UVA Unionists (Part 3): Joseph Cabell Breckinridge

by Brian Neumann | | Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 10:32

Joseph C. Breckinridge

In the decades following the Civil War, the University of Virginia erased its Union veterans from its history, constructing a narrative of unwavering Confederate commitment. The few writers who mentioned these UVA Unionists insisted that they were northern students, thereby reaffirming the image of southern unity. In 1906, Captain William W. Old, a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia who had attended the university in 1860, argued that almost every one of his classmates volunteered to serve the Confederacy—“with the exception of a few from the Northern states and a few, very few, from Maryland.” A 1913 editorial in The Staunton Daily News insisted that there “must have been numbers of northern boys and young men who attended the University of Virginia…who stuck to their people and their native land when the war broke out.”[1]

In reality, however, two-thirds of the UVA Unionists identified by the Nau Center so far came from the South. About 31 percent (18 of 58) were born in the Border South states that remained loyal to the Union during the war. Another 36 percent (21 of 58) came from the states that formed the Confederacy—eighteen from the Upper South and three from the Lower South. The experiences of these men challenge the Lost Cause myth of southern unity, reaffirming the enduring divisions within antebellum southern society. Most white southerners, especially in the eleven seceded states, remained loyal to the Confederacy throughout the war, and perhaps half of UVA’s antebellum alumni served in the Confederate military. Nonetheless, these Unionists’ experiences demonstrate that Confederate nationalism was neither inevitable nor unanimous. About 300,000 white southerners served in the Union army—200,000 from the Border South and 100,000 from Confederate states. For Joseph Breckinridge—whose cousin John C. Breckinridge was the Southern Democratic candidate for president in 1860—secession and Civil War divided not only his classmates and his community, but also his entire family.[2]

Joseph Cabell Breckinridge was born on January 14, 1842, in Baltimore, Maryland, into a prominent southern family. His grandfather John Breckinridge (1760-1806) represented Kentucky in the U. S. Senate and served as attorney general under Thomas Jefferson. His father Robert Jefferson Breckinridge (1800-1871) was a Kentucky legislator and influential Presbyterian minister who supported gradual emancipation coupled with colonization. The family lived in Maryland for several years while Robert Breckinridge served as pastor of Baltimore’s Second Presbyterian Church. They returned to Kentucky by 1847, when Governor William Owsley appointed him superintendent of public instruction. Breckinridge was a champion of public education, and during his six years in office, public school attendance in the state increased from 20,000 to more 200,000.[3]

Robert Breckinridge encouraged his children’s education, and “Joe” attended Centre College in Kentucky for a year before enrolling in the University of Virginia in 1858. Although he only attended the university for a year, he formed several deep friendships, particularly with students from the Upper and Border South. William Henning of North Carolina recalled “many pleasant hours [spent] in social converse” discussing physics and moral philosophy, while fellow Kentuckian Harrison Watts hoped their friendship would “prove as lasting as life” and predicted Breckinridge would “attain the top most step on the ladder of fame.” After leaving the university, he returned to Danville, Kentucky, to study law.[4]

During the election of 1860, Southern Democrats nominated Joseph’s cousin John C. Breckinridge for president on a platform promoting the expansion of slavery into the territories and the enforcement of the fugitive slave law. Although the candidate professed his loyalty to the Union, the party aggressively defended slavery and state rights. Joseph’s father Robert Breckinridge, however, was a conservative Unionist who attempted to find a middle ground between abolition and secession. He argued that, “if the North insists on using the National Government to put down slavery, or if the South insists on using it to perpetuate and extend slavery, the Union cannot last.” He voted for Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860 and became a prominent wartime Republican. Robert Breckinridge published Unionist sermons and edited the Danville Quarterly Review, a Unionist newspaper that circulated throughout the Border South. He served as president pro tempore of the National Union Party convention in 1864 and urged men across the political spectrum to support the Union war effort. “As a Union party,” he proclaimed, “I will follow you to the ends of the earth, and to the gates of death!”[5]

Although Robert Breckinridge remained firmly committed to Union, secession and Civil War left his family deeply divided. His sons Robert Jr. and William enlisted in the Confederate army, while sons Joseph and Charles and three sons-in-law fought for the Union. At 18, Joseph Breckinridge was too young to vote in the election, but he shared his father’s ideals. An early biographer noted that Breckinridge was “eager to fight for the preservation of the Union,” and in August 1861, he abandoned his studies to enlist in the Union army, becoming assistant adjutant general under the Virginia-born Union general, George H. Thomas.[6]

While serving with Thomas in 1862, Breckinridge fought in the battles of Shiloh and Corinth. He earned a commission in Battery B of the 2nd United States Artillery for gallantry in the battle of Mill Springs fought in January of that year. His battery was stationed in Florida for much of the war, serving at Fort Pickens and Pensacola, before being attached to the Army of the Tennessee before the Atlanta campaign in 1864. On July 22, 1864, in the woods outside Atlanta, Breckinridge and his men were “captured, without a chance to reverse unlimber or fire.” Their Confederate captors sent them to Charleston, where they were “confined in the Negro Work House” for the next two months. Breckinridge was exchanged in a special cartel on September 28, and returned home on October 3 in broken health—“ragged, sick, and dirty.” He was breveted captain and then major for his “gallant and meritorious conduct” during the campaign, and he served as a mustering officer until the end of the war.[7]

As his health slowly recovered, he closely monitored the military and political course of the war. He voted for Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, and in April 1865 he attended a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, to celebrate the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After Lincoln’s assassination, he condemned the “reckless, desperate grasp at domineering universal in the South and the unlimited rage at the seeming speedy snatching of all such power from them.” That May, reflecting on his wartime experiences, he composed a short song narrated by a soldier halfway through the war: “In 1861, This cruel war it was begun, / In 1862, Old Abe he didn’t know what to do, / In 1863, Old Abe he set the [negroes] free, / In 1864, This cruel war it will be o’er, / In 1865, There won’t be a Goddammed rebel alive, / In 1866, Oh! Won’t we bit in a hell of a fix.”[8]

Breckinridge remained in the United States Army after the war, serving in California as aide-de-camp to General Henry W. Halleck. He married Louise Ludlow Dudley, the daughter of a prominent Kentucky physician, in July 1868. Over the next twenty-two years, they had thirteen children, four of whom died in infancy. From 1870 to 1874, Breckinridge worked as adjutant at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe in Virginia, and in 1877 he helped put down the Pittsburgh railroad strike. He steadily progressed through the ranks, becoming captain in 1874, major in 1881, and brigadier general in 1889. He served as inspector general of the army from 1889 to 1903, travelling around the country assessing army discipline and effectiveness. When America declared war on Spain in 1898, he was appointed major general of volunteers. He served throughout the war, having a horse shot from under him at the Battle of San Juan Hill. He retired from the army on November 30, 1898.[9]

Breckinridge was a lifelong Republican and a leading member of several patriotic societies, including the Loyal Legion and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). He left few records describing his memories of the Civil War. His actions, however, reflect an enduring commitment to the “Union Cause,” an interpretation of the war that celebrated Union soldiers’ efforts to suppress the Confederate rebellion and preserve liberty and democracy for future generations. In the late 1800s, he played an active role in Civil War memorialization, attending GAR encampments across the country and participating in the dedication ceremonies for several Civil War monuments. In 1897, he travelled to New York City to take part in the dedication of Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb—the largest mausoleum in the country and a powerful testament to the Union Cause.[10]

He died on August 18, 1920, in Washington DC, and was buried in Lexington Cemetery in Kentucky. Army officers praised his “high character and distinguished ability” and remembered him as a “brave, accomplished, manly soldier.” Although “so many of his ardent enthusiastic fellows were almost forced into the Confederate Service by the prevailing sentiment… [Breckinridge] stood fast to his allegiance to the flag and cause of the Union.” In doing so, he opposed not only many of his former classmates, but half of his own family, as well. His experiences—and those of William Fishback, James Broadhead, and many other UVA Unionists—testify to the bitter divisions within antebellum southern society and the enduring commitment of some southerners to the ideals of Union.[11]

Brian Neumann is a PhD candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at UVA. His research examines the social, political, and ideological dynamics of Unionism in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis.

Images: (1) Joseph Cabell Breckinridge; (2) Images from Breckinridge's notebook while at the University of Virginia; (3) Diary entry for November 8, 1864 (all images courtesy Library of Congress).


1. W. W. Old, “The Student Volunteers of 1861,” Alumni Bulletin, New Series Vol. 5 (1906), 291-300; “Neglected Alumni,” The Staunton Daily News, 14 October 1913.

2. William W. Freehling, The South Vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 61.

3. Vivien Sandlund, “Robert Breckinridge, Presbyterian Antislavery Conservative,” The Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Summer 2000), 145-154, available from https://www.jstor.org/stable/i23335401; Luke E. Harlow, “Religion, Race, and Robert J. Breckinridge: The Ideology of an Antislavery Slaveholder, 1830-1860,” Ohio Valley History, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Fall 2006), 1-24.

4. Joseph C. Breckinridge Autograph Book, Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress.

5. “Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, of Kentucky,” The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), 10 December 1860; Adam I. P. Smith, No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), 102-103.

6. “Major General Joseph Cabell Breckinridge,” Biographical Papers, Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress; “Joseph Cabell Breckinridge,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. IX (New York: James T. White & Co., 1899), 23-24.

7. Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, Diary Entries for July 22, 1864 to October 3, 1864, Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress.

8. Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, Diary Entries for November 8, 1864 to May 8, 1865, Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress.

9. “Joseph Cabell Breckinridge,” Men of Mark in America: Ideals of American Life Told in Biographies of Eminent Living Americans, ed. Merrill E. Gates (Washington, DC: Men of Mark Publishing Company, 1905), 173-175; “Joseph Cabell Breckinridge,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. IX (New York: James T. White & Co., 1899), 23-24.

10. “Joseph Cabell Breckinridge,” Men of Mark in America, 175; Joseph Cabell Breckinridge Diary, April 2, 1897-November 12, 1897, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; For a discussion of Grant’s tomb and the Union Cause memory of the Civil War, see Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2013) and Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012).

11. William T. Sherman to Mr. Smith, 26 March 1887, and J. W. Stevenson to Ulysses S. Grant, 26 July 1879, Military Appointments and Assignments, The Papers of the Breckinridge Family, Library of Congress.