Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 2000.
Students of the American Civil War
know that only one man in the Civil War was hanged for war crimes:
Henry Wirz. He was the commandant of the Andersonville confederate
prison. Over thirteen thousand Union prisoners of war died in
Andersonville. Some have argued that even though Wirz was inept he
had very little control because the lack of food was the underlying
cause of the disease that killed so many Union prisoners. The
Confederacy could not feed itís own troops let alone the tens of
thousands of Union prisoners it held.
of Henry Wirz, November 10, 1865.
Was the wrong man hanged?
John C. Breckinridge is a very
different story: A well known Senator from Kentucky; Presidential
candidate against Abraham Lincoln in 1860; And Vice President of the
United States from 1857 to 1861.
He joined the Confederacy in late
1861. He served as a Confederate field general
most of the war. Originally he was to head just Kentucky troops but
as the war went on he was a corps commander of units from many
Southern States. He fought in most of the major battles: Shiloh,
Corinth, Winchester, Baton Rouge, Stones River, Chickamauga,
Chattanooga, and Cold Harbor.
His greatest victory was at New
Market, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. His greatest defeat,
which lead to his downfall as a battlefield commander, was at
Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga. It was his line that George Thomasís
Union troops broke at Missionary Ridge to cause the Confederates to
flee in confusion. Breckinridge was not there at the time but at
Lookout Mountain fighting Joe Hookerís troops. His superior, Braxton
Bragg, was on Missionary Ridge but could not stop the Confederate
collapse. However, typical of Braxton Bragg, he blamed the defeat on
Breckinridge being drunk.
Breckinridge then commanded a small
Confederate force in Southwest Virginia. In February of 1865 he was
sent to Richmond to head the War Department. He was very qualified
to be Secretary of War but soon the Confederacy would collapse.
Breckinridge fled south with
Jefferson Davis and the other cabinet members. He separated from
Davis in Georgia and made his escape through Florida to Cuba.
Breckinridge spent the next four
years with his wife and children in Europe and Canada. He lived much
of the time in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario across the river from
the United States. He could look across the Niagara River and see
the U. S. flag flying over Fort Niagara.
In the Spring of 1869 he returned
to his beloved Kentucky. His return was made possible by President
Andrew Johnson issuing a general amnesty for ex-Confederates on
December 25, 1868. This was clearly intended for Breckinridge since
he was the highest profile Confederate still-at-large.
President Johnson did not have the
constitutional authority to issue an amnesty to John C.
Breckinridge. The United States Constitution only defines one crime:
Treason. The Constitution defines aiding and abetting the enemy as
treason. Since Breckinridge with Jubal Early lead a Confederate
attack on Washington in the summer of 1864, there can be no doubt
that he was guilty of treason.
The United States executed Germans
and Japanese for war crimes following World War II but in 1869 let
John C. Breckinridge, a treasonous Vice President of the United
States, go home unpunished.
The crime was too great. He should
have been hanged.