But it so happened that there were six or eight gentlemen also accompanying me, all of them belonging to the Whig Party, and they proposed to me that if I would not return to my own town and vote, they would not. If they would, there would be six or seven votes cast for Taylor and but one cast for Cass. I accepted the proposition, and we went hunting; and had every man done as well as myself, we should have carried the State by 40,000 majority.
John Cabell Breckinridge was born at Thorn Hill, his family's estate near Lexington, Kentucky on January 16, 1821. The fourth of six children born to Joseph "Cabell" Breckinridge and Mary Clay (Smith) Breckinridge, he was their only son. His mother was the daughter of Samuel Stanhope Smith, who founded Hampden–Sydney College in 1775, and granddaughter of John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Having previously served as Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Breckinridge's father had been appointed Kentucky's Secretary of State just prior to his son's birth. In February, one month after Breckinridge's birth, the family moved with Governor John Adair to the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort, so that his father could better attend to his duties as Secretary of State.
In August 1823, an illness referred to as "the prevailing fever" struck Frankfort, and Cabell Breckinridge took his children to stay with his mother in Lexington. On his return, both he and his wife fell ill. Cabell Breckinridge died, but she survived. His assets were not enough to pay his debts, and his widow joined the children in Lexington, supported by her mother-in-law. While in Lexington, Breckinridge attended Pisgah Academy in Woodford County. His grandmother taught him the political philosophies of her late husband, John Breckinridge, who served in the U.S. Senate and as Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson. As a state legislator, Breckinridge had introduced the Kentucky Resolutions in 1798, which stressed states' rights and endorsed the doctrine of nullification in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Breckinridge remained in Lexington while deciding where to begin practice, borrowing law books from the library of John J. Crittenden, Thomas Crittenden's father. Deciding that Lexington was overcrowded with lawyers, he moved to Frankfort, but was unable to find an office. After being spurned by a love interest, he and former classmate Thomas W. Bullock departed for the Iowa Territory on October 10, 1841 seeking better opportunities. Journeying westward, they considered settling on land Breckinridge had inherited in Jacksonville, Illinois, but they found the bar stocked with able men like Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. They continued on to Burlington, Iowa, and by the winter of 1842–1843, Breckinridge reported to family members that his firm handled more cases than almost any other in Burlington. Influenced by Bullock and the citizens of Iowa, he identified with the Democratic Party, and by February 1843, he had been named to the Democratic committee of Des Moines County. Most of the Kentucky Breckinridges were Whigs, and when he learned of his nephew's party affiliation, william Breckinridge declared, "I felt as I would have done if I had heard that my daughter had been dishonored."
Breckinridge visited Kentucky in May 1843. His efforts to mediate between his mother and the Breckinridges extended his visit and after he contracted influenza, he decided to remain for the summer rather than returning to Iowa's colder climate. While at home, he met Bullock's cousin, Mary Cyrene Burch, and by September, they were engaged. In October, Breckinridge went to Iowa to close out his Business, then returned to Kentucky and formed a law partnership with Samuel Bullock, Thomas's cousin. He married on December 12, 1843, and settled in Georgetown, Kentucky. The couple had six children – Joseph Cabell (b. 1844), Clifton Rodes (b. 1846; later a Congressman from Arkansas), Frances (b. 1848), John Milton (b. 1849), John Witherspoon (b. 1850) and Mary Desha (b. 1854). Gaining confidence in his ability as a Lawyer, Breckinridge moved his family back to Lexington in 1845 and formed a partnership with Future U.S. Senator James B. Beck.
Breckinridge again applied for a military commission after william Owsley, the Governor of Kentucky, called for two additional regiments on August 31, 1847. Owsley's advisors encouraged the Whig governor to commission at least one Democrat, and Whig Senator John J. Crittenden supported Breckinridge's application. On September 6, 1847, Owsley appointed Manlius V. Thomson as colonel, Thomas Crittenden as lieutenant colonel and Breckinridge as major of the Third Kentucky Infantry Regiment. The regiment left Kentucky on November 1 and reached Vera Cruz by November 21. After a serious epidemic of La Vomito, or yellow fever, broke out at Vera Cruz, the regiment hurried to Mexico City. Reports indicate that Breckinridge walked all but two days of the journey, allowing weary Soldiers to use his horse. When the Third Kentucky reached Mexico City on December 18, the fighting was almost over; they participated in no combat and remained in the city as an army of occupation until May 30, 1848.
In August 1849, Kentuckians elected delegates to a state constitutional convention in addition to state representatives and senators. Breckinridge's abolitionist uncles, william and Robert, joined with Cassius Marcellus Clay to nominate slates of like-minded candidates for the constitutional convention and the legislature. In response, a bipartisan group of pro-slavery citizens organized its own slate of candidates, including Breckinridge for one of Fayette County's two seats in the House of Representatives. Breckinridge, who by this time owned five slaves, had publicly declared his opposition to "impairing in any form" the legal protection of slavery. Despite his endorsement of slavery protections, he was a member of the Freemasons and the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, both of which officially opposed slavery. He had also previously represented free blacks in court, expressed support for voluntary emancipation, and supported the Kentucky Colonization Society, which was dedicated to the relocation of free blacks to Liberia.
On March 4, 1850, three days before the end of the session, Breckinridge took a leave of absence to care for his son, John Milton, who had become ill; he died on March 18. Keeping a busy schedule to cope with his grief, he urged adoption of the proposed constitution at a series of meetings around the state. His only concern with the document was its lack of an amendment process. The constitution was overwhelmingly ratified in May. Democrats wanted to nominate him for re-election, but he declined, citing problems "of a private and imperative character". Davis wrote "his Problem – besides continuing sadness over his son's death – was money."
Breckinridge was a delegate to the January 8, 1851, state Democratic convention which nominated Lazarus W. Powell for governor. A week later, he announced that he would seek election to Congress from Kentucky's Eighth District. Nicknamed the "Ashland district" because it contained Ashland, the estate of Whig Party founder Henry Clay, and much of the area Clay once represented, the district was a Whig stronghold. In the previous congressional election, Democrats had not even nominated a candidate. Breckinridge's opponent, Leslie Combs, was a former state legislator whose popularity was bolstered by his association with Clay and his participation in the War of 1812; he was expected to win the election easily. In April, the candidates held a debate in Frankfort, and in May, they jointly canvassed the district, making daily speeches. Breckinridge reiterated his strict constructionist view of the U.S. Constitution and denounced the protective tariffs advocated by the Whigs, stating that "free thought needs free trade". His strong voice and charismatic personality contrasted with the campaign style of the much older Combs. On election day, he carried only three of the district's seven counties, but accumulated a two-to-one victory margin in Owen County, winning the county by 677 votes and the election by 537. Democrats carried five of Kentucky's ten congressional districts, and Powell was elected as the first Democratic governor since 1834.
On April 18, Breckinridge heard from Sherman and Johnston of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln four days earlier; the President had died in the Petersen House, where Breckinridge briefly resided in late 1852 as a congressman. The Kentuckian was visibly devastated. Eyewitness accounts recall him to have said, "Gentlemen, the South has lost its best friend."
Desiring to care for his sick wife and rebuild his personal wealth, Breckinridge returned to his law practice in Lexington. In addition to his legal practice, he engaged in land speculation in Minnesota and Wisconsin territories. When Governor Willis A. Gorman of the Minnesota Territory thwarted an attempt by Breckinridge's fellow Investors (not including Breckinridge) to secure approval of a railroad connecting Dubuque, Iowa, with their Investments near Superior, Wisconsin, they petitioned Pierce to remove Gorman and appoint Breckinridge in his place. In 1855, Pierce authorized two successive investigations of Gorman, but failed to uncover any wrongdoing that would justify his removal. During his time away from politics, Breckinridge also promoted the advancement of horse racing in his native state and was chosen President of the Kentucky Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses.
As a delegate to the 1856 Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, Breckinridge favored Pierce's re-nomination for President. When Pierce's hopes of securing the nomination faltered, Breckinridge joined other erstwhile Pierce backers by throwing his support behind his friend, Stephen Douglas. Even with this additional support, Douglas was still unable to garner a majority of the delegates' votes, and he withdrew, leaving James Buchanan as the Democratic nominee. william Alexander Richardson, a Kentucky-born Congressman from Illinois, then suggested that nominating Breckinridge for vice-president would balance Buchanan's ticket and placate disgruntled supporters of Douglas or Pierce. A delegate from Louisiana placed his name before the convention, and although Breckinridge desired the nomination, he declined, citing his deference to fellow Kentuckian and former House Speaker Linn Boyd, who was supported by the Kentucky delegation.
Buchanan rarely consulted Breckinridge when making patronage appointments, and meetings between the two were infrequent. When Breckinridge and Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution, which would have admitted Kansas as a slave state instead of allowing the people to vote, they managed to alienate most Northern Democrats, including Douglas. This disagreement ended plans for Breckinridge, Douglas, and Minnesota's Henry Mower Rice to build a series of three elaborate, conjoined row houses in which to live during their time in Washington, D.C. In November 1857, after Breckinridge found alternative lodging in Washington, he sold a slave woman and her young infant which, according to Historian James C. Klotter, probably ended his days as a slaveholder. When Breckinridge did not travel to Illinois to campaign for Douglas's re-election to the Senate and gave him only a lukewarm endorsement, relations between them worsened.
Early in 1859, Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina reported to a friend that Breckinridge was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, but as late as January 1860, Breckinridge told family members that he had no Desire for the nomination. A The New York Times editorial noted that while Buchanan was falling "in prestige and political consequence, the star of the Vice President rises higher above the clouds." Douglas, considered the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was convinced that Breckinridge would be a candidate; this, combined with Buchanan's reluctant support of Breckinridge and Breckinridge's public support for a federal slave code deepened the rift between the two.
Despite differences in spelling, the towns of Breckenridge, Minnesota, Breckenridge, Missouri, Breckenridge, Texas, and Breckenridge, Colorado were named in Breckinridge's honor. The Colorado town deliberately changed the spelling of its name when its namesake joined the Confederacy. Fort Breckinridge, Arizona Territory (1860 to 1865), located at the confluence of the Aravaipa Creek and the San Pedro River, was named in honor of the Vice President. During the Civil War, its name was changed to Fort Stanford in honor of California Governor Leland Stanford, before being changed back to Fort Breckinridge. After the Civil War, the name was changed once again to Camp Grant. Between 1855 and 1862, the county now known as Lyon County, Kansas, was known as Breckinridge County.
On the recommendation of Simon Bolivar Buckner, the former commander of the Kentucky State Militia who had also joined the Army of the Confederate States, Breckinridge was commissioned as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army on November 2, 1861. On November 16, he was given command of the 1st Kentucky Brigade. Nicknamed the Orphan Brigade because its men felt orphaned by Kentucky's Unionist state government, the brigade was in Buckner's 2nd Division of the Army of Mississippi, commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston. For several weeks, he trained his troops in the city, and he also participated in the organization of a provisional Confederate government for the state. Although not sanctioned by the legislature in Frankfort, its existence prompted the Confederacy to admit Kentucky on December 10, 1861.
At Murfreesboro, Breckinridge's Division was assigned to Lieutenant General william J. Hardee's Corps and was stationed on the east side of the Stones River. When the Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General william Rosecrans, attacked on December 31, 1862, beginning the Battle of Stones River, Bragg's main force initially repelled the attack. Bragg ordered Breckinridge to reinforce him on the west side of the river, but Brigadier General John Pegram, who commanded a Cavalry brigade, erroneously reported that a large Union force was advancing along the east bank, and Breckinridge was slow to comply with Bragg's order. When he finally crossed the river, his attacks were ineffective, and Bragg ordered him back across the river. By January 2, Union forces had taken a ridge that ran along the river; against Breckinridge's advice, Bragg ordered the 2nd Division to launch a near-suicidal attack on the federal position. Prior to the attack, Breckinridge wrote to Preston, "if [the attack] should result in disaster and I be among the killed, I want you to do justice to my memory and tell the people that I believed this attack to be very unwise and tried to prevent it."
On December 15, 1863, Breckinridge took leave in Richmond. Premature rumors of his death prompted The New York Times to print a quite vituperative obituary suggesting that Breckinridge had been a hypocrite for supporting states' rights, then abandoning his home state when it chose to remain in the Union. Confederate Leaders were skeptical of Bragg's claims against Breckinridge, and in February 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis assigned him to the Eastern Theater and put him in charge of the Trans-Allegheny Department (later known as the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia).
After the death of John Hunt Morgan, Breckinridge again took command of the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia. He reorganized the department, which was in great disarray. On October 2, 1864 at the First Battle of Saltville, his troops were able to protect critical Confederate salt works from United States forces under Stephen G. Burbridge, despite a lack of resources. The next morning, he discovered that Soldiers under his command had begun killing about 100 wounded black Union Soldiers of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry. Hearing the gunfire, he rushed to stop the massacre. Brigadier General Felix Huston Robertson was suspected of involvement. General Lee instructed Breckinridge to "prefer charges against him and bring him to trial", but no trial ever took place.
Arriving in Britain in late July, he consulted with former Confederate agents there and arranged communication with his wife, then in Canada. Re-crossing the Atlantic, he was reunited with his wife and all of his children except Clifton in Toronto on September 13, 1865. The family spent the winter in Toronto, living first in a hotel and then in a rented house. There were quite a number of other Confederate exiles in the city. It was enough, according to Mrs. Breckinridge, "to form quite a pleasant society among ourselves." The family moved to Niagara in May. In August, doctors advised Breckinridge's wife that the climate of France might benefit her ailing health. Cabell Breckinridge returned to the U.S. to engage in Business ventures with his brother Clifton, and Mary, just 12 years old, was sent to live with relatives in New York. The remainder of the family journeyed to Europe, where the children attended school in Paris, Versailles, and Vevey, Switzerland. From mid-1866 to early 1868, Breckinridge toured Europe – including visits to Germany, Austria, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Egypt, and the Holy Land; because of her poor health, his wife remained in France until February 1868, when she joined him in Naples, Italy. During their tour of Italy, Breckinridge met with Pope Pius IX in Rome, and also visited Pompeii.
Desiring to return to the U.S. but still fearing capture, Breckinridge moved his family back to Niagara in June 1868. Within sight of the U.S. border, he steadfastly refused to seek a pardon, although 70 members of the Kentucky General Assembly had requested one on his behalf from President Andrew Johnson on February 10, 1866. On January 8, 1868, the Louisville City Council instructed the state's congressional delegation to seek assurance that Breckinridge would not be prosecuted on his return. James Beck, Breckinridge's old law partner, was then in Congress and wrote to him on December 11, 1868, that it appeared likely that Johnson would issue a general pardon for all former Confederates; he advised Breckinridge to return to the U.S. prior to the pardon being issued because he feared it might only apply to those in the country.
Johnson proclaimed amnesty for all former Confederates on December 25, 1868. Still in Canada, Breckinridge lingered for a few weeks to receive assurance that it still applied to him even though he had not been in the U.S. when it was issued. Departing Canada on February 10, 1869, he made several stops to visit family and friends along the route to Lexington, where he arrived on March 9. Although he resided in Kentucky for the rest of his life, he never bought a home there after the war, living first in hotels and then renting a home on West Second Street.
Many insurance companies in the south asked Breckinridge to join them in various capacities. In August 1868, he became manager of the Kentucky branch of Virginia's Piedmont Life Insurance Company (which soon became the Piedmont and Arlington Insurance Company). Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) offered him a professorship. He was urged to accept by former Confederate Colonel william Preston Johnston, who was already serving as a faculty member, but Breckinridge declined. He resumed his law practice, taking as a partner Robert A. Thornton, a 27-year-old former Confederate soldier. He served as general counsel for the proposed Cincinnati Southern Railway, which would connect Cincinnati to Chattanooga via Lexington. Officials in Louisville tried to block the move, which would break the near-monopoly that the Louisville and Nashville Railroad had on southern trade. On January 25, 1870, he presented his case to the House and Senate railroad committees and, although they rejected it at that time, they approved it two years later. Construction began in 1873.
Breckinridge's other railroad ventures were less successful. During his lifetime, he was unable to secure the construction of railroads to his real estate Investments in and around Superior, Wisconsin. As President of the newly formed Elizabethtown, Lexington, and Big Sandy Railroad company, he secured financial backing from Collis Potter Huntington for a railroad connecting Elizabethtown and Lexington to the Big Sandy River as part of a route linking those cities with the Atlantic Ocean. When Huntington invested in June 1871, he became President of the company, and Breckinridge became vice-president. A line from Lexington to Mount Sterling was all that could be completed before the Panic of 1873 dried up the needed investment capital. The proposed line was finally completed in 1881.
By 1873, Breckinridge began to experience health problems which he referred to as "pleuro-pneumonia". Repeated surgeries and visits to the New York coast and the Virginia mountains did not improve his condition. In May 1875, he consulted Surgeons Lewis Sayre and Samuel D. Gross, who concluded that his ill health was caused by cirrhosis brought on by injuries to his liver suffered during the war. Of more immediate concern was the fluid that filled two-thirds of one of his lungs. On May 11, Sayre attempted to create an artificial opening through which the fluid could drain; although he had to stop before completing the operation, some of the fluid was drained, bringing a measure of relief. Assisted by Beck and Frank K. Hunt, Breckinridge completed his will. Sayre further alleviated Breckinridge's pain via another surgery on the morning of May 17, but by the afternoon, his condition rapidly worsened, and he died at approximately 5:45 p.m. at the age of 54. Basil Duke led the funeral procession to Lexington Cemetery where Breckinridge's body was buried.
On May 20, 1875, the Louisville Courier Journal declared that it was Breckinridge who was "truly representative of the rebellion as an actual force and its underlying causes." He was viewed poorly in the North. The premature New York Times 1863 obituary labelled "him one of the basest and wickedest of traitors."
A memorial to Breckinridge was placed on the Fayette County Courthouse lawn in Lexington in 1887. The racially motivated Charleston church shooting in South Carolina in June 2015 reinvigorated demands for the removal of monuments dedicated to prominent pro-slavery and Confederate figures. In November 2015, a committee, the Urban County Arts Review Board’s, voted to recommend removal of both the Breckinridge statue and the John Hunt Morgan statue from the Courthouse grounds. Amy Murrell Taylor, an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, claimed that the "statues are not and have never been neutral representations of the Civil War past but instead they are embodiments of a racially charged postwar interpretation of it."
Breckinridge refused all requests – including one made by President Ulysses S. Grant – to return to politics, insisting, "I no more feel the political excitements that marked the scenes of my former years than if I were an extinct volcano." Under the terms of section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress would have been needed to allow him to hold office because he sided with the Confederacy. He never expressed interest in seeking such approval. Speaking as a private citizen in March 1870, he publicly denounced the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1872, he supported passage of a state statute which successfully legalized black testimony against whites in court.
Breckinridge was played by Jason Isaacs in the 2014 film Field of Lost Shoes, which depicted the Battle of New Market.