On this day in 1864, General John C. Breckinridge takes control of Confederate forces in the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia. The native Kentuckian was a former U.S. senator, U.S. vice president and runner-up to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Breckinridge took over the obscure Western Department of Virginia, where he managed forces until he was elevated to the Confederacy's secretary of war in the closing weeks of the Civil War.
Born in 1821, Breckinridge practiced law, served in the military during the Mexican War (1846-48) and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at age 30. In 1856, at age 35, Breckinridge became the youngest person elected U.S. vice president; he served under President James Buchanan. In the 1860 presidential election, Breckinridge represented the southern wing of the Democratic Party, which had split during the convention over the issue of slavery. He finished third in the popular vote behind Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who represented the northern Democrats. (With 72 electoral votes, Breckinridge finished second behind Lincoln in electoral voting.) Although he lost the White House, his home state's legislature selected him as U.S. senator shortly after the election.
During the summer of 1861, Breckinridge remained in the Senate, supporting secessionists' views as the war escalated. In September, Kentucky declared itself a Union state. Having literally become a man without a country, Breckinridge fled to the Confederacy and joined the army. He was made commander of the so-called Orphan Brigade, a collection of Kentucky regiments with soldiers who found themselves geographically cut off from their native state. His unit suffered significant casualties at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, but went on to fight in most of the battles in the Western theater.
After taking control of the Western Department of Virginia, Breckinridge led forces at the Battle of New Market in May 1864, where his army routed a Union force. In October, troops in his department were victorious at the Battle of Saltville, but the victory was tarnished when the Confederates began killing black soldiers during the Union retreat. Breckinridge also served during Jubal Early's 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign.
In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis tapped Breckinridge to be secretary of war. He showed great ability in that capacity, but the Confederate cause had become hopeless. Breckinridge oversaw the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, in March and fled southward with Davis. Unlike Davis, however, Breckinridge successfully escaped the country through Florida and traveled to Cuba. He eventually went on to Europe, where he spent several years before a presidential pardon allowed him to return to Kentucky. Breckinridge worked as a lawyer until his death at age 54 in 1875.