Breckinridge, John C.


Buchanan’s VP 1857-61, Mary Lincoln’s cousin, Kentucky US Senator expelled after joining Confederate Army & indicted for treason,  Major General, last  CSA Secretary of War 1865


Type: Signature
Description: (1821-1875) Kentucky lawyer, politician, soldier, grandson of Jefferson’s Attorney General, cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, 14th (youngest-ever) US VP 1857-61. US Senator at start of the Civil War, expelled after joining the Confederate Army, Major General, Secretary of War 1865.

In the Mexican-American War, Breckinridge was a major, 3rd Kentucky Infantry, saw no combat but his service was an asset to his political future. Elected as a Democrat to the Kentucky House 1849, took a state’s rights position against interfering with slavery. Elected to Congress 1851, allied with Stephen A. Douglas supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He supported Pierce’s pro-slavery agenda and states’ rights, believed secession was legal but opposed it; earlier support of manumission and African colonization balanced his support for slavery.

Nominated for VP in 1856 with Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, unlike many nominees of his era, he actively campaigned for his and Buchanan’s election. At 36 when inaugurated on March 4, 1857, he was the youngest VP in history. Buchanan resented Breckinridge’s support of Pierce and Douglas before endorsing him. Buchanan rarely consulted Breckinridge on patronage appointments, their meetings were infrequent. He had little influence with Buchanan and, as presiding officer of the Senate, could not express opinions in debates. With Buchanan he supported the pro-slavery Kansas Lecompton Constitution which led to a Democratic Party split. Although John Crittenden’s Senate term did not expire until 1861, the state Assembly chose Breckinridge as his successor in 1859. In his acceptance speech, he endorsed the Dred Scott decision and spoke against secession.

After Southern Democrats walked out of the 1860 Democratic Convention, the Party’s northern and southern factions held rival conventions in Baltimore that nominated Douglas & Breckinridge. The Constitutional Union Party nominated Tennessee’s John Bell which split the Southern vote, allowing Lincoln’s election. It was Breckinridge’s duty as Vice President to declare Lincoln as winner of the electoral vote on Feb. 13, 1861. On the 24th, he visited Lincoln and his cousin, now the First Lady. On March 4, he swore in Hannibal Hamlin as his successor as VP; Hamlin then swore in newly elected senators, including Breckinridge. 

In the Senate, Breckinridge urged compromise to preserve the Union. Returning for a special session in July, he was seen as a traitor by fellow legislators owing to his CSA sympathies. He condemned Lincoln’s enlistment and arming men for a war Congress had not declared, expending funds  that had not been allocated by Congress for war, and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Unionists controlled Kentucky’s legislature, gaining more support when Confederate forces moved into the state. Breckinridge fled behind Confederate lines and was commissioned a brigadier general Nov. 2, indicted for treason Nov. 6, declared a traitor by the Senate and expelled Dec. 2.

CSA General Breckinridge was given command of the 1st Kentucky Brigade, “the Orphan Brigade”, in Buckner’s 2nd Division, Army of Mississippi, under Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston attacked Grant at Shiloh April 6, 1862 and Breckinridge’s reserves joined the battle. On the 7th, Union forces regrouped and repelled the Confederates. Breckinridge’s division formed the CSA rearguard while the rest of the army retreated. After Shiloh, he was promoted to major general April 14 and in October, assigned to the Army of Mississippi under Bragg, then joined Earl Van Dorn near Vicksburg. Van Dorn ordered him to recapture Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On August 5, he attacked the garrison capturing prisoners, destroying supplies, and driving Federals from the city; with no navy support, he could not hold the city and withdrew.

Later that month, Breckinridge was in the lower Mississippi Valley securing Confederate control by taking Port Hudson which helped halt the federal advance down the Mississippi. In May 1863, he was reassigned to Joseph E. Johnston, participating in the Battle of Jackson, an unsuccessful attempt to break the Siege of Vicksburg which fell to Grant’s forces July 4, and Breckinridge returned to Bragg’s command Aug. 28. After seeing no action on the 1st day of Chickamauga Sept. 19, he led a division of D. H. Hill’s corps attacking Union forces on the 20th.  CSA troops broke the Union line but the main army escaped back to Tennessee. In late November, Breckinridge led one of Bragg’s 2 corps in the CSA defeat at Chattanooga. Bragg resented Breckinridge’s close ties to Confederate commanders, many related to him, and relations between them deteriorated; Breckinridge’s opinion that Bragg was incompetent was shared by many Confederate officers. Bragg alleged Breckinridge’s drunkenness contributed to defeats at Stone River and Missionary Ridge and Breckinridge joined other high-ranking officers in criticizing Bragg.

On Dec. 15, Breckinridge took leave in Richmond. In Feb. 1864, President Davis assigned him to the Eastern Theater in charge of the Trans-Allegheny Department (later, the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia). On May 5, Lee ordered him to lead a reconnaissance mission to scout US forces near Winchester in the Lynchburg Campaign. With 4,800 men, incl. 261 VMI cadets, he defeated Sigel’s 6,300 men at New Market on May 15, driving them across the Shenandoah River, managing to protect Lee’s flank, defend a crucial railroad junction, and protect the valuable wheat supply. The victory was one of his best performances as a general. After the 2nd Battle of Kernstown on July 24, Breckinridge’s division reinforced Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and played an important role in halting Grant at Cold Harbor. Breckinridge was wounded and unable to walk or ride when Lee ordered him to lead survivors of the Confederate defeat at Piedmont. On June 10, he marched into Lynchburg, joined by Early’s troops, who arrived just in time to save them.

Lee ordered Early and Breckinridge to clear Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley, cross into Maryland and probe Washington’s defenses. Union forces’ only serious attempt to turn them back came at Monocacy on July 9. CSA troops prevailed and continued toward Washington, defeated at Fort Stevens July 11–12. Since Lincoln was watching the fight from Fort Stevens, this was the only time in US history where 2 former opponents in a presidential election faced one another across battle lines. Early withdrew rather than assault the well-fortified federal capital. On Sept. 19, Sheridan forced Early and Breckinridge to retreat after the 3rd Battle of Winchester.  After the death of John Hunt Morgan, Breckinridge again led the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia. In mid-November, he led a raid into NE Tennessee, and on Dec. 17–18, drove Stoneman’s cavalry out of Marion, Virginia.

When CSA Secretary of War Seddon resigned Jan. 19, 1865, Davis appointed Breckinridge Secretary Feb. 6. His 1st act as Secretary was to promote Lee to General-in-Chief of all Confederate forces. He expanded the post’s influence to include making officer assignments, promotion recommendations, and advising field generals on strategy.

By late February, he saw the Confederate cause as hopeless. Delegating daily operations to his assistant, former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, he began laying groundwork for surrender. On April 2, Lee told Breckinridge that he had to withdraw necessitating Richmond’s evacuation. Ordering Campbell to organize the flight of the CSA cabinet to Danville, Breckinridge oversaw destruction of facilities and supplies to prevent their use by Federal forces and saw that CSA government and military archives were captured intact by the Union forces ensuring a full account of the Confederate war effort would be preserved. After exiting the city, he ordered James River bridges be burned.

Breckinridge joined Lee at Farmville April 5, remaining to the 7th.  Arriving in Danville April 11, he heard of Lee’s surrender April 9 and the cabinet flight to Greensboro, No. Carolina. Arriving there April 13, he advised the cabinet that remaining CSA armies should surrender. He aided Joseph E. Johnston in surrender negotiations with Sherman who offered the same terms as Grant at Appomattox, which were accepted.

On April 18, Breckinridge heard of Lincoln’s assassination 4 days earlier. He rode to Abbeville, No. Carolina April 28 and convinced Davis that further prosecution of the war was hopeless. Breckinridge took charge of $150,000 in gold specie left in the Confederate treasury, arrived in Washington, Ga. May 4, and disbanded the War Department. He sailed to the Cuban city of Cardenas then went to Havana. He reunited with his wife in Toronto Sept. 13, moving to Niagara May 1866. He, his wife and family went to Europe mid-1866-early 1868 returning to Niagara June 1868, refusing to seek a pardon.

Johnson gave amnesty to all former Confederates Dec. 25; he returned to Lexington March 9, 1869. He became manager of the Kentucky branch of Virginia’s Piedmont Life Insurance Co. (later the Piedmont and Arlington Insurance Co.) and resumed his law practice but other railroad ventures were not successful after the Panic of 1873. He refused requests to return to politics. In March 1870, he denounced the KKK and in 1872 supported passage of a state statute legalizing Black testimony against Whites in court.

The towns of Breckenridge, Co., Minn., Missouri and Texas were named in his honor despite differences in spelling.

Approx 1- 1/2 x 6-1/2 close of an ALS addressed to “Hon. H. M. Rice/St Paul M [innesota] T[erritory]”, likely written while Vice President.

Henry M. Rice (1816-1894) Minnesota “Moccasin Democrat” politician prominent in Minnesota’s statehood. In 1839 he got a job at Fort Snelling (near  now Minneapolis) and became a fur trader with the Ho-Chunk and Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indians, and helped negotiate the 1847 treaty with the Ojibwes by which they ceded extensive lands. He lobbied for the bill to establish Minnesota Territory in 1849 and was territorial delegate to Congress 1853-57. His work on the Minnesota Enabling Act, passed by Congress in 1857 facilitated Minnesota’s statehood. At statehood in 1858 Rice was elected by the legislature to the US Senate, serving from Minnesota’s admittance on May 11, 1858 to March 4, 1863, unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1865. A marble statue of Rice is in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, another in the State Capitol; Rice County is named for him.

Condition: Very good, mounted on verso, left 1-1/2″ piece has separated but has been carefully reattached

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