John C. Breckinridge – He Should Have Been Hanged

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the fall of 2000.

The most well-known person from the Civil War to be hanged for war crimes was Henry Wirz. He was the commandant of the Andersonville Confederate prison.

Henry Wirz

Over thirteen thousand Union prisoners of war died in Andersonville. Some have argued that even though Wirz was inept he had very little control because the lack of food was the underlying cause of the disease that killed so many Union prisoners. The Confederacy could not feed its own troops let alone the tens of thousands of Union prisoners it held.

The execution of Henry Wirz, November 10, 1865
Was the wrong man hanged?

John C. Breckinridge is a very different story: a well-known Senator from Kentucky, Presidential candidate against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and Vice President of the United States from 1857 to 1861.

He joined the Confederacy in late 1861. He served as a Confederate field general most of the war. Originally he was to head just Kentucky troops but as the war went on he was a corps commander of units from many Southern States. He fought in most of the major battles: Shiloh, Corinth, Winchester, Baton Rouge, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Cold Harbor.

John C. Breckinridge

His greatest victory was at New Market, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. His greatest defeat, which led to his downfall as a battlefield commander, was at Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga. It was his line that George Thomas’s Union troops broke at Missionary Ridge to cause the Confederates to flee in confusion. Breckinridge was not there at the time but at Lookout Mountain fighting Joe Hooker’s troops. His superior, Braxton Bragg, was on Missionary Ridge but could not stop the Confederate collapse. However, typical of Braxton Bragg, he blamed the defeat on Breckinridge being drunk.

Breckinridge then commanded a small Confederate force in Southwest Virginia. In February of 1865 he was sent to Richmond to head the War Department. He was very qualified to be Secretary of War but soon the Confederacy would collapse.

Breckinridge fled south with Jefferson Davis and the other cabinet members. He separated from Davis in Georgia and made his escape through Florida to Cuba.

Breckinridge spent the next four years with his wife and children in Europe and Canada. He lived much of the time in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario across the river from the United States. He could look across the Niagara River and see the U. S. flag flying over Fort Niagara.

Andrew Johnson

In the spring of 1869 he returned to his beloved Kentucky. His return was made possible by President Andrew Johnson issuing a general amnesty for ex-Confederates on December 25, 1868. This was clearly intended for Breckinridge since he was the highest profile Confederate still-at-large.

President Johnson did not have the constitutional authority to issue an amnesty to John C. Breckinridge. The United States Constitution only defines one crime: treason. The Constitution defines aiding and abetting the enemy as treason. Since Breckinridge with Jubal Early led a Confederate attack on Washington in the summer of 1864, there can be no doubt that he was guilty of treason.

The United States executed Germans and Japanese for war crimes following World War II but in 1869 let John C. Breckinridge, a treasonous Vice President of the United States, go home unpunished.

The crime was too great. He should have been hanged.