Breckinridge, who was born into one of Kentucky's most illustrious families, studied at Centre College, the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and Transylvania University. He practiced law briefly in Iowa and then in his home state. Major of the Third Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers, he arrived in Mexico too late for significant participation in the Mexican War. Breckinridge was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849 as a Democrat and to the U.S. House in 1851 and 1853. In 1856 at age thirty-five he was elected vice president of the United States on the Democratic ticket with James Buchanan. In 1859, over a year before his term expired, the Kentucky legislature chose him for the Senate term beginning March 4, 1861. As the slavery controversy developed in the 1850s, Breckinridge had called for "perfect non-intervention" on the part of Congress on the issue of slavery in the territories.
When the Democrats split in 1860, Breckinridge became the candidate of the Southern party. Though he believed that a state had the right to secede, he denied that he was the secession candidate. Breckinridge lost his home state to Constitutional Unionist John Bell, but he carried eleven of the fifteen slave states and won 72 electoral votes to 39 for Bell and 12 for Stephen A. Douglas, the Northern Democratic candidate. But Republican Abraham Lincoln received 180 votes for a clear majority. As vice president, Breckinridge announced the election of Lincoln on February 13, 1861, when the electoral votes were officially counted.
Breckinridge hoped that some compromise would save the Union, but in the Senate he defended the actions of the Southern states. After the war started, he served on a six-man committee that formulated Kentucky's unique neutrality policy. When that troubled status ended in September 1861, Breckinridge fled to Virginia to avoid arrest. The Senate expelled him on December 2.
Considered an important asset for the Confederacy, Breckinridge was commissioned brigadier general on November 2 and given the Kentucky Brigade in Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner's Second Division in southern Kentucky. He helped organize the Confederate government of Kentucky, which was admitted into the Confederacy on December 10, 1861. One of the best of the "political generals," Breckinridge won the respect and admiration of most of his peers, with the conspicuous exception of irascible Braxton Bragg.
Breckinridge's first major engagement was at Shiloh where, in command of the Confederates' Reserve Corps, he performed well enough to merit promotion to major general as of April 14. After serving with Earl Van Dorn at Vicksburg, Breckinridge led an unsuccessful attempt to take Baton Rouge. Rejoining the Army of Tennessee, he incurred heavy casualties in his division at Murfreesboro in a charge ordered by Bragg. Several Kentuckians urged Breckinridge to seek a duel with his caustic commander.
Breckinridge then returned to the Vicksburg area and participated in Joseph E. Johnston's vain efforts to relieve that city. After it fell, he was ordered to rejoin Bragg's army in eastern Tennessee. At Chickamauga on September 19-20, 1863, Breckinridge's division was in D. H. Hill's corps. His assaults on the Federal left flank helped break the Union line but failed to destroy the army. Breckinridge commanded a corps on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge above Chattanooga on November 25, 1863, when the Confederates were overrun. Bragg charged Breckinridge with drunkenness and removed him from command. But Confederate leaders had learned to discount Bragg's frequent accusations, and in February 1864 the Kentuckian was given command of the Department of Southwest Virginia. He built his command from scratch, and on May 15, with the aid of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, he defeated Gen. Franz Siegel's larger force at New Market. It was perhaps Breckinridge's finest performance of the war.
Soon transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia, Breckinridge helped check Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor. Then, as commander of a small corps, he accompanied Jubal Early on his raid to the outskirts of Washington. When they returned to the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates were under intense pressure from Gen. Philip Sheridan's much larger force. Gen. John B. Gordon penned a vivid picture of Breckinridge at this stage of the war:
Tall, erect, and commanding in physique ... he exhibited in marked degree the characteristics of a great commander. He was fertile in resource, and enlisted and held the confidence and affection of his men, while he inspired them with enthusiasm and ardor. Under fire and in extreme peril he was strikingly courageous, alert, and self-poised.
Later, Gen. Basil W. Duke also praised his fellow Kentuckian but added, "His chief defect as a soldier--and, perhaps, as a civilian--was a strange indolence or apathy which at times assailed him.... When thoroughly aroused he acted with tremendous vigour, ... but he needed to be spurred to action.... He was at his best when the occasion seemed desperate."
After John Hunt Morgan's death on September 4, 1864, Breckinridge was returned to command of the Department of Southwest Virginia. Despite inadequate resources, he was able to fend off Union attacks against the vital saltworks in that area.
Meanwhile, the Department of War had become one of the most troubled spots in the Confederate government, and in February 1865 President Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge secretary of war. In 1861 Breckinridge had doubted that the Confederacy could win the war, and as he viewed the situation from his new position, he soon concluded that the cause was hopeless. He worked to bring the struggle to an honorable conclusion, which, in his view, rejected guerrilla warfare. "This has been a magnificent epic," he declared. "In God's name let it not terminate in a farce." When Richmond fell he was instrumental in preserving many of the military records.
Briefly with Lee, then with Joseph E. Johnston, and finally accompanying President Davis on his flight, Breckinridge made a daring and dangerous escape through Florida to Cuba. He went on to Europe and Canada where he remained in exile until President Andrew Johnson extended a general amnesty on Christmas Day, 1868. Breckinridge returned to his Lexington home in March 1869 after an absence of over eight years. Comparing himself to "an extinct volcano," he practiced law, worked for economic development in the state, and urged national conciliation until his death on May 17, 1875. He was only fifty-four.
U.S. congressman, vice president, and presidential candidate, major general, and secretary of war
- Davis, William C. Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol. Baton Rouge, La., 1974.
- Davis, William C. "John C. Breckinridge." Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 85 (Summer 1987): 197-212.
- Harrison, Lowell H. "John C. Breckinridge: Nationalist, Confederate, Kentuckian." The Filson Club History Quarterly 47 (April 1973): 125-144.
- Heck, Frank H. Proud Kentuckian: John C. Breckinridge, 1821-1875. Lexington, Ky., 1976.
- Klotter, James C. The Breckinridges of Kentucky, 1760-1981. Lexington, Ky., 1986.