In December 1861, the political career of John Cabell Breckinridge of Kentucky came to an end as Congress voted in a special session to expel him from his seat in the Senate. Breckinridge’s infraction was choosing to align himself with the Confederacy.
Prior to the Civil War, Breckinridge had a stellar political career, serving as a U.S. Representative and Senator from Kentucky. Breckinridge also served as Vice President in the James Buchanan administration.
In the 1860 presidential election, Breckinridge was one of two Democrats running against Abraham Lincoln. Stephen Douglas was a Northern Democrat while Breckinridge represented Southern Democrats. Breckinridge finished third in the popular vote and second in the Electoral College vote.
Although Breckinridge lost his presidential bid, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. Breckinridge’s new term in the Senate began Mar. 4, 1861. By then, seven southern states had seceded from the Union. Initially, Breckinridge urged his native Kentuckians to remain neutral. Neutrality became more difficult for Breckinridge as a defender of the South in a Senate that was dominated by Northerners.
In August 1861, Breckinridge gave a speech in the Senate, urging an end to the war. “I would prefer to see these States all reunited upon true constitutional principles . . . But I infinitely prefer to see a peaceful separation of these States, than to see endless, aimless, devastating war, at the end of which I see the grave of public liberty and personal freedom.”
In September 1861, the Kentucky legislature voted to side with the Union. Fearing he might be arrested and imprisoned, Breckinridge left for Tennessee and eventually ended up in Richmond, Va. This didn’t sit well with his northern colleagues in the Senate, as Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy.
Although he had advocated neutrality, Breckinridge ultimately chose to side with the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge a brigadier general in the Confederate army.
Having a rank in the Confederate army incensed those in the Senate. On Dec. 4, 1861, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan introduced a resolution of expulsion. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois demanded the resolution be amended to state that Breckinridge had “joined the enemies of his country, and is now in arms against the Government he had sworn to support.” The resolution called Breckinridge a “traitor” and demanded he be expelled from the Senate.
Breckinridge kept his Confederate rank, eventually becoming the commander of the Orphan Brigade or the First Kentucky Brigade. The Orphan Brigade, comprised of Kentuckians loyal to the south, was the largest Confederate unit to be recruited from Kentucky during the Civil War. Breckinridge would command this brigade at the battles of Shiloh in 1862 and Stone’s River in 1863. Breckinridge would also fight at Chickamauga in 1863 and New Market, Va., in 1864. In 1865, Breckinridge was appointed the Confederacy’s fifth Secretary of War. Realizing the war was lost, Breckinridge worked to lay the groundwork for an honorable surrender even though Davis was opposed to such an endeavor.
During the fall of Richmond in April 1865, Breckinridge made sure the Confederate government and military archives were not destroyed but captured intact by the Union army. Breckinridge’s actions ensured that an account of the Confederate war effort was preserved.
With the fall of the Confederacy, Breckinridge escaped to Cuba and lived abroad until 1869. Breckinridge was later granted amnesty and returned to his native Kentucky.