Last Secretary of War of the CSA,
John C. Breckenridge
John Cabell Breckinridge was a lawyer, politician, and soldier from the U.S. state of Kentucky. He represented the state in both houses of Congress and became the 14th and youngest-ever Vice President of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861. He served in the U.S. Senate during the outbreak of the American Civil War, but was expelled after joining the Confederate Army. He remains the only Senator of the United States convicted of treason against the United States of America by the Senate. He was appointed Confederate Secretary of War late in the war. A member of the prominent Breckinridge family, he was the grandson of U.S. Attorney General John Breckinridge, son of Kentucky Secretary of State Cabell Breckinridge and father of Arkansas Congressman Clifton R. Breckinridge.
After non-combat service in the Mexican–American War, Breckinridge was elected as a Democrat to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849 where he took a states’ rights position against legal interference with slavery. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he allied with Senator Stephen A. Douglas in support of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. After reapportionment in 1854 made his re-election unlikely, he declined to run for another term. He was nominated for vice-president at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to balance a ticket headed by Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, after Breckinridge had previously supported both incumbent President Franklin Pierce and Douglas for the nomination. The Democrats won the election, but Breckinridge had little influence with Buchanan and, as presiding officer of the Senate, could not express his opinions in that body’s debates. In 1859, he was elected to succeed U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden at the end of Crittenden’s term in 1861. As vice president, Breckinridge joined with Buchanan in supporting the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which led to a split in the Democratic Party. The “Southern” wing was led by Breckinridge, doughfaced Northerner Buchanan, and the northern wing, which supported popular sovereignty for determining slave-holding status, was led by Douglas.
After Southern Democrats walked out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention, the party’s northern and southern factions held rival conventions in Baltimore, Maryland that nominated Douglas and Breckinridge, respectively, for president. A third party, the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell. These three men split the Southern vote, while anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln won all but three electoral votes in the North, allowing him to win the election, even though Breckinridge carried most of the Southern states. Taking his seat in the Senate, he urged compromise to preserve the Union although seven states had already seceded. Unionists took control of the state legislature when Kentucky’s neutrality was breached.
After this occurred, Breckinridge fled behind Confederate battle lines where he was commissioned a brigadier general; he was then expelled from the Senate. Following the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, he was promoted to major general, and in October he was assigned to the Army of Mississippi under General Braxton Bragg. After Bragg charged that Breckinridge’s drunkenness had contributed to Confederate defeats at Stone River and Missionary Ridge, and after Breckinridge joined many other high-ranking officers in criticizing Bragg’s tactics, he was transferred to the Trans-Allegheny Department, where he won his most significant victory at the Battle of New Market. After participating in Jubal Early’s 1864 campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, Breckinridge was charged with defending Confederate supplies in Tennessee and Virginia. In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed him Secretary of War. Concluding that the war was hopeless, he urged Davis to arrange a national surrender.
After the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond, he ensured the preservation of Confederate military and governmental records. He traveled south from Richmond and managed to avoide capture by Federal forces. He then fled to Cuba, Great Britain, and finally, to Canada. In exile, he toured Europe from August 1866 to June 1868. When President Andrew Johnson extended amnesty to all former Confederates in late 1868, he returned to Kentucky, but resisted all encouragement to resume his political career. War injuries sapped his health, and after two operations, he died on May 17, 1875.