The Best Political General of the Civil War: John C. Breckinridge – A Great Military Leader

Who was the best political general of the Civil War?
John C. Breckinridge

By Kent Fonner
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate at the February 2023 Roundtable meeting was: “Who was the best political general of the Civil War?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations.

“. . . Breckinridge demonstrated that a man did not need to go to West Point to be an excellent general . . .”

–Civil War Historian Albert Castel


John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) in 15 years (1850-1865) served as a Kentucky legislator, congressmen, U.S. senator, vice president of the United States under President James Buchanan, presidential candidate in 1860, brigadier general and then major general CSA, and secretary of war CSA, all before he was 45 years old. Well educated with a degree from Center College, a semester of graduate work at Princeton, law study under Governor Owsley of Kentucky, and an LL.D. from Transylvania University, he had no formal military education. But as a major in the 3rd KY Volunteers in 1847 in Mexico, he did have some military experience before the Civil War.

John C. Breckinridge

In the late fall of 1861, as a brigadier general CSA, he organized and commanded the Kentucky Brigade (Orphans Brigade) in Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate army in the Western Theater. At Shiloh he earned a promotion to major general for personally leading elements of the Reserve Corps in an assault that drove the Union left back a half mile and at the end of the battle successfully covering the defeated army’s retreat toward Corinth. He commanded an unsuccessful expedition to capture Baton Rouge from Union forces due to lack of naval support, but seized and fortified Port Hudson, creating a second CSA bastion on the Mississippi River. He commanded a division at Stones River, and he again successfully covered the Confederates’ retreat after the battle.

Kent Fonner

Shuttling his force back from Chattanooga to central Mississippi, he served with Joe Johnston’s army against Grant. He later served again with Bragg at Chickamauga, leading the final assault against George Thomas’ forces on Snodgrass Hill. At Chattanooga, through no fault of his own, he saw his forces routed on Missionary Ridge.

In the summer of 1864, he pushed two separate Union armies (Sigel and Hunter) out of the Shenandoah Valley, saving the Valley’s wheat crop for Lee’s army and opening the way for Jubal Early’s raid against Washington, DC, and commanding a division in that raid. He commanded a division at Cold Harbor and personally led an assault to close a gap in the line, having his horse shot from under him in the process. In February 1865, President Davis appointed him secretary of war. In that post, he fully advised Davis on the CSA’s lack of resources to continue fighting the war, pointed out to Davis the futility of guerilla war for the South, supervised the evacuation of Richmond, saving much of the CSA government archives, and advised Joseph Johnston on the surrender of his army to William Sherman.


According to his biographer, William C. Davis, General Breckinridge displayed several characteristics of a great military leader:

1) He was trustworthy in his relationships with others, always standing by his family, his word, and a strict moral code;

2) Once he took a position on an issue, he stood firm in spite of personal risk;

3) He was tolerant and patient with others, both superiors and subordinates;

4) He was never a “yes-man” and spoke his views plainly and succinctly;

5) Personally brave on the battlefield, he inspired and won devotion from his men;

6) He displayed ability in organization and logistical planning; and

7) He demonstrated an ability to learn and develop new skills as a military commander, profiting from his mistakes.

There is a story told by Kentucky Orphan Brigade vets that says much about John C. Breckinridge’s effectiveness as a leader of men and a general on the battlefield. It seems that one day a captain ordered one of his enlisted men to sweep out the officer’s tent. The Kentucky volunteer, taking offense at being given such a demeaning task, told his captain “to go to Hell!” He was immediately arrested and sent to the guardhouse. When the matter was brought to Breckinridge’s attention, he informed the captain that the soldiers of the Orphan Brigade, all volunteers, were not menial servants but fighting men. If Breckinridge himself, moreover, could not convince a man to voluntarily clean his tent, then he would do the task himself. He then ordered the captain to go to the guardhouse and apologize to the soldier or take his place there himself.

August Forsberg

In Mexico, while serving as major of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers, in 1847, it was noted that although Major Breckinridge had been provided a horse, there was hardly a day he could be seen mounted during the regiment’s march to Mexico City. Several veterans described Breckinridge almost every day walking along leading his mount while a sick or exhausted enlisted man rode in the saddle. Needless to say, in both the Mexican War and the Civil War, Breckinridge’s officers and men were devoted to him. As Colonel August Forsberg of the 51st VA Infantry observed, “[F]ew military commanders have enjoyed that unlimited confidence from their subordinates as General Breckinridge [or] aroused such spirit of enthusiasm, love, and devotion among his troops.” As both a politician and a military commander, Breckinridge displayed a certain charisma that attracted the trust, admiration, and loyalty of others.

As a gentleman and an officer, Breckinridge displayed remarkable courage on the battlefield. His one major fault at Shiloh, in 1862, for example, as commander of the Reserve Corps, was his insistence in accompanying part of his division to the front, making it difficult for him to observe and control the actions of his other brigades. It was, however, a beginner’s mistake, and he learned from the experience, effectively commanding the rearguard action after the battle as the rest of the army retreated toward Corinth. At Cold Harbor, he personally led two Maryland battalions into a breach in the line and closed the gap even after his horse had been torn by a cannon shot from front to back and rolled on him, causing an injury that eventually would kill him after the war. He calmly took the reins of an aide’s horse and continued to lead the Marylanders into the fray. His bravery throughout the War inspired his men and was a major asset.

Braxton Bragg

Generally, except for Braxton Bragg, who tried to make Breckinridge a scapegoat for his failures in Kentucky, Stones River, and Missionary Ridge, Breckinridge got along well and even won praise from his superiors. In 1865, President Davis appointed him secretary of war. No yes-man, Breckinridge served faithfully, reporting to Davis the deficiencies in Confederate resources to continue the fight and arguing with Davis after Appomattox that a guerilla war would be disastrous for the South. Beauregard, Hardee, J.E. Johnston, and D.H. Hill all commended Breckinridge’s command ability under fire. When Breckinridge was promoted to major general, even Bragg remarked that his second star was “nobly won upon the field.” General Lee remarked after the war that it would have been better if Breckinridge had been secretary of war in 1861.

Earl Van Dorn

Moreover, Breckinridge proved himself capable of independent command. Although he lost at Baton Rouge in 1862, he still made an “excellent” performance, occupying and fortifying Port Hudson, creating a second bastion in addition to Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. He led a well-organized army, made good use of his staff, and, unlike Shiloh, stayed personally out of the fight until his presence was needed. General Van Dorn noted his “skill and intrepidity.” His effectiveness in 1864 at New Market and the Shenandoah Valley against the Union armies of Franz Sigel and David Hunter is legendary and favorably bears comparison to “Stonewall” Jackson. As a matter of fact, there were several military and civilian leaders who wanted Breckinridge to replace Early in command of the Army of the Valley that fall.

After the Union army broke the Richmond defenses in April 1865, Breckinridge, like he had done so often before on the battlefield, stayed behind to oversee the retreat. He destroyed much ammunition and war material, but carefully preserved the government archives of the Confederate States. He was reportedly the last government official to leave the city, calmly riding out just ahead of the first Union troops to occupy the ruins left behind. From there he rode to join Lee, and later Joseph E. Johnston, to try and help bring peace at last to both his countries. Reflecting on Breckinridge’s services during the war, Robert E. Lee summed it all up by when he said that Breckinridge “is a great man.”

Go back to the second argument >>
Continue to the fourth argument >>

Sources (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

William C. Davis, “John C. Breckinridge: A Personality Profile,” Civil War Times Illustrated, Vol. VI, No. 3 (June 1967), pp. 11-18.

William C. Davis, Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).