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John C. Breckinridge -- Political General

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One of the leaders in the Confederate Army of the Mississippi that we think we know enough about, but fail to fully appreciate (perhaps because he was a late entry, put in charge of the Reserve Corps after General Crittenden was removed): John C. Breckinridge. As everyone knows, Breckinridge was VP under Buchanan; but he was Senator from Kentucky when war broke out in April 1861... How did that come about?

Born in Lexington Kentucky into a political family, Breckinridge studied law and graduated from Transylvania College in 1841, aged 20. Moving to Iowa Territory, John Breckinridge set up a Law Office at Burlington; but returned home to Kentucky to visit relatives Summer of 1843, and met and married a cousin of his law partner, Mary Cyrene Burch. The Burlington Law Office was closed, and the young couple settled in Georgetown Kentucky.

The Mexican War erupted in 1846, and John Breckinridge attempted to join a Kentucky regiment, but was disallowed. So, instead of serving in Mexico, Breckenridge built up his law practice (now established in Lexington) until the decision preventing him from serving in the Army was reversed. In August 1847, the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers, along with Major Breckinridge, set off for the war; and arrived in time to help garrison newly captured Mexico City. [There is dispute whether John Breckinridge became a member of the prestigious Aztec Club, as his name is not listed among the Original Members. However, a grandson, James C. Breckinridge, became a Hereditary Member in 1887 and this was only possible if Major Breckinridge was eligible.] One fallout from duty in Mexico was the Gideon Pillow case, resulting in Court-Martial in 1848. Major Breckinridge acted as Defence for Brigadier General Pillow, with the result of No Verdict. A subsequent Court of Inquiry exonerated General Pillow (but he was never made a Member of the Aztec Club.)

John Breckinridge entered politics and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1850, was reelected in 1852 and served until 1855. He was subsequently installed on the ticket as James Buchanan's running mate during the 1856 election, and subsequently served as Vice President until March 4th 1861 (when Hannibal Hamlin was sworn in as VP under President Lincoln.) When Vice President Hamlin swore in newly elected Senators a few days later, John Breckinridge was sworn in as Senator from Kentucky (filling a vacancy.) [And while serving as VP John Breckinridge was on the ballot as Southern Democrat candidate for President in the 1860 election. As result of the NOV 1860 election, Breckinridge gained the second highest number of electoral votes in the 4-way race, and lost to Republican Abraham Lincoln.]

Senator Breckinridge managed to hold onto his seat, and vote on crucial measures, until December 1861, when a vote of the Senate declared him a Traitor, and expelled him. (Breckinridge had joined the Confederate Army in November. His expulsion followed those of ten other Southern Senators expelled in July.)

Commissioned Brigadier General with effect from 2 NOV 1861, two weeks later he was given command of the 1st Kentucky Brigade, under overall command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, and organized that collection of Kentucky units at Bowling Green. With the loss of Fort Donelson in FEB 1862 Breckinridge led his brigade south through Nashville and eventually took up the line of the Memphis & Charleston R.R. west to Corinth. With the removal of Brigadier General George Crittenden end of March 1862, John Breckinridge gained elevation to command of the Reserve Corps, just in time for Shiloh.

Following the Battle of Shiloh, General Breckinridge was Mentioned in Despatches by General PGT Beauregard and is noted for his impressive rear-guard action during Confederate withdrawal to Corinth. During the Siege of Corinth Major General Breckinridge continued in command of the Reserve Corps; he continued to serve in the field (Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and New Market most noteworthy) and in 1865 was called from active duty and installed as the last Confederate Secretary of War. With the pending loss of the Capital at Richmond in April 1865, John Breckinridge fled south with President Davis and the Cabinet; and Breckinridge was one of the few to evade capture, reaching safety in Canada.

References:  https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2011/novemberdecember/feature/the-man-who-came-in-second  John C. Breckinridge

https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1862-05-10/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=1862&sort=relevance&rows=20&words=Peyton&searchType=basic&sequence=0&index=19&state=Virginia&date2=1862&proxtext=Peyton&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=6  The Daily Dispatch (Richmond Virginia) 10 MAY 1862 page 2 col. 5 "Shiloh Report of General Beauregard"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GGmFkl-bzw  [Just an interesting John C. Breckinridge relic or two...]

 

 

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