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The struggle is always worthwhile, if the end be worthwhile and the means honorable; foreknowledge of defeat is not sufficient reason to withdraw from the contest. There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.

One of the “lost” heroes of the War for Southern Independence was John C. Breckinridge, another patriot of long service to the Republic, who joined the Confederacy and – in spite of a record of victories and meritorious service – largely disappears from the pages of history. Although this book is about both Jefferson Davis and Breckinridge we are going to focus here on the lesser known of the two since Davis will get his due elsewhere in the blog.

John Cabell Breckinridge became the youngest vice president in United States history when he was elected with President James Buchanan in the 1856 election. Yet, the turbulence of the times and the American Civil War led him to become the second vice president (after Aaron Burr) to be accused of treason when he joined the Confederate Army and took up arms against the Union.

In the 1856 presidential election, the Democratic Party chose Breckinridge to balance the ticket as the vice presidential candidate to run with James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. The two easily won the election. However, Breckinridge played little role as vice president. Although vice presidents generally had little influence in this period of history, Breckinridge had almost no role because Buchanan excluded him from his administration, despite the fact that four years later he was supported by Buchanan for the presidency, and they rarely had any interaction at all. However, Vice President Breckinridge was respected for presiding over the U.S. Senate with fairness during a contentious time in American history.

As the presidential election of 1860 approached the Democratic Party split when the Southern states walked out of the convention over the Northern Democrats support of Stephen Douglas and nominated Breckinridge. Far from expectant of victory, in a letter to Varina Davis, Breckinridge bemoaned “I trust I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope.” In a four-way contest, he came in third in the popular vote, with 18.1%, but second in the Electoral College, winning the states of the Deep South as well as the border states of Maryland and Delaware. With the Democratic vote split, although he won every state in the South, Lincoln “won” the election with 39% of the vote and became a minority president.

Prior to stepping down as vice president, Breckinridge had been appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Kentucky legislature. When he assumed his Senate seat, he hoped that as a Southern senator, he might be able to help the nation avoid war. He did not support secession but had little chance of influencing Southern states that had already started seceding from the Union. Breckinridge also tried to use his influence to convince Kentucky to remain neutral in the upcoming conflict but pro-Union forces dominated the state legislature and chose to align the state with the United States. Despite the secession of the Southern states and the formation of the Confederate States of America, Breckinridge remained in the Senate until he was expelled by resolution on December 4, 1861, for supporting the South; ten Southern Senators had been expelled earlier the same year – such was the regard that the north had for the constitution.

Breckinridge fled to Virginia to avoid arrest for treason and he volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army, first as a brigadier general and then as a major-general. He led troops in battles such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Cold Harbor and along with Jubal Early, he led a daring Confederate raid on Washington in 1864, making it insight of the U.S. Capitol. Since Lincoln, who had fled the White House, was watching the fight from the ramparts of Fort Stevens, this was only time – to date – in American history when two former opponents in a presidential election faced one another across battle lines.

In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge secretary of war but by that time the South had little chance of turning the tide of the war and Breckinridge saw that further resistance on the part of the Confederacy was useless and worked to lay the groundwork for an honorable surrender. During the chaos of the fall of Richmond in early April 1865, Breckinridge saw to it that the Confederate archives, both government and military, were not destroyed but rather captured intact by the Union forces. By so doing, he ensured that a full account of the Confederate war effort would be preserved for history. Breckinridge went with Davis during the flight from Virginia as the Confederacy collapsed, while also assisting General Joseph E. Johnston in his surrender negotiations with William T. Sherman at Bennett Place. Breckinridge continued to try to persuade Davis that further resistance would only lead to greater loss of life, but he also felt honor bound to protect the President from harm.

After they became separated in the confusion of the journey Breckinridge fled abroad, traveling first to Cuba, then England, Europe, and Canada. He did not return to the United States until after President Andrew Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation for Confederates on Christmas Day 1868. Arriving in Lexington, Kentucky, he was greeted by a warm welcome and resumed the practice of law. While turning down suggestions that he become active in politics again, he spoke out strongly against the Ku Klux Klan.

An honorable defeat : the last days of the Confederate government    New York : Harcourt, c 2001 William C. Davis Richmond (Va.) History Siege, 1864-1865 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xiv, 496 p., [16] of plates : ill. ; 24 cm. Maps on lining paper. Includes bibliographical references (p. 459-478) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg had dashed the hopes of the Confederate army, and Grant’s victory at Vicksburg had cut the South in two. An Honorable Defeat is the story of the four months that saw the surrender of the South and the assassination of Lincoln. It is also the story of two men, antagonists yet political partners, who struggled during this time to achieve their own differing visions for the South: Jefferson Davis, the autocratic president of the Confederate States, who vowed never to surrender whatever the cost and the practical and warm General John C. Breckinridge, Secretary of War, who hoped pragmatism would save the shattered remnants of the land he loved so dearly.

Davis traces the astounding flight of these men, and the entire Confederate cabinet, as they flee south from Richmond by train, then by mule, then on foot. Using original research, he narrates, with dramatic style and clear historical accuracy, the futile quarrels of Davis and Breckinridge as they try to evade bands of Northern pursuers and describes their eventual–and separate–captures. The result is a rich canvas of a time of despair and defeat that is exciting and highly readable, a charged tale full of physical adventure and political battle that sweeps from the marble halls of Richmond to a dingy room in a Havana hotel.


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