John C. Breckinridge

Photo of John Breckinridge
John Breckinridge

Library of Congress

Quick Facts

Confederate Major General and Secretary of War
Place of Birth:
near Lexington, KY
Date of Birth:
January 16, 1821
Place of Death:
Lexington, KY
Date of Death:
May 17, 1875
Place of Burial:
Lexington, KY
Cemetery Name:
Lexington Cemetery

John Cabell Breckinridge graduated from Centre College in 1839 and, after studying law at Transylvania University, was admitted to the bar in 1840. During the Mexican-American War Breckinridge served as major of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers. He was elected to Congress twice in the early 1850s and in 1856 was elected vice president under James Buchanan. In 1860 he ran for president, but lost to Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. When the South began to secede in response to Lincoln's election, Breckinridge, having been elected to the US Senate, stressed the right of secession.

However, when Kentucky remained in the Union, Breckinridge resigned his Senate seat and joined the Confederate army, receiving a commission as a brigadier general. He was promoted to major general following the Battle of Shiloh, in which he was wounded. Breckinridge would develop an intense disdain for Braxton Bragg, considering him to be incompetent. Bragg likewise had an immense dislike for Breckinridge, accusing him of being a drunkard. The sentiments of both individuals came to a head at the Battle of Stones River during which Bragg ordered Breckinridge's men to make a near suicidal assault against the Union lines. Breckinridge lost one third of his command and was himself emotionally devastated. However Breckinridge would continue to serve under Bragg at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge.

In 1864 Breckinridge was brought east to command troops in the Shenandoah Valley, seeing action at the Battle of New Market. Breckinridge participated in the Battle of Monocacy. He was the second highest ranking officer in Lieutenant General Jubal Early's army. In February 1865 he was appointed Secretary of War by Jefferson Davis. As the Confederate government abandoned Richmond, it was Breckinridge who saw to it that the archives of the Confederacy were not destroyed, preserving the records of the Confederate government and war effort for history. Following the war, Breckinridge fled the country in a self- imposed exile that lasted until 1869. He then returned to his native Lexington, Kentucky and resumed his law practice until his death of cirrhosis in 1875.

Last updated: April 23, 2020