[December 4, 2018] The U.S. Civil War was the product of a divided nation resulting from an attempt by southern states to break from the union. Weighing their personal beliefs, citizens had to choose which side they threw their support to; the Union or the Confederacy. John C. Breckinridge was one of these men who would come away from the war being viewed as either a traitor or patriot; depending on your point of view.
One of the more interesting figures prior to and during the war, I’m a bit surprised no one has written a biography on him. His life’s story is full of intrigue, danger, disaster, and fulfillment. Only those who study John C. Breckinridge will ever get an idea of the impact this man had on the United States today. In fact, his memory has come back to us in an unexpected way.
Born in 1821 to a prominent political and business family in Lexington, Kentucky, Breckinridge served in a non-combat role in the Mexican-American War. He was later elected as a Democrat to the Kentucky House where he took a state’s rights position against interference with slavery. In 1859 he was elected as the youngest Vice President of the United States. He supported the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which led to a split in the Democratic Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President.1
Later, taking his seat in the U.S. Senate, Breckinridge urged compromise to preserve the Union but this was not to be. When Confederate forces moved into his state of Kentucky, Breckinridge was expected to be arrested so he fled behind Confederate lines. For this he was expelled from the U.S. Senate.
Given a position of Brigadier General with the Confederate army, he became an effective and well-liked commander of troops. At the end of the war, instead of surrendering, Breckinridge fled to Cuba; this story itself would prove suspenseful. Only after amnesty was granted for all former Confederate soldiers did he return to the U.S. But when he left the country, many considered him a traitor.
To the people of his home state of Kentucky, Breckinridge was an honorable man who did much for the state. His record prior to and during the Civil War helped his credibility and legitimacy as a man of high moral standards. To them, he was a patriot who stood up for the all citizens, frequently compromising to avoid unnecessary violence.
In 2015, a statue erected to honor John C. Breckinridge was removed from the lawn of the Fayette County Courthouse during a shameful show of historical misrepresentation and at a time of emotional debates about slavery and discrimination in the U.S.