Joseph Cabell Breckinridge

Joseph Cabell Breckinridge was born on January 14, 1842, in Baltimore, Maryland, into the prominent southern Breckinridge family. His family moved to Kentucky by 1847. Breckinridge attended Centre College in Kentucky for a year before enrolling at the University of Virginia in 1858. His family was strongly divided over the secession debate and several of his relatives fought in the Confederate Army. Aged 18 during the 1860 election, Breckinridge was too young to vote yet still held strong Unionists 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 Union general and native Virginian George H. Thomas.

While serving with Gen. 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 Regiment 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 served as a mustering officer until the end of the war. As his health slowly recovered, he closely monitored the military and political course of the war, voting for Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, and celebrating Lee’s surrender at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, in April of the following year. After Lincoln’s assassination, Breckenridge 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.”

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. The children to survive past infancy were Mary Dudley, born around 1869; Joseph Cabell, Jr., born around 1872; Ethelbert Ludlow Dudley, born around 1876; Lucien Scott, born around 1878; Lucy Hayes, born around 1881; Scott Dudley, born around 1882; Henry Skillman, born around 1886; Margaret Scott Skillman, born around 1889, and John Preston, born around 1890. From 1870 to 1874, Breckinridge worked as adjutant at the Artillery School at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, and in 1877 he helped put down the Pittsburgh railroad strike. He steadily progressed through the ranks, becoming a captain in 1874, a major in 1881, and finally a brigadier general in 1889. He also served as inspector general of the army beginning in 1889, traveling around the country assessing army discipline and effectiveness. When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, he was appointed a 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.

Breckinridge joined the Republican Party, and according to one early biographer, he cast only three presidential ballots in his life: "for Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William McKinley." He was also a leading member of several patriotic societies, including the Loyal Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). 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. He died on August 18, 1920, in Washington D.C., 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.”

Image: Joseph C. Breckinridge (courtesy Library of Congress).


Finding UVA's Unionists (Part 3): Joseph Cabell Breckinridge


Joseph C. Breckinridge Diary Entries, 1864

Name:Breckinridge, Joseph Cabell
Alternative names:
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
2nd Regiment U.S. Artillery, Battery B
Branch of service:Army
Muster Out1898-11-30Retired
Residence at UVA:Lexington, KY
UVA Begin Year:1858
UVA End Year:1859
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:First Lieutenant
Rank Out:Brevet Major
Highest rank achieved:Major General
Birth date:1842-01-14
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Baltimore, MD
Death date:1920-08-18
Death place:Washington, DC
Causes of death:
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Breckinridge, Louise Ludowwife ofBreckinridge, Joseph Cabell
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Mary Dudley
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Joseph Cabell, Jr.
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Ethelbert Ludlow Dudley
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Lucien Scott
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Lucy Hayes
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Scott Dudley
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Henry Skillman
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, Margaret Scott Skillman
Breckinridge, Joseph Cabellparent ofBreckinridge, John Preston

Compiled Service Records for Joseph C. Breckenridge, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Breckenridge Family Papers, Library of Congress; United States Census, 1850, 1860, 1880, 1900, and 1910, accessed through; Letters Received by the Commission Branch, 1863-1870, accessed through; Letters to the Adjutant General's Office, 1861-1870, accessed through; "Neglected Alumni," The Staunton Daily News, October 14, 1913; "Rev. Robert J. Breckenridge, of Kentucky," The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), December 10, 1860; The Evening Star (Washington, DC), August 20, 1920; W. W. Old, "The Student Volunteers of 1861," Alumni Bulletin, New Series Vol. 5 (1906); "Joseph Cabell Breckenridge," The National Cyclopædia of American Biography, Vol. 9 (1899); "Joseph Cabell Breckenridge," Men of Mark in America: Ideals of American Life Told in Biographies of Eminent Living Americans, ed. Merrill E. Gates (1905); Vivien Sandlund, "Robert Breckenridge, Presbyterian Antislavery Conservative," The Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 78, No. 2 (2000); William W. Freehling, The South Vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (2001); Adam I. P. Smith, No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (2006); Luke E. Harlow, "Religion, Race, and Robert J. Breckenridge: The Ideology of an Antislavery Slaveholder, 1830-1860" (2006); Brian Neumann, "Finding UVA's Unionists (Part 3): Joseph Cabell Breckinridge" (