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Vice Presidents of the United States John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861) - page 6 / 7

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cousin Mary Todd Lincoln at the White House.18

During the special session, which lasted until August 6, 1861, Breckinridge remained firm in his belief that the Constitution strictly limited the powers of the federal government, regardless of secession and war. Although he wanted the Union restored, he preferred a peaceful separation rather than "endless, aimless, devastating war, at the end of which I see the grave of public liberty and of personal freedom." The most dramatic moment of the session occurred on August 1, when Senator Breckinridge took the floor to oppose the Lincoln administration's expansion of martial law. As he spoke, Oregon Republican Senator Edward D. Baker entered the chamber, dressed in the blue coat of a Union army colonel. Baker had raised and was training a militia unit known as the California Regiment. When Breckinridge finished, Baker challenged him: "These speeches of his, sown broadcast over the land, what meaning have they? Are they not intended for disorganization in our very midst?" Baker demanded. "Sir, are they not words of brilliant, polished treason, even in the very Capitol?" Within months of this exchange, Senator Baker w a s k i l l e d w h i l e l e a d i n g h i s m i l i t i a a t t h e B a t t l e o f B a l l ' s B l u f f a l o n g t h e P o t o m a c R i v e r , a n d S e n a t o r B r e c k i n r i d g e was wearing the gray uniform of a Confederate officer. 1 9

After the special session, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky to try to keep his state neutral. He spoke at a number of peace rallies, proclaiming that, if Kentucky took up arms against the Confederacy, then someone else must represent the state in the Senate. Despite his efforts, pro-Union forces won the state legislative elections. When another large peace rally was scheduled for September 21, the legislature sent a regiment to break up the meeting and arrest Breckinridge. Forewarned, he packed his bag and fled to Virginia. He could no longer find any neutral ground to stand upon, no way to endorse both the Union and the southern way of life. Forced to choose sides, Breckinridge joined his friends in the Confederacy. In Richmond he volunteered for military service, exchanging, as he said, his "term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier." On December 4, 1861, the Senate b y a 3 6 t o 0 v o t e e x p e l l e d t h e K e n t u c k y s e n a t o r , d e c l a r i n g t h a t B r e c k i n r i d g e , " t h e t r a i t o r , " h a d " j o i n e d t h e e n e m i e s of his country." 2 0

General Breckinridg e

Commissioned a brigadier general, and later a major general, Breckinridge went west to fight at Shiloh, Stone's River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. He returned east to the battle of Cold Harbor, and in July 1864 he and General Jubal T. Early led a dra matic raid on Washington, D.C. Breckinridge's troops advanced as far as Silver Spring, Maryland, where they sacked Francis Blair's home but did not destroy it, supposedly at the urging of Breckinridge, who had often been a guest there. Breckinridge got so close to Washington that he could see the newly completed Capitol dome, and General Early joked that he would allow him to lead the advance into the city so that he could sit in the vice-presidential chair again. But federal troops halted the Confederates, who retreated back to the Shenandoah Valley. There, at Winchester, Virginia, they confronted Union troops commanded by Philip H. Sheridan. The Confederate general John B. Gordon later recalled that Breckinridge was "desperately reckless" during that campaign, and "literally seemed to court death." When Gordon urged him to be careful, Breckinridge replied, "Well, general, there is little left for me if our cause is to fail." As they rode from their defeat on the b a t t l e f i e l d , J u b a l T . E a r l y t u r n e d t o a s k , " G e n e r a l B r e c k i n r i d g e , w h a t d o y o u t h i n k o f t h e ` r i g h t s o f t h e S o u t h i n t h e territories' now?" He received no answer. 2 1

During the closing months of the war in 1865, Jefferson Davis made Breckinridge his secretary of war. He performed well in this final government position, firing the Confederacy's bumbling commissary general and trying to bring order out of the chaos, but these efforts came too late. When General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army, President Davis was determined to keep on fighting, but Breckinridge opposed continuing the war as a guerilla campaign. "This has been a magnificent epic," he said; "in God's name let it not terminate in farce." Fleeing Richmond, Breckinridge commanded the troops that accompanied Davis and his cabinet. Davis was captured, but Breckinridge evaded arrest and imprisonment by fleeing through Florida to Cuba. From there he sailed for England. Subsequently, the Breckinridge family settled in Toronto, Canada. His daughter Mary later remarked that, while exile was a quiet relief for her mother, it was hard on her father, "separated from the activities of life, and unable to do anything towards making a support for his family." In Canada he met other Confederate exiles, including the freed Jefferson Davis. Once, Breckinridge and Davis rode to Niagara. Across the river they could see the red stripes

Reprinted from Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (Washington: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1997). www.senate.gov

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