John Cabell Breckinridge (January 16, 1821 – May 17, 1875) was an American lawyer, politician, and soldier. He represented Kentucky in both houses of Congress and became the 14th and youngest-ever vice president of the United States. Serving from 1857 to 1861, he took office at the age of 36. He was a member of the Democratic Party, and served in the U.S. Senate during the outbreak of the American Civil War, but was expelled after joining the Confederate Army. He was appointed Confederate Secretary of War in 1865.
Breckinridge was born near Lexington, Kentucky, to a prominent local family. After serving as a noncombatant during the Mexican–American War, he was elected as a Democrat to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849, where he took a states' rights position against interference with slavery. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he allied with 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 James Buchanan. 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 debates. He joined Buchanan in supporting the proslavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which led to a split in the Democratic Party. In 1859, he was elected to succeed Senator John J. Crittenden at the end of Crittenden's term in 1861.
After Southern Democrats walked out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention, the party's northern and southern factions held rival conventions in Baltimore 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 antislavery Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won all but three electoral votes in the North, allowing him to win the election. Breckinridge carried most of the Southern states. Taking his seat in the Senate, Breckinridge urged compromise to preserve the Union. Unionists were in control of the state legislature, and gained more support when Confederate forces moved into Kentucky.
Breckinridge fled behind Confederate lines. He was commissioned a brigadier general and then expelled from the Senate. Following the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, he was promoted to major general, and in October, he was assigned to the Army of Mississippi under Braxton Bragg. After Bragg charged that Breckinridge's drunkenness had contributed to defeats at Stones River and Missionary Ridge, and after Breckinridge joined many other high-ranking officers in criticizing Bragg, he was transferred to the Trans-Allegheny Department, where he won his most significant victory in the 1864 Battle of New Market. After participating in Jubal Early's campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, Breckinridge was charged with defending 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 Richmond, Breckinridge ensured the preservation of Confederate records. He then escaped the country and lived abroad for more than three years. When President Andrew Johnson extended amnesty to all former Confederates in 1868, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, but resisted all encouragement to resume his political career. War injuries sapped his health, and he died in 1875. Breckinridge is regarded as an effective military commander. Though well liked in Kentucky, he was reviled by many in the North as a traitor.
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