Monday, March 25, 2024

Breckinridge, Lee, Johnston, and the end of the War.

   When the surrender of the two principal Confederate armies is discussed, those conversations focus on two sets of interactions: Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant at Appomattox and Joseph E. Johnston and William T. Sherman at the Bennett Place. Hovering around the periphery of those discussions is John C. Breckinridge. In the final days, he counselled both Lee and Johnston.

   John C. Breckinridge kind of slips through the cracks of history. While there are scores of biographies on Lee and Johnston, there are only three on Breckinridge. Born in Kentucky, he graduated from Transylvania University, practiced law, and served as an officer in the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers during the war with Mexico. Breckinridge served two terms as a Kentucky legislator, two terms in the U.S. House, as Vice President of the United States under President James Buchanan, and was serving in the U.S. Senate after his term as Vice President expired. Described as not being a “proponent of secession or of extreme state rights views,” he did run against the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket as a Democrat in 1860.[1]

   Breckinridge might just be the most widely-traveled of Confederate generals. Commissioned as brigadier general in November 1861, he saw service in Kentucky, fought at Shiloh, was promoted to major general in April 1862, was in Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Port Hudson, and at Murfreesboro. In 1863, he led a division at Jackson, Chickamauga, and a corps at Chattanooga. Breckinridge then moved east, leading the Confederate forces at New Market in May 1864, Cold Harbor, and then back to the Shenandoah Valley to defend it against attacks by Federals, eventually leading a corps under Early’s command during the march on Washington, D.C. In January 1865, Breckinridge became the sixth and last Confederate Secretary of War.

Breckinridge, Lee, and Johnston. (LOC)

   Following the breakthrough of Confederate lines below Petersburg on the morning of April 2, 1865, Richmond was abandoned. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Cabinet boarded the last train out of Richmond that night, leaving the city a blaze. Breckinridge was not with the group. He rode out of the city early on the morning of April 3. Breckinridge took command of a wagon train moving toward Amelia Court House, having at least one brush with Federal cavalry. In Farmville on the night of April 6 or morning of April 7, Breckinridge found Lee and discussed events, with Lee wishing Breckinridge to deliver a message to President Davis.[2]

   While it is not known what all they discussed, Breckinridge does write Davis on April 8. Amelia Court House was occupied by the Federals on April 5; some 800 Federals had been captured near Rice’s Station on April 6; serious Confederate losses had been sustained-- “High Bridge and other points.” It was Lee’s plan to try and get to North Carolina, Breckinridge wrote. He then outlines the disposition of a few other Confederate commands, like Lomax and Echols. “The straggling has been great, and the situation is not favorable,” Breckinridge concluded. Was surrender something that the two had discussed?[3]

   Breckinridge rode toward the south, escaping Federal troops encircling Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee surrendered on April 9 at Appomattox Court House. On April 11, the day after Davis moved south to North Carolina, Breckinridge arrived in Danville. He set out the following day and reached Davis, meeting with the president at the home of John Wood. It was Breckinridge that brought the official word of Lee’s surrender. That night, Breckinridge met with Joseph E. Johnston.[4]

   According to Johnston, it was his opinion, along with that of P.G.T. Beauregard, that the “Southern Confederacy was overthrown.” Johnston told Breckinridge this and believed that it was Davis’s responsibility to exercise this “power . . . without more delay.” Breckinridge promised to give Johnston the floor to express this view. Johnston was given the opportunity and told the president “that under such circumstances it would be the greatest of human crimes for us to attempt to continue the war.” Davis asked for the views of his cabinet, with Breckinridge, Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Navy, and John H. Reagan, Postmaster General, concurring. Only Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin held out hope. Davis agreed to allow Johnston to begin talks with Sherman.[5]

   Davis, with the Confederate cabinet, including Breckinridge, set out from Greensboro, heading to Charlotte, on April 15. Breckinridge was with Davis, and, on the following day, learned that Johnston and Sherman had opened talks. Johnston and Sherman began meeting at the Bennett Farm near Durham, and Johnston wanted Breckinridge to help with the negotiations. It was Johnston’s plan (and Davis’s) that the civil departments be surrendered as well. Not reaching a conclusion at the end of the first day, Johnston requested that Breckinridge join him. Breckinridge arrived, along with Reagan, and joined Johnston in drafting a surrender proposal. When Johnston returned to the Bennett Farm, Breckinridge was also there, and it was Johnston’s idea that Breckinridge join the negotiations. Sherman demurred. Breckinridge was one of those civil officials. Johnston reminded Sherman that Breckinridge was also a major general in the Confederate army, and Breckinridge joined in the debate. Eventually, terms were reached on April 18 and sent to various presidents.[6]

   While standing in the yard of the Bennett farm, waiting for copies of the documents to be made, Sherman took Breckinridge aide. Sherman told Breckinridge that “he had better get away, as the feeling of our people, who had as such announced Mr. Lincoln,  of Illinois, duly and properly elected the President of the United States, and yet that he afterward openly rebelled and taken up arms against the Government. He answered me that he surely would give us no more trouble, and intimated that he would speedily leave the country forever.”[7] Of course, Breckinridge would leave the country, heading to Cuba first, then Great Britian and Canada, before a tour through Europe. Upon being assured that he was covered under President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of December 1868, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky. He died in Kentucky in 1875.

   Breckinridge’s council with Joseph E. Johnston is well documented. While what Breckinridge and Lee discussed in Farmville on April 7 is seemingly lost to history, the pair had met frequently after Breckinridge assumed the office of Secretary of War, including a three-day stint after Breckinridge failed to get the Confederate senate to pass a resolution demanding Davis open negotiations with Lincoln. Historian William C. Davis, in an essay on the roles of Breckinridge, Lee, and John A. Campbell, believes that, at that Farmville meeting,  Breckinridge and Lee possibly outlined what Lee could do if he was cornered and forced to surrender.[8]  


[1] Davis, The Confederate General, 1:127.

[2] Knight, From Arlington to Appomattox, 494; Davis, Breckinridge, 507.

[3] OR, Vol. 46, pt. 3, 1389.

[4] Davis, Breckinridge, 509.

[5] Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations, 397-99.

[6] Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations, 400-405.

[7] Sherman, Personal memoirs, 2:353-54.

[8] Davis, “Lee, Breckinridge, and Campbell,” in Janney, Petersburg to Appomattox, 155.

Monday, March 04, 2024

The United Confederate Veteran reunions in Memphis

   Following the war, veterans organizations sprang up all over the nation. Memphis seemed slow to join the various groups. Prominent in the 1870s was the Mexican War Veterans Association, with Gideon Pillow as its commander. It appears that the original fraternal group in Memphis was known as the “Confederate Veterans Historical Association.” This later becomes the Confederate Veteran Historical Association Camp No. 28 after the United Confederate Veteran was formed in July 1889. Its counterpart in Memphis was the William J. Smith Post 1896, Grand Army of the Republic.[1]  

   Both organizations held national reunions for their membership in different locations across the United States. Quite possibly the closest that a GAR reunion was held to Memphis was the National Encampment in St. Louis in September 1887. Three times, the United Confederate Veterans held national reunions in Memphis: 1901, 1909, and 1924.

Program from the 1901 reunion. 
(TN Virtual Archives) 
   The 11th Annual Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans was held May 28-30, 1901, drawing 20,000 participants. The Rev. J. William Jones opened the day with a prayer, followed by an address from the governor, the mayor and a US Senator, then John B. Gordon, General-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans. The commands of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan were recognized. Joseph Wheeler spoke, followed by Fitzhugh Lee and General Bates.  That was all the first day. Alexander P. Stewart spoke the following day, and business was conducted, such as a fundraiser approved for a monument to Southern women, a decision on the location of the next reunion, a meeting of Confederate surgeons, a grand ball, and a flower parade. There were of course extras through the three days. Capt. George H. Mitchell, superintendent of the Memphis National Cemetery, encouraged the Confederate veterans to come and pay their respects. There was even a meeting of Confederate and Union veterans in the lobby of the Peabody hotel.[2]  

   The 19th Annual Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans was held June 8-10, 1909. The reunion was held jointly with the Confederate Southern Memorial Association. The crowds, estimated at 90,000 visitors (railroad officials believed the number of visitors at 175,000), found the route of the parade of veterans “a mass of brilliant bunting and fluttering flags . . . It was noticeable that the star-spangled banner was given almost equal place in many instances with the banner that was furled but never conquered.” Many local citizens sported badges that read “I live here; ask me.” The Bijou Theater was used as the convention hall where the meetings of delegates took place. The governor was on hand to welcome the veterans and their guest, followed by the singing of “Dixie,” and a “Rebel yell.” Clement A. Evans spoke, as did Lewis Guion, pleading for a park at Vicksburg, with a Confederate monument. There was a memorial service in honor of Jefferson Davis, the introduction of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s great-grandson, a reunion of the Immortal 600, and a grand ball. As at many of the reunions, there was a casualty or two. Jack Duhig, a member of the Sterling Price Camp, Dallas, Texas, died in a local hospital, probably from a heat stroke.[3]

Veterans at the 1924 reunion.

   The 34th Annual reunion of the United Confederate Veterans was held June 3-5, 1924. Reunion headquarters was at the Claridge Hotel, and thousands were reported in attendance. The event started with a memorial service at Elmwood Cemetery, with the Confederate graves being marked with flags and addresses on several topics, including Jefferson Davis. It was Davis’s birthdate. On June 4, the reunion officially began. The mayor of Memphis spoke (but the governor only sent his regards), then Commander-in- Chief W.B. Haldeman. “The grim reaper is rapidly depleting the ranks of the Confederate veterans,” Haldeman told the crowd, estimated at 5,000. Haldeman was re-elected as commander, and annual dues were increased. Most of the veterans were now driven in cars along the parade route. The only Confederate general present seems to have been Felix Robertson. There were also twenty “old ex-slaves who had served . . . during the war.” The Memphis D.A.R. sponsored an opening luncheon, the Kiwanis Club sponsored the floral parade, the R.O.T.C. and the Boy Scouts provided programing and helped the old veterans around the city, while there were several balls, one sponsored by the Ladies’ Confederate Memorial Association and another by the Memphis United Daughters of the Confederacy. Several veterans were reported in the hospital, “suffering from natural afflictions and the infirmities of age.” One newspaper editor was happy to have the veterans in Memphis, but also found the reunion “tinged. . . with sadness. It is more and more evident that the day is not far distant when there will be the grand final reunion in a city not made with hands, the reunion in which every man who fought on either side in the sixties will have a part.”[4]  

[1] Public Ledger, April 25, 1890; The Memphis Commercial, January 21, 1894.

[2] Confederate Veteran, 9:248-250; The Commercial Appeal, May 5, 1901, May 28, 1901.

[3] Confederate Veteran, 17:197, 314-16; The Commercial Appeal, June 11, 1909.

[4] Confederate Veteran, 32: 251-54; The Commercial Appeal, June 4, 1924, June 7, 1923.