January 16, 1821 – May 17, 1875
U.S. Vice-president John C. Breckinridge was an American political leader who represented Kentucky in the U.S. House and Senate before serving as a general officer in the Confederate Army and as the fifth, and final, Confederate Secretary of War.
John Cabell Breckinridge was born on January 16, 1821, at Cabell's Dale near Lexington, Kentucky. He was the only son of Joseph Cabell Breckinridge and Mary Clay Smith. Breckinridge was named for his grandfather, John Breckinridge, who was a U.S. Senator and who served as Attorney General in the Jefferson administration. The younger Breckinridge attended Pisgah Academy in Woodford County, Kentucky and graduated from Centre College, located in Danville, Kentucky, in 1839. He later attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and he studied law at the Transylvania Institute, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Breckinridge was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1840. After briefly living in Iowa, he returned to Kentucky and began his law practice. In 1843, he married Mary Cyrene Burch and the couple settled near Lexington. Breckinridge served as major of the Third Kentucky Volunteers during the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848). Upon his return from Mexico, Breckinridge entered the political arena, as voters elected him to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1848. In 1850, Kentucky voters elected Breckinridge to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms. In 1856, members of the Democratic Party nominated Breckinridge as their candidate for Vice President of the United States, on the same ticket with presidential candidate James Buchanan. Upon winning the election, Breckinridge became the youngest man to serve as Vice President. Breckinridge and Buchanan did not get along well during their term in office, which was representative of the factionalism developing within the Democratic Party. By 1860, the party split over sectional issues, and Southern Democrats nominated Breckinridge to run for president. In the presidential election that fall, Breckinridge failed to carry any Northern states. He finished third in the popular vote and second in the Electoral College vote, losing to Abraham Lincoln.
After his loss in the presidential election of 1860, the Kentucky legislature appointed Breckinridge to the United States Senate, but he did not serve long. As Southern states began seceding from the Union following Lincoln's election, Kentucky resolved to remain in the Union. Suspecting Breckinridge's pro-Southern sympathies, Unionists forced him to flee Kentucky on October 2, 1861. On November 2, Breckinridge joined the Confederate Army and was appointed to the rank of brigadier general. On December 4, Breckinridge's fellow Senators passed a resolution expelling him from the Senate.
After joining the Confederate Army, Breckinridge was quickly promoted to the rank of major general on April 14, 1862. During the war, he served at the battles of Shiloh, Port Hudson, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Cold Harbor, and Monocacy. In July 1864, Breckinridge and Jubal Early led a dramatic but unsuccessful raid on Washington, D.C. As the war ground to a halt, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge as the Confederacy's fifth and final Secretary of War, in January 1865. During his brief tenure in office, Breckinridge urged Davis to end the war after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. When the Confederacy collapsed, Breckinridge fled the country to avoid being prosecuted as a traitor.
Breckinridge lived the next three years in exile in England and Canada. On December 25, 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a blanket pardon for Confederate exiles, enabling Breckinridge to return to the United States. In 1869, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, where he practiced law and served as vice president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington, and Big Sandy Railroad Company. John C. Breckinridge died in Lexington, Kentucky on May 17, 1875, at the age of 54, from complications from cirrhosis. He was buried at Lexington Cemetery, in Lexington, Kentucky.