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Sketches of operations of General John C. Breckinridge.

By Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston, of his Staff.

No. 3--conclusion.

Proceeding by horseback to Staunton, General Breckinridge went by rail to Richmond for consultation with General Lee, who had then become General-in-Chief of all the armies, and with President Davis, touching affairs in his Department. From Richmond he was summoned hastily by the announcement that Burbridge was moving from Kentucky with a heavy force through Pound gap, to the attack of Saltville. He reached Abingdon in time to direct the concentration of troops for its protection, by reason of which disposition Burbridge was successfully repulsed. His thorough knowledge of the country, both by a study of maps and by the personal inspection made when he entered upon his command enabled him to comprehend at once its strategic points, and had his orders been strickly carried out, Burbridge and his entire force would have been captured; but there was delay, and they escaped. The damage done by Burbridge in this raid was insignificant, while his repulse tended to inspire the troops and people with better hopes for the future. The command which General Breckinridge then had in Virginia, after the division which General John S. Williams had brought in the Department a few days before had left for Georgia, as it did a few days later, was very small and incapable of offensive operations. He had no infantry except a small brigade of reserves — men under and over the conscript age, while his cavalry was composed of the remnants of commands which had been depleted in battle or by capture. Morgan had been killed, and his command, under Duke, was his chief resource, though the bulk of it was of men without horses, lately returned from long imprisonment. Not long after this a threatening movement was made by the enemy from Tennessee. Breckinridge, not wishing to surrender any more territory in that direction, and to avoid the demoralization consequent upon a contraction of his lines, gathered together hastily such dismounted men as he could find, organized them, and went in person with them to meet the enemy. His success was beyond his expectations — having succeeded, by the force of his personal presence and direction, in defeating the enemy in a sharp engagement at Bull's gap, which caused him to retire towards Knoxville, and gave security to the border for some time. [386]

The situation of affairs in Southwest Virginia was critical, however, in many respects, and called for qualities of the first order in its commander.

Civil government was almost suspended by the remoteness of the country from the seat of Government, but chiefly from the fact that the military feature had almost absorbed the civil in pursuits as well as the thoughts of men. It thus happened that for all the essential wants of the people they looked to the military commander of the Department, who consequently united in himself also many of the functions of civil governor. Complaints of all kinds were made to him, and redress from grievances sought through him; and if history shall accord to him praise for his military administration, it should give him no less credit for the wisdom, prudence and firmness with which he guarded the civil interests of the people within the sphere of his command. The armies at Richmond and elsewhere were dependent, as indeed were the people of a large part of the Confederacy, upon Saltville for their salt, and it devolved upon him to see that, notwithstanding the demand upon the railroad for transportation for other purposes was so great, it should not interfere with the shipment of the needed supplies of this prime article, whose value was so great that it was currently worth one dollar a pint before the Confederate currency had reached its maximum depreciation. The only lead mines in the Confederacy, from which the ammunition of the South was supplied, were in his Department, and he was charged with seeing to the shipment of a stated supply. So also were the chief iron furnaces and forges, from which were furnished material for horse shoes for the whole army and for the military foundry at Richmond. Besides all this, he held the chief source of supply for both bread and meat needed for the army at Richmond; at one time the beef being killed near Wytheville and shipped in the quarter by rail to the Chief Commissary of General Lee's army, for issue daily on its arrival. The regulation of all these details was in his charge, and required, in conjunction with the care and organization of a military force scattered as was his, the highest administrative skill. As one of his powers necessary to the finding and supply of the armies, his officers, both commissary and quartermaster, were empowered to impress articles necessary for public use; and in order to check the rapacity of speculators, he had the sole right to give permits for shipment of any articles from his Department. Yet he administered his office with such justice and purity that the citizen was secure against unreasonable [387] seizure or oppression, and no charge could ever rest against him for the slightest impropriety in the exercise of so delicate a trust. With such power of controlling the shipment of articles of necessity which offered certain high profits, it would have been easy to have enriched himself by millions if he had perverted the functions of his position, but to his honor be it said, that he neither enriched himself or friends to the extent of a farthing. So governing the administration of his office that all his energies were devoted solely to the service of his people, content with the humble fare and the simplest form of a soldier's life.

His headquarters during the fall and winter of 1864-5 were at Wytheville, as more central than Dublin and near the scene of possible operations. In December, near its middle, General Stoneman advanced from East Tennessee with a heavy cavalry force, while Burbridge came from Kentucky, the two effecting a junction and capturing Abingdon before meeting with any serious resistance. They also subsequently captured Saltville and Wytheville; but such was the vigor of General Breckinridge's movements and the skill of his dispositions, that with his meagre force he repulsed them at Marion after an engagement lasting all day, and compelled their return to the points whence they came, without accomplishing any material results. In a few weeks all the railroad bridges which had been burned were rebuilt — salt making resumed, the lead mines in operation, and supplies going steadily forward as before. General Lee's expressions of gratification and thanks for such efficiency were frequent and of the most cordial character. In fact, from his earliest association with him — from Breckinridge's first visit to him in February, 1864, to confer with him pending his assuming command in Virginia — there had existed the warmest relations, and General Lee never missed an opportunity to give expression to his confidence and esteem. With Breckinridge the feelings were reciprocated, he entertaining an exalted respect for General Lee, both as a soldier and a man.

It was during the raid of Stoneman that the following occurred: General Breckinridge was at Saltville with his principal force, hoping to be able to defend it from capture against a superior force. He had lost much sleep, and in such cases possessed the faculty of going a long time without repose, and then making up for lost time by a long sleep, being able to sleep twenty-four hours after having been several nights with little or no sleep. He had his headquarters at the house of a citizen, and had succeeded in getting to [388] sleep, with injunctions not to be waked except for some urgent cause. After he had been quiet for several hours, an officer called to see him, but the gentleman of the house told him of the General's wishes, and remarked, in the presence of his daughter, a grown young lady: “We must be careful of the health of our General. Much depends upon him, for I regard him as one of the pillars of the Confederacy.” “You had better call him one of its sleepers, father,” was the daughter's ready reply, which amused the General greatly when afterward told him.

With those familiar with the ability shown by General Breckinridge in the administration of the Department of Southwestern Virginia, it was not a matter of surprise when in Feburary early, or thereabouts, he was tendered the position of Secretary of War--its acceptance being strongly urged by General Lee in a private letter. Under the circumstances, he felt it his duty to accept — much dissatisfaction having been engendered against Mr. Seddon, whom he succeeded, and his popularity with the army and people being needed to buoy up the depressed feeling of the country. He accordingly repaired at once to Richmond — succeeded in command by General Echols--and at once entered upon the discharge of its duties. Without disparagement to any of the officers who had preceded him it may be said with truth that he was the only commander of the territory embraced in his Department who left it with improved reputation. General Lee, early in the war, periled the reputation which he brought to the service by his inability to hold the line taken by him. General Floyd, General Wise, General Loring and others successively retired from the command, unable to meet the expectations of the Department, or the people among whom they served; while Breckinridge was called to Richmond to receive the highest evidence of the confidence of the Government, and left the Department as popular with his troops and with the people as he ever was at home, in the height of his political success.

Of his after service little need be said. He served too short a time as Secretary of War, and at a period too critical, to afford him opportunity for demonstrating his superior fitness for the position.

It is not improbable that he would have proven unsuited continuous service as Secretary of War for a long period. He had not the elements for a bureau officer. He was good at the organization of an army, but his success in this, where he had the opportunity to practice it, arose from his thorough knowledge of the officers and men under him. Abstractly, he had not a taste for that [389] plodding attention to details, that methodical measuring of every point, without reference to its importance, which is essential to the administration of such an office. His faculty was more of the executive turn. Phrenologically, his organs of perception were better developed than those of reflection. The same qualities which made him more an orator than a writer, more the leader of a congress than a cabinet officer, a better advocate before a jury than solicitor in chancery, fitted him also more for the success he won early and maintained as a General in the field, than for the less active and more confining duties of a secretaryship. Suffice it to say, that his brief term gave satisfaction to those who expected most from him, as did the subsequent close of his carrier as a Confederate officer and soldier.

When Richmond fell, he retired with Mr. Davis and the other members of his Cabinet to North Carolina by way of Danville. When, after the surrender of General Lee, it became evident that the fortunes of the Confederacy were desperate, President Davis directed him to meet General Sherman in company with General J. E. Johnston, who had solicited an interview, and to effect the best arrangement possible looking to a peaceful termination of the war. The interview took place at Durham station, North Carolina, and the result of it was the memorandum of a treaty of peace, which was signed by the opposing Generals subject to the ratification of their respective Governments. General Sherman at first declined to hold communion with General Breckinridge, lest, receiving him as a member of the civil government of the Confederacy, it would imply a recognition of its independent existence. But upon the suggestion that General Breckinridge was a Major-General in the army, he agreed to receive him as such. That the articles as signed bear the impress of General Breckinridge's concise and statesmanlike mind, it is not necessary to indicate by special reference save as to those sections or articles relating strictly to civil and constitutional points proposed to be settled by the treaty. While action by the Federal Government was pending, General Breckinridge repaired to Charlotte, North Carolina, where President Davis then was, and in a letter dated April 23d submitted to him various reasons why the war should close, and why it was his duty, as President of the Confederacy, to do all in his power to terminate it. The letter closed with the following:

Whatever course you pursue, opinions will be divided. Permit me to give mine. Should these or similar views accord with your [390] own, I think the better judgment will be that you can have no higher title to the gratitude of your countrymen and the respect of mankind than will spring from the wisdom to see the path of duty and the courage to follow it, regardless alike of praise or blame.

The closing sentence may be said to be an epitome of the creed which the writer practiced through life, and which was the true secret of his greatness. He had “the wisdom to see the path of duty and the courage to follow it, regardless alike of praise or blame.” The sentiment, illustrated as it was in every step of his grand career, deserves to be graven on his monument as an imperishable injunction to the youth of our country, who, cherishing the memory of one so exalted in the hearts of his people, might be sensibly impressed with the noble words which point the way at once to moral grandeur of character and to the loftiest success.

But it was not given to President Davis to consent, since on the day after General Sherman notified General Johnston that the treaty had been disapproved at Washington, and that the truce would terminate within the specified time--forty-eight hours. The next succeeding day, 25th, General Johnston proposed a meeting with General Sherman, and on the day following signed articles surrendering his army and all the forces east of the Chattahoochee river.

Upon receiving this notification the President and his Cabinet proceeded southward, hoping to be able to make their way to the Trans-Mississippi. They continued together till their arrival at or near Washington, Georgia, when, it becoming apparent that it was reduced to a mere question of personal safety, each adopted the plan he conceived best adapted to serve the purpose. Mr. Davis continued his route westward, and his fate is known. General Breckinridge, after a careful study of the question, determined to attempt his escape to Cuba from the Florida coast. In company with Major James Wilson and his faithful black servant Thomas, he made his way to the mouth of the Saint John's river, having been joined on the route by Colonel John Taylor Wood, an officer of the Confederate navy, and grandson of President Taylor, and Captain 0. Toole. Here, after looking in vain for some friendly sail, and canvassing various plans for escape, they determined to attempt the voyage to Cuba in an open boat of eighteen tons burthen which they had secured. The expedient was desperate, but they felt that death was preferable to capture, and their preparations were soon made. It was impossible to procure any provisions for the trip, and the supply they had comprised enough for only a few meals; but the coast was a great resort for turtles, and their eggs were [391] abundant. Of these a large supply was placed in the boat, and with this outfit they put off from shore. At first they coasted for a more southerly offing, preferring not to put to sea till night, as there were cruisers in sight and they feared being picked up on suspicion. While thus engaged, they were hailed by a vessel bound for New York, but passed themselves off for fishermen. Pulling to sea near night they encountered a severe voyage. Instead of effecting the passage to Cuba in a few days, in consequence of adverse winds and their inferior sail, they were more than eight days at sea. Fortunately Colonel Wood was a skillful sailor, and was able to direct the sailing by the sun or stars, when not himself able to hold the helm, and fortunately, also, upon starting, the most rigid dicipline was inaugurated, and the provisions and water dealt out in the most sparing rations. In spite of all economy, the water gave out, and their only supply afterwards was from rain which they caught in their hats or coats bowled to receive it. Finally when hope had nearly left them, they came in sight of Cardinas, which they reached on the 11th of June. They were cordially received by the Spanish Governor of the place, Colonel Bardaji, who tendered them the hospitalities of the city. After spending several days at Cardinas, they proceeded to Havana, where General Breckinridge was received with every mark of respect and hospitality. He remained long enough to recuperate from the effects of his sea voyage in the frail fishing boat, and in the course of a week or ten days sailed in an English steamer for England. Here he remained some months, when he came to Canada, where he was joined by his family. He resided in Canada chiefly at the pleasant little city of Niagara, where from his modest cottage he could look out on the blue Ontario, or across the narrow river and see the flag of the United States floating from Fort Niagara, as a perpetual warning that there were sentinals watching the border and forbidding his return to the people and the State he loved so well.

In August, 1866, he again went to Europe, taking his family with him, except his two eldest sons, and remained abroad nearly two years. His residence was chiefly in Paris, though he spent some time in England, visiting also Switzerland and Italy. He also made a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land. Returning to Canada in the fall of 1868, he found the sectional feeling so far abated that his friends counseled his return to Kentucky, and in the succeeding winter, having received assurances that he would not be molested, he returned to New York. His arrival in Kentucky, shortly afterwards, was hailed with every demonstration of affection by his [392] former neighbors, irrespective of antecedents, and with cordial welcome by the whole State. He constantly rebuked any effort to make any formal parade in. his behalf, declining to permit ovations of a public kind, and content to receive the unstudied heart-welcome which everywhere greeted him. Returning home, he lost no time in useless repining, but went to work — resuming the practice of the law. He continued in active life, giving also, besides the law, his attention to several railroads projected in the State, until about a year before his death, when he was taken ill with pneumonia, and never recovered his health from that time. In the summer of 1874 he went to New York in hopes the sea air would prove beneficial, but in this, as in a visit to the Saint Lawrence, he was disappointed; and returned in the early autumn to Lexington. Here he remained with fluctuations of hope and despondency, tenderly nursed and confined to his room, with occasional drives in good weather, until a month or more before his death. At last it became apparent to himself as to his friends and family that death was steadily approaching, and he met it with the heroism which had characterized his whole life. It was met not with heathen stoicism, but, while avoiding all demonstration of religious sentiment, it was a stoicism tempered and sustained by the deep religious culture of his youth, the influence of which was manifested through his whole life.

Thus died, in the fifty-fifth year of his age, one who united in his character more of the elements of true manhood than usually fall to the lot of even the most favored. Fashioned of a manly type, handsome almost to the verge of beauty in his young manhood, yet not effeminate, nature seems to have gifted him at once with a comely person, a mind worthy to adorn its setting, a heart to guide both only to noble thoughts and deeds, and a tongue rivaling the persuasive force of Demosthenes, which knew. no utterance but the truth. Intrepid in the pursuit of the right, he knew no compromise with wrong. Honored as few men ever were by the free voice of a people who loved to exalt him, he might have gained the highest round in the ladder of his country's fame, had he been willing to subordinate to ambition the convictions of his mature judgment. Adhering to these, he linked his destinies with a principle which failed, and died under the ban of the Government under which he lived, an alien in the very place of his birth. Thus dying it may be said he died in the cause for which he staked his life, as his liberty. But dying thus, who will say his life was a failure?

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