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John C. Breckinridge

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John C. Breckinridge

John Cabell Breckinridge (January 16, 1821May 17, 1875) was a lawyer, U.S. Representative, Senator from Kentucky, the fourteenth Vice President of the United States, and a Confederate general in the American Civil War.

Breckinridge, grandson of U.S. Senator and Attorney General John Breckinridge, was born at "Cabell's Dale," near Lexington, Kentucky. He graduated from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in 1839, later attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and then studied law at Transylvania University in Lexington. He was admitted to the bar in 1840 and moved to Burlington, Iowa, but soon returned and began practice in Lexington. He was married to Mary Cyrene Burch in 1843. Breckinridge was a major of the Third Kentucky Volunteers during the Mexican-American War in 1847 and 1848.

He was a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849 as a Democrat, and was then elected to the Thirty-second and Thirty-third Congresses (March 4, 1851March 3, 1855). Breckinridge did not run for reelection, and instead was nominated as Minister to Spain by President Franklin Pierce, but declined. He was elected Vice President in 1856 on the Democratic ticket with James Buchanan as President. He was the youngest Vice President in US history at age 35, the minimum age required under the US Constitution.

Breckinridge was an unsuccessful candidate for President in 1860, losing to Abraham Lincoln, and receiving more electoral votes than the other 2 major candidates, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, and Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrats' nominee. He was elected to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1861 until expelled by resolution of December 4, 1861, for support of the rebellion. He entered the Confederate Army during the American Civil War as a brigadier general and soon became a major general, originally commanding the First Kentucky (Orphan) Brigade. He fought in many battles in the Western Theater, including the Battle of Shiloh, in which he was wounded. He returned east in 1864, during the Overland Campaign, and was wounded again in the Battle of Cold Harbor. He led the famous charge of the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market on May 14, 1864.

In early 1865, Breckinridge was made Secretary of War in the Cabinet of the Confederate States of America, a post he would hold until the end of the war. Breckinridge saw that further resistance on the part of the Confederacy was useless and worked to lay the groundwork for an honorable surrender, even while President Jefferson Davis fiercely desired to continue the fight.

During the chaos of the fall of Richmond in early April, 1865, Breckinridge saw to it that the Confederate archives, both government and military, were not destroyed but rather captured intact by the Union forces. By so doing, he ensured that a full account of the Confederate war effort would be preserved for history.

Breckinridge went with Davis during the flight from Virginia as the Confederacy collapsed, while also assisting General Joseph E. Johnston is his surrender negotiations with William T. Sherman. Breckinridge continued to try to persuade Davis that further resistance would only lead to greater lose of life, but he also felt honor bound to protect the President from harm. Eventually, the two became separated in the confusion of the journey.

Breckinridge feared that he would be put on trial for treason by the United States government and resolved to flee the country. In an epic journey, filled with bizarre adventures, he and a small band made their way down the east coast of Florida, eventually sailing across the sea in a tiny boat to reach safety in Cuba. He continued to England, Canada, and England again. He returned to Lexington in March 1869 after being granted amnesty and resumed the practice of law. While turning down suggestions that he become active in politics again, he spoke out strongly against the Ku Klux Klan. He became vice president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington, and Big Sandy Railroad Company. He died in Lexington and was interred in Lexington Cemetery.


Preceded by:
William R. King
Democratic Party Vice Presidential candidate
1856 (won)
Succeeded by:
Herschel Vespasian Johnson (northern candidate),
Joseph Lane (southern candidate)
Preceded by:
William R. King
Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1857March 3, 1861
Succeeded by:
Hannibal Hamlin
Preceded by:
James Buchanan
Democratic Party Presidential candidate*
1860 (lost)
Succeeded by:
George McClellan

Template:Succession footnote Template:End box


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