Virginia Central Railroad, with R.H. Anderson’s corps, and this force reached the front of Grant’s advance, just as the Union infantry was forcing the Confederate cavalry, under Fitz Lee, to give way.
General Lee sent this message to Breckinridge as the rebel cavalry was giving way near Salem Church: “I wish you would place your troops on the road to Salem Church.” An hour later Breckinridge’s men were digging trenches across the road as Fitz Lee’s exhausted cavalrymen came through the line to safety. Several days later, when, at Grant’s order, Hancock attacked Breckinridge’s front, in the center of Lee’s line, he broke in but was driven out with the greatest slaughter Grant had ever seen. After that Grant moved past Richmond and crossed the James to initiate the nine months siege of Petersburg.
July 1864: In Sight of Washington
The Spot Lincoln Stood
Jubal Early describes what happened: “We came down the Seventh Street pike, driving Union cavalry before us into Fort Stevens about noon. The dome of the Capitol was in sight. Rodes, whose division was in front, was ordered to move into the works if he could, but before he could get up, a column of the enemy filed into it”
“The fortification was found to be exceedingly strong, and consisted of an enclosed fort for heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front of each pierced with guns, the whole being connected with curtains with ditches in front and strengthened by palisades and abattis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground. On the right was Rock Creek, running through a deep ravine and beyond were the works on the Georgetown pike which had been reported the strongest of all. On the left, as far as the eye could reach, the works appeared to be of the same character. After dark on July 11th, I held a council with Major-Generals Breckinridge, Rodes, Gordon and Ramseur, the result of which was to make an assault on the fortifications at daylight. But, during the night, intelligence came that two corps from Grant’s army at Petersburg had arrived by water. That morning, a strong force of the enemy attacked us but were driven back behind the forts and that night we retired.”
Ten months later, in the afternoon of Sunday, April 2, 1865, Breckinridge—now the Confederacy’s last secretary of war—stood in Jefferson Davis’s office in Richmond’s old Customs Building and handed the Confederate President, Lee’s telegram explaining the collapse of his lines at Petersburg. About midnight, Breckinridge watched the President’s train pull away from the Danville depot, and he returned to the Capitol and gave the order to fire the wherehouses and the James River bridges.
On April 13, Breckinridge caught up with President Davis at Greensboro, North Carolina, and there attended a conference between Davis and General Joseph Johnston, who was opposing the advance of Sherman.
At the conference Davis authorized Johnston to negotiate terms of peace with Sherman and he then left Greensboro by horseback and headed for Charlotte. Breckinridge and Johnston went together to meet Sherman near Hillsboro and were conferring with him when a courier arrived with the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Soon thereafter Sherman and Johnston agreed upon the terms of surrender for Johnston’s army and Breckinridge rode south toward Charlotte and caught up with Davis near Fort Mill on April 27.
By May 3, Davis, Breckinridge, several other Cabinet members and an escort of a hundred soldiers were across the Savannah River and at Washington, Georgia. Here, Davis and Breckinridge parted company, Davis going on toward the Florida line where he was captured near Irwindale; Breckinridge moved alone through southeastern Georgia and entered Florida near the east coast, passing down through the center part of the state to the Atlantic Ocean at Daytona. On June 3, he stepped into a small boat and sailed down the coast and then along the Keyes, and then slipped into the Gulf Stream which carried him to Cuba.
Breckinridge sailed from Havana for England in August 1865. There he met his wife and children and they went on an extended tour of Europe and the Middle East. In 1868, he settled his family at Niagara Falls. On Christmas Day, 1869, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation of general amnesty, and Breckinridge returned to Kentucky where he practiced law in Lexington, until his death at the age of fifty-four, in 1875. His remains are buried in a cemetery in Lexington. A State Monument to him sits on the old Courthouse Square.
(The Kentucky Legislature appropriated $10,000 and commissioned Valentine to design the statute.)
Breckinridge was at Vicksburg too
Lincoln and Davis in Conversation
John C. Breckinridge died in Lexington, Kentucky, on May 17, 1875.
The New York Times Remembers Breckinridge Unkindly
Freshman Oregon senator Edward Baker, long-time friend of Lincoln, was commissioned colonel of the 71st Pennsylvania volunteer regiment in June 1861. During the debate over the resolution in the first session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, Baker appeared regularly on the floor of the Senate in his uniform and made vociferous speeches against the Confederates. He was killed at Balls Bluff, Virginia, in October 1861, as he came up the bank of the Potomac waving his sword over his head.
A Mythic Scene
John Breckinridge’s greatest moment as an American, in his most exciting life, was his standing at his place in the Senate, in July 1861, surrounded by the Republicans sneering and insulting him, and telling the country the truth about the Constitution and war: When the people allow their government to exercise the war-making power, they cannot complain when the President, in using it, strips from them their civil liberties. As the New York Times said at the time of Breckinridge’s great Senate speech: “The Constitution contemplates only a condition of peace, leaving the exigencies of war to the necessities of the occasion, to the higher law of instinct and self-preservation.” Woe, then, to the people when they are so foolish as to encourage their government to wield this uncontrollable power aggressively.
The Republican politicians these days prate about what they call “American Exceptionalism;.” their definition of it being the idea that we Americans are better, smarter, stronger than the rest of the people in the world (certainly, with our gargantuan war machine, we’re like Romans these days doing all the invading). A better definition of the term, though, is found in the character of a great American like Breckinridge, who would rather resist tyranny, with words and action, than sit mute in prison a political prisoner.
Do you think Breckinridge's words and actions were traitorous, under the Constitution?