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. The couple named Breckinridge after 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, 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 joined 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 a major of the Third Kentucky Volunteers during the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848). Upon his return from Mexico, Breckinridge entered the political arena and voters elected him to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1848. In 1850, Kentucky residents elected Breckinridge to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms.
U.S. Vice President
In 1856, members of the Democratic Party nominated Breckinridge as their candidate for Vice President of the United States, on the same ticket as 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, — a sign of the factionalism developing within the Democratic Party.
Unsuccessful Presidential Candidate
By 1860, the party split over sectional issues, and Southern Democrats nominated Breckinridge to run for U.S. President. In the presidential election that fall, Breckinridge did not carry any northern states. He finished third in the popular vote and second in the Electoral College vote, losing to Abraham Lincoln.
Civil War – Confederate Officer
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 he received a commission as a brigadier general. On December 4, Breckinridge’s fellow Senators passed a resolution expelling him from the Senate.
Confederate officials quickly promoted Breckinridge 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 last, Secretary of War, in January 1865. During his brief tenure, 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 age 54, from complications from cirrhosis. His final resting place is in Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky.