Breckinridge, John C.

Born: 1821-01-16 Lexington, Kentucky

Died: 1875-05-17 Lexington, Kentucky

John C. Breckinridge was a lawyer, state legislator, U.S. Army officer, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, U.S. vice-president, and Confederate general and secretary of war. Born into a devout Presbyterian family, Breckinridge received his early education at Pisgah Academy in Woodford County, Kentucky. He graduated from Centre College in 1839. Breckinridge studied law at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) before transferring to Transylvania University, where he graduated in 1841. Breckinridge then moved to Burlington, Iowa to practice law, but returned to Lexington, Kentucky, only two years later. In 1843, he married Mary Cyrene Burch, with whom he had six children. During the Mexican War, Breckinridge served as a major in the Third Kentucky Regiment. Following the war, Breckinridge ventured into politics. His family had played a prominent role in establishing Jeffersonian Republicanism in Kentucky, so Breckinridge naturally gravitated to the Democratic Party. He won election, as a Democrat, to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849 and remained there until 1851, when he secured a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He remained in the House until 1855, becoming one of the leading figures of the Democratic Party. Breckinridge was a key player in convincing Franklin Pierce to insist that the Kansas-Nebraska Act include language expressly revoking the Missouri Compromise.

Democrats nominated Breckinridge as their vice-presidential candidate in the presidential election of 1856, in part allowing James Buchanan to carry Kentucky. Breckinridge was little-utilized in the Buchanan administration and won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1859 to replace John J. Crittenden, who was scheduled to retire in 1861. Before Breckinridge could assume his seat, the pro-slavery faction of the Democratic Party nominated him as its 1860 presidential candidate. Breckinridge worried that a split Democratic ticket between him and Stephen A. Douglas would lead to Abraham Lincoln’s election and offered to resign his candidacy if Douglas did the same. Douglas refused and Lincoln won, although Breckinridge placed second in the Electoral College.

Breckinridge tried to secure a sectional compromise during the waning days of the Buchanan administration but, once war broke out, he committed himself to the Confederacy, although not before Kentucky officially abandoned its attempt at neutrality in the fall of 1861. Federal forces tried to arrest him and he fled to Virginia, where he received a commission as a brigadier general. Having never resigned his Senate seat, Breckinridge’s fellow U.S. Senators officially expelled him as a traitor. As a general, he primarily served in the western theater, performing well at Shiloh, and earning promotion to major general in the summer of 1862. He fought in most of the major campaigns of the west before Jefferson Davis gave him command of the Department of Southwestern Virginia, where Breckinridge supported Jubal Early’s 1864 Shenandoah campaign. In 1865, Davis appointed Breckinridge secretary of war and he remained in that office until the Confederacy collapsed.

William L. Barney, “Breckinridge, John Cabell,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3:459-61; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 703; William C. Davis, Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1974); Gravestone, The Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, KY.