1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Breckinridge, John Cabell
BRECKINRIDGE, JOHN CABELL (1821–1875), American soldier and political leader, was born near Lexington, Kentucky, on the 21st of January 1821. He was a member of a family prominent in the public life of Kentucky and the nation. His grandfather, John Breckinridge (1760–1806), who revised Jefferson’s draft of the “Kentucky Resolutions” of 1798, was a United States senator from Kentucky in 1801–1805 and attorney-general in President Jefferson’s cabinet in 1805–1806. His uncles, John Breckinridge (1797–1841), professor of pastoral theology in the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1836–1838 and for many years after secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, and Robert Jefferson Breckinridge (1800–1871), for several years superintendent of public instruction in Kentucky, an important factor in the organization of the public school system of the state, a professor from 1853 to 1871 in the Danville Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Danville, Kentucky, and the temporary chairman of the national Republican convention of 1864, were both prominent clergymen of the Presbyterian Church. His cousin, William Campbell Preston Breckinridge (1837–1904), was a Democratic representative in Congress from 1885 to 1893. Another cousin, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge (1842– ), served on the Union side in the Civil War, was a major-general of volunteers during the Spanish-American War (1898), became a major-general in the regular United States army in 1903, and was inspector-general of the United States army from 1899 until his retirement from active service in 1904.
John Cabell Breckinridge graduated in 1838 at Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, continued his studies at Princeton, and then studied law at Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky. He practised law in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1840–1841 and in Burlington, Iowa, from 1841 to 1843, and then returned to Kentucky and followed his profession at Lexington. In 1847 he went to Mexico as major in a volunteer regiment, but arrived too late for service in the field. In 1849 he was elected a Democratic member of the Kentucky legislature, and in 1851–1855 he served in the national House of Representatives. President Pierce offered him the position of minister to Spain, but he declined it. In 1856 he was chosen vice-president of the United States on the Buchanan ticket, and although a strong pro-slavery and states rights man, he presided over the Senate with conspicuous fairness and impartiality during the trying years before the Civil War. In 1860 he was nominated for the presidency by the pro-slavery seceders from the Democratic national convention, and received a total of 72 electoral votes, including those of every Southern state except Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. As vice-president and presiding officer of the Senate, it was his duty to make the official announcement of the election of his opponent, Lincoln. He succeeded John J. Crittenden as United States senator from Kentucky in March 1861, but having subsequently entered the Confederate service he was expelled from the Senate in December 1861. As brigadier-general he commanded the Confederate reserve at Shiloh, and in August 1862 he became major-general. On the 5th of this month he was repulsed in his attack on Baton Rouge, but he won distinction at Stone River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863), where his division lost nearly a third of its number. He took part in the battle of Chickamauga, defeated General Franz Sigel at Newmarket, Virginia, on the 15th of May 1864, and then, joined Lee and took part in the battles of Cold Harbor on the 1st and on the 3rd of June. In the autumn he operated in the Shenandoah Valley, and with Early was defeated by Sheridan at Winchester on the 19th of September. Being transferred to the department of South-west Virginia, he fought a number of minor engagements in eastern Tennessee, and in January 1865 became secretary of war for the Confederate States. At the close of the war he escaped to Cuba, and from there went to Europe. In 1868 he returned to the United States and resumed the practice of law at Lexington, Kentucky, where he died on the 17th of May 1875.