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ARTICLES Colonel William (Willie) Campbell Preston Breckinridge - 9th Kentucky Cavalry, C.S.

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At the age of twenty-seven, William (Willie) Campbell Preston Breckinridge enlisted in the 9th Kentucky Cavalry Battalion, and in early 1862 promoted to Major.  During September and October of 1862, while the state was under the occupation of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee and Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of East Tennessee, Confederate recruiters signed up men from Central and Northern Kentucky to form the 9th Kentucky battalion, which consisted of five companies.  After the Battle of Perryville in October of 1862, Bragg and Smith pulled out of Kentucky, and Willie Breckinridge’s battalion fell back into Tennessee along with the rest of the Confederate army.  The Confederate command placed the 9th Kentucky battalion under the command of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan.

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Portrait of
Col. W. C. P. Breckinridge

Willie Breckinridge came from one of the most prominent political families in Kentucky.  W. C. P. Breckinridge’s grandfather had served as United States Senator, was the first cabinet level minister from west of the Appalachians, and introduced the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.  Willie Breckinridge’s father Robert had left a political career for the ministry and reached his church’s highest position when he became Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly.  He also helped to found the Unconditional Unionists Party.  An uncle of Willie Brecknridge’s had been a Kentucky Secretary of State, and his cousin John C. Breckinridge held the Offices of Representative, Vice President, Senator, and during the Civil War, Confederate General of the famous Orphans Brigade, and Confederate Secretary of War, all before the age of forty five.  Another cousin, Clifton Rodes Breckinridge of Arkansas, would serve in Congress.

On December 15, 1862, in Alexandria, Tennessee, the 9th Kentucky Battalion was combined with five companies under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stoner and the two battalions formed the 9th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment.  Morgan promoted Willie Breckenridge to Colonel and Stoner became his Lieutenant Colonel.  The 9th Kentucky Regiment was assigned to the Second Brigade of General John Hunt Morgan’s Division of Cavalry.  On December 22, 1862, the 9th Kentucky along with the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry under Basil Duke; the 7th Kentucky under Colonel Gano; the 8th Kentucky under Colonel Cluke; and the 11th Kentucky under Colonel Chenault, along with a howitzer battery under Captain Arnet, left Alexandria, Tennessee.  Morgan’s division totaled to 3,100 men and seven pieces of artillery.  Morgan divided the division into two brigades: the first commanded by Colonel Duke and the second under the command of Colonel Breckinridge.  On December 22, 1862, Morgan crossed the Cumberland River, and encamped three miles on the other side of the river at dusk.

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On the December 23, Morgan made an early start and reached Centreville that evening.  He had traveled about thirty miles.  On December 24, the division marched to within six miles of Glasgow.  Morgan set up his main camp some six miles from the town, and sent two companies to take possession of Glasgow.  As they entered town, they encountered the advance guard of a battalion of the Second Michigan Cavalry.  Darkness prevented either side from seeing each other at first, but then a skirmish broke out and a private of Breckinridge’s regiment and Captain W. E. Jones, Co. A, 9th Kentucky, were mortally wounded.  Lt. Samuel Peyton, of Duke’s regiment was seriously wounded and some six or seven of Morgan’s men taken prisoner.  Morgan’s squadron fell back, as the Yankees passed through the town and took the road to Munfordville, Kentucky.  Several of the Yankees were killed and wounded and twenty-two prisoners, including a captain, were captured and paroled.

On December 25, Morgan passed through Glasgow and took the Bear Wallow turnpike in the direction of Munfordville.  About ten miles from Green River Morgan’s scouts reported that a battalion of cavalry was drawn up in line, awaiting their approach.  Morgan quickly moved forward two companies and a section of artillery to meet them, and made ready for a long engagement.

The Yankees did not wait to receive the charge of the force Morgan had sent forward, but fired a few rounds, took to flight and left the road clear.  Morgan proceeded with his force to the Green River, and succeeded in crossing the river with considerable difficulty, since the banks were muddy and steep.  Morgan reached Hammondsville with his command at midnight and ordered Colonel Breckinridge to send two companies in the direction of Woodsonville with instructions to drive in the Yankee pickets, and he dispatched two companies of Col. Duke’s command with similar instructions, in the direction of Munfordville.  Morgan’s plan was to make the Yankees think that he intended to attack the fortifications at Green River, and by so threatening the Yankees, to divert their attention from the combined attack which he intended to make the next day on the stockades at Bacon Creek and Nolin.

On December 26, Morgan sent Duke’s and Gano’s Seventh Kentucky Cavalry regiments and a section of artillery from Palmer’s battery, under the command of Lt. Col. John Hutcheson of the Second Kentucky Cavalry to attack the stockade at Bacon Creek, while he moved on with the main body of men to Upton.  A heavy rain had begun to fall during the night, turning the road into a quagmire, and making the road very difficult for the artillery and wagon trains to move.  At 11 o’clock Colonel Hutcheson’s cannon opened up.  Upon arriving at Upton, Morgan cut the telegraph wires and his operator Lighting Ellsworth was soon in communication with Louisville, Cincinnati, and other points along the railway lines.  A message was received that a train loaded with ammunition, small arms, and two pieces of rifled artillery was soon to arrive.  Morgan wanted to intercept this train, but unfortunately he missed the opportunity.

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At 3:00 P.M., Morgan sent forward the remainder of his force to Nolin, under the command of Colonel Duke, holding in reserve Johnson’s regiment and the other section of Palmer’s battery.  Due to the prolonged firing at Bacon Creek, Morgan was fearful that the stockade had been re-enforced from Munfordville and he moved down to Bacon Creek to assist Colonel Hutcheson.  Upon his arrival, Morgan sent in a flag of truce, and demanded an unconditional surrender of that place, which after some hesitation on the part of Captain James, commanding officer, finally agreed to surrender.  Morgan captured ninety-three prisoners of the 91st Illinois, including four commissioned officers.  Morgan burned the stockade and trestle and Morgan moved on to Nolin.  The force at the trestle near Nolin, numbering three officers and seventy-three privates of the 91st Illinois surrendered to Colonel Duke.  Colonel Duke burned the stockade and bridge.  While waiting at Upton, Morgan built large fires to be built along the track for some three miles, in order to warp and destroy the rails.

On December 27, Morgan learned that seven or eight companies of Yankees were stationed at Elizabethtown and moved his command in that direction.  On arriving within sight of the town, Morgan received a message written on the back of an envelope, by H. S. Smith, the commander of the Union forces in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.  Smith demanded the unconditional surrender of Morgan and his forces and informed him he was surrounded.  Morgan wrote Smith back and told him that he was surrounded, and demanded that Smith should surrender.  Smith replied that as an officer in the Union army, his duty was to fight and not to surrender.

Leaving one regiment and a howitzer in reserve to protect the wagon trains, Morgan ordered Colonel Duke to deploy his command to the right and Colonel Breckinridge to deploy his men to the left of the town and to throw forward skirmishers to discover the position of the Yankees.  Morgan realized that Smith’s men took possession of several brick houses on the outskirts of town, and expected to make a street fight.  Morgan placed his artillery in position on a hill a little to the left of the road, which completely commanded the town, and sent Captain C. C. Corbett with one mountain howitzer, to attack the town on the right.  After about one hour of vigorous shelling, the town surrendered, and 652 prisoners, including twenty-five officers, fell into Morgan’s hands.

In his report Morgan pointed out that the rapid and accurate fire of Captain Palmer’s battery contributed a great deal to the surrender of the Union forces.  Almost every one of his shots had hit the houses occupied by the Yankees.  Morgan mentioned Captain Corbett for his gallantry.  Corbett ran one of his howitzers into town while under heavy fire from the houses.  Lieutenant Colonel Stoner was also mentioned for charging the town at the head of his men.

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A silver chalice presented to Colonel W. C. P. Breckinridge by the men of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, C. S.

On December 28, Morgan moved his forces from Elizabethtown in the direction of Bardstown to destroy two huge trestles on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.  Each trestle was protected by strong log stockades or blockhouses filled with Yankee infantry.  Four miles from Elizabethtown, Morgan ordered Colonel Breckinridge to turn his command to the left and to attack the lower stockade near Muldraugh’s Hill, while Morgan moved on with Colonel Duke’s brigade to attack the upper stockade.  After two or three hours of shelling both places surrendered and at 7 o’clock that evening Morgan was pleased to find that the objective of his expedition had been attained.  The Louisville and Nashville railroad would be impassable for at least two months.  These two trestles were the largest and finest on the whole road, each of them some sixty feet in height and from three hundred to three hundred and fifty yards in length.  Neither of them had ever been destroyed before.  Seven hundred prisoners, including twenty-seven officers were captured and a large and valuable amount of medical, quartermaster and commissary stores were destroyed.  Morgan encamped at the Rolling Fork River that night.

On December 29, Morgan sent Colonel R. S. Cluke’s regiment, and one piece of artillery to attack and burn the bridge over the Rolling Fork; Colonel Chenault’s regiment and one piece of artillery were to burn the stockade and trestle at Boston and three companies from Colonel Breckinridge’s regiment and one mountain howitzer were to attack at New Haven.  Morgan then set his command in motion and as the rear regiments began to cross the Rolling Fork, a large Union force consisting of cavalry, infantry, and several pieces of artillery, which followed Morgan from Elizabethtown, came up and began to shell the ford where Morgan’s men began to cross the ford.  Morgan sent orders to Colonel Duke, who was in the rear, to send a courier to Colonel Cluke, ordering him to rejoin the command as quickly as possible and to hold the Yankees in check until the entire command crossed the ford.  Colonel Duke, assisted by Colonel W. C. P. Breckinridge, placed seven companies from different regiments in position and held five in reserve.  With this force he repulsed the Yankees advance several times and very nearly succeeded in capturing two pieces of artillery, but Duke, wounded by a shell, fell from his horse.  Colonel Breckinridge then took command and maintained the position until Colonel Cluke’s regiment had crossed the river.  Morgan ordered Breckinridge to fall back.  Breckinridge fell back in good order and without any further losses.

Meanwhile, Colonel Chenault had burned the trestle and stockade at Boston.  He rejoined Morgan that night at Bardstown.  The force sent to burn the stockade at New Haven was not successful, and did not rejoin the command until the following night at Springfield.

On December 30, Morgan left Bardstown, and marched to Springfield, a distance of some eighteen miles, where he arrived at nightfall.  On Morgan’s arrival he learned that the Yankees had withdrawn all their forces from the southern portion of the State, and concentrated them at Lebanon.  The Union command gathered troops from Danville, Burkesville, Campbellsville, and Columbia and numbered nearly eight thousand men and several pieces of artillery.  Morgan also learned that a force of ten thousand moved from Glasgow to Burkesville to intercept him.  Morgan decided to detour to the right of Lebanon and by a night march, to conceal his movements from the Yankees, out run the column moving from Glasgow to Burkesville and cross the Cumberland before the Union force came to within striking distance.  Upon arriving in Springfield he sent out two companies on the Lebanon road, with instructions to drive the Union pickets and to hold the position.  After holding his position on the Lebanon Road, Morgan ordered his men to build large and extended campfires to fool the Yankees into thinking that his entire force was in position, and that Morgan was only waiting for daylight to attack.  Considerable delay had occurred because Morgan could not find a reliable guide who sufficiently knew the area to lead him over the route he desired, but by 11:00 p.m. the whole column was in motion.  The night was dark and stormy and the road rough, so on the morning of December 31, 1862, Morgan found his command only eight miles from Springfield and two and a half miles from Lebanon.  By 1 o’clock that afternoon, the top of Muldraugh’s Hill was reached and Morgan could clearly see Lebanon and the Yankees skirmishers deployed in the valley below with his telescope.  Just as the rear guard of the column reached the foot of the hills, a hand to hand fight broke out between Colonel D. J. Halisy, of the 6th Kentucky Cavalry, commanding brigade, and two other Federal officers on the one side and Captain Alexander Tribble and Lieutenant Eastin, of Morgan’s command, on the other, in which Colonel Halisy was killed by Lieutenant Eastin, and his companions captured.

Morgan reached Campbellsville late in the evening and found in the city a large amount of commissary stores.  Morgan appreciated the commissary stores, since his men had eaten very little for the past two days.

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On January 1, 1863, Morgan started for Columbia, where he arrived at 3 p.m.  By a night march from Columbia, Morgan reached Burkesville at daylight the following morning.  Morgan halted his command at Burkesville for a few hours to rest and feed, and then crossed the Cumberland without incident.  On January 5. Morgan and his men reached Smithville, Tennessee.

During Morgan’s “Christmas Raid”, he managed to destroy the Louisville and Nashville Railroad from Munfordville to Shepherdsville within eighteen miles of Louisville, and rendered the railroad impassable for two months.  He captured 1,877 prisoners and destroyed over $2,000,000 dollars worth of Government property.  Morgan lost only two killed, twenty-four wounded, and sixty-four missing.

On January 10, 1863, Morgan and his command arrived in Alexandria, Tennessee.  Later the command moved to Liberty, Tennessee.  During the winter and spring of 1863, the 9th Kentucky Cavalry acted as pickets, scouting and guarding the right of Bragg’s army while the army held the line at Tullahoma, Tennessee.  On March 19, 1863, Morgan reported to Basil Duke that he had found Colonel Breckinridge drawn up in line of battle near Liberty.  The Yankees attacked Breckinridge’s forage wagons, and masse infantry and cavalry to their front and cavalry in their rear.  By the next day, Morgan hoped to assist Breckinridge’s force and capture the Yankees in their front.  Morgan sent a message to General Braxton Bragg or General Joseph Wheeler that the Yankees were not going to fall back, and massed to the right, not left, of Bragg’s army.  Bragg informed Morgan that the Union soldiers were being transported from Louisville to meet Morgan’s command, who were reported to be crossing the Cumberland at Gainsboro.  Bragg had been deceived, and the Union forces had concentrated to his right, not his left.  When Bragg moved to his right he found two corps of Union infantry and was forced to fall back to Tullahoma.  The Tullohoma campaign was a failure for Bragg, and a victory for Union General William S. Rosecrans, who was able to keep Bragg pinned down in Tennessee.

During June 1863, the 9th Kentucky Cavalry was separated from General Morgan, and did not participate in Morgan’s Great Raid.  The 9th Kentucky retreated to Chattanooga with the Army of Tennessee, passing through McMinnville and Sequatchie Valley.  Union forced drove Colonel Breckinridge’s force back to Readyville.  General Hazen led the Union force at Readyville, which consisted of 1,600 men, including one battalion of cavalry and four regiments of infantry.

From Chattanooga, the 9th Kentucky Regiment was sent to guard the Tennessee River at Decatur, Guntersville, and Tuscumbia, Alabama, guarding these positions until just before the battle of Chickamauga.  The regiment did not play a part in the battle of Chickamauga, arriving there a few days after the battle.

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Col. W. C. P. Breckinridge?s pocket watch, given to him by Madeline Pollard

The 9th Kentucky served at Lookout Mountain and at Harrison’s Landing, Tennessee until the Battle of Missionary Ridge.  The 9th Kentucky took part in this battle, covering the retreat of the army to Dalton, fighting at Ringgold Gap, and moving to Tunnel Hill, Georgia.  The 9th Kentucky spent the winter at Tunnel Hill, picketing and scouting in front of the Army of Tennessee, and encamped at Dalton, Georgia.

Just before the Battle of Missionary Ridge the 9th Kentucky Regiment was brigaded with the 1st and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry and Dortch’s Battalion.  This brigade was known as Grigsby’s Cavalry Brigade, later as William’s, and later still as Breckinridge’s.  The Confederate War Department assigned the brigade to General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry corps, and served under him until the close of the war.  On May 7, 1864, when Sherman began his Atlanta Campaign, the 9th Kentucky Regiment was on duty at Tunnel Hill.  On May 8, the brigade fought and helped defeat General Geary’s Division of Hooker’s Corps at Dug Gap.  On May 9, the regiment was engaged at Snake Creek Gap, after Resaca, then to Cassville, Cartersville, Altoona, Marietta, Roseville Factory, Peach Tree Creek, and finally the Battle of Atlanta.  The 9th Kentucky Regiment was with the troops that captured General Stoneman.  Later at Jug Tavern, the regiment, along with Colonel Breckinridge, defeated and captured part of Stoneman’s force as they made an effort to escape.  About May 10, 1864, the 9th Kentucky crossed the Chattahoochie River, marching North with General Joseph Wheeler to destroy Sherman’s railroad communications.  The regiment marched to Dalton, then to Cleveland, Tennessee, to Maryville, Knoxville, and over the mountains and up the Tennessee Railroad to Bristol, Tennessee, then to Abington, and Saltville, Virginia.  The regiment fought in the battle of Saltville, defeating General Stephen Burbridge.  From there the Regiment went through East Tennessee up the French Broad River to Asheville, and then to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Greenville, South Carolina, and Athens, and West Point, Georgia.  At West Point, the Regiment met up with General Wheeler and rode back to Atlanta just in time to confront Sherman on his March to the Sea Campaign, which began on November 16, 1864.  The Regiment opposed Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia at Macon, Millidgeville, Louisville and other points.  Sherman arrived at Savannah on December 20, 1864.  The 9th Kentucky Regiment opposed Sherman from Savannah to Columbia, South Carolina.  On February 17, 1865, the regiment fought Sherman at Columbia.  From Columbia to Winnsboro, then to Cheraw, and across the Great Pedee River to Fayettsville, North Carolina, then to the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 18, 1865.  On April 11, 1865, the Regiment moved on to Raleigh, North Carolina.  While in Raleigh, the 9th Kentucky Regiment heard of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.  Attached to Dibrell’s Division of cavalry, General Wheeler ordered the Kentucky Brigade to proceed to Greensboro, North Carolina as an escort for President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, who had reached that point during their flight from Richmond, Virginia.  On April 18, 1865, the 9th Kentucky Regiment escorted Mr. Davis and his cabinet to Charlotte, North Carolina.  At Charlotte the 9th Kentucky halted a few days pending negotiations between Confederate General Joseph Johnston and Union General William T. Sherman.  During this time, General Duke’s Brigade of General Morgan’s old Division joined the 9th Kentucky.  On May 8, 1865, the 9th Regiment left Charlotte, and marched to Petersburg, South Carolina, on the Savannah River.  At Abbeville, South Carolina, the last Confederate council of war was held and at the meeting were President Jefferson Davis, General John C. Breckinridge, General Braxton Bragg, and five Brigade Commanders; Generals Dibrell, Furguson, Vaughn, Basil Duke, and Colonel W. C. P. Breckinridge of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, who was then commanding the Kentucky Cavalry Brigade.  At this council, the members decided that the struggle was hopeless and that any effort to reach the Trans-Mississippi Department would only fail.  Mr. Davis cast the only dissenting vote, but finally accepted the resolution.  On May 10, 1865, the 9th Regiment marched to Washington, Georgia and surrendered to Union forces.

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On April 1, 1884, Pollard filed another petition that stated that at the age of seventeen, she had been seduced by Breckinridge, who at the time was married and forty-seven years old and that he later “completed his seduction” of her

After the war, W. C. P. Breckinridge entered the political arena as had his father and grandfather, and his famous cousin, John C. Breckinridge.  To further his political career he would marry a granddaughter of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, and following her death he married a granddaughter of a former Kentucky governor.  Breckinridge settled down to family life and was the father of five children.  W. C. P. Breckinridge practiced his oratory skills and after a while he became known for his great speeches.  The newspapers nicknamed him “the silver tongued orator from Kentucky.”  People came from all around to listen to Breckinridge speak on such diverse topics as religion, imperialism, race relations, politics, and morals.  To keep his image as a moral person, Breckinridge would not drink, smoke, play cards, or bet.  Papers reported Breckinridge as a medium sized man with dark gray eyes and a mellow voice, which was clear, melodious and resonant.

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Breckinridge served five terms as a member of the House of Representatives.  Rumors around Washington named Breckinridge as possibly the next speaker of the House, Vice President, or even President.

Life was good for Breckinridge.  He had served the Confederacy with distinction, had a good home, and was successful in politics, but an incident occurred in 1893 that would forever change Breckinridge’s life.  A woman named Madeline Pollard petitioned the court that she be given $50,000 dollars because W. C. P. Breckinridge had promised to marry her but did not.

On April 1, 1884, Pollard filed another petition that stated that at the age of seventeen, she had been seduced by Breckinridge, who at the time was married and forty-seven years old and that he later “completed his seduction” of her.  She claimed that since that time she not only been his mistress, but that she had also given birth to two of his children.

In 1893, after Breckinridge’s wife had died, Pollard received a promise of marriage from him, but he ended up marrying another woman.  Madeline Pollard sued for a breach of contract because there was no seduction law in the District of Columbia.  Breckinridge decided to contest the lawsuit, which would be his downfall.  The case was tried and the jury found Breckinridge guilty and ordered him to pay $15,000 dollars.  The conviction damaged W. C. P. Brecinridge’s political career.  His name had been dragged through the mud by Pollard, and the newspapers could not get enough of the moral scandal.

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Even with this blot on his political career, Breckinridge opted to run for Congress.  In a very tight race Breckinridge lost by only 255 votes out of 19,000 ballots cast.  His election drew the attention of the national press, which brought up the scandal and the scandal literally divided families, churches, and neighborhoods.  The election brought the moral standards of the society to question and they were discussed in every circle.

Breckinridge would never return to politics, after losing the election.  Instead he and his son bought the Lexington Morning Herald newspaper.  His son, Desha, would serve as the editor of the Lexington Herald for many years.

Breckinridge would take pride in watching his children in his later years.  His son, Desha as editor, and one of his daughters, Sophonisba, became the first woman in the U.S. to receive a Ph. D. degree, and was one of the first women to be admitted to the Kentucky bar.  She was highly acclaimed as an educator and administrator at the University of Chicago.

On November 17, 1904, Breckinridge fell ill and developed a fever, his lungs filled with fluid, and breathing became difficult.  Despite the doctors' best efforts William slipped into a coma.  On November 19, 1904, at the age of sixty-seven, “peacefully like the sinking of the summer sun leaving behind a pathway which no painter’s brush can limn, the life spark of Col. W. C. P. Breckinridge went out at the tolling of the midnight bellsHe died at 11:40 o’clock surrounded by his familyThe end came softly as a child would fall asleep within it’s mother’s arms.”  W. C. P. Breckinridge’s life was filled with highs and lows.  The Pollard case had caused Breckinridge to be less than admired by some, but to others, especially the old veterans who served under him in the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, he was still admired and revered for his courage, bravery, and devotion.  Many people in the community still thought of Breckinridge as a great man.  His political career was filled with accolades.  He was a Bourbon Democrat.  The Bourbon Democrats were ex-Confederates who controlled Kentucky politics after the war and until the turn of the century.  He also served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.  His children would follow in the footsteps of their father and continue to bring honor to the Breckinridge name.  If one thing could be said about W. C. P. Breckinridge, he led a unique and interesting life and lived his life to the fullest.

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