Until Every Drop of Blood Is Paid: A More Radical American Civil War

Stories about Adams could be retroed. Perhaps he and the entire group of Massachusetts founders will be seen as the true champions because they were Elites in their age but they stepped down from that lofty position to be willing to fight for liberty for all.
Not just Adams, but imagine how history ITTL will remember others like Hamilton or Dickinson
1.) While I doubt the Indian Wars are going stop completely I can see them slowing down somewhat if Reconstruction is more thorough.

2.) I'm kinda imagining how Woodrow Wilson turns out in a world where Lost Cause Revisionism (if there are a few people stupid enough to preach it) is widely ridiculed rather than praised.
1.) While I doubt the Indian Wars are going stop completely I can see them slowing down somewhat if Reconstruction is more thorough.

2.) I'm kinda imagining how Woodrow Wilson turns out in a world where Lost Cause Revisionism (if there are a few people stupid enough to preach it) is widely ridiculed rather than praised.
With regard to Woody? Probably he'll wind up as a university teacher who is largely critical of the Lincoln Administration's policies during the Second Revolution. I don't foresee him ever going into politics in this circumstance.
The problem with this argument is that if abolitionists are bolder, you get slave states seceding earlier.

Granted, in 1850 without Virginia, Kentucky, or Missouri, maybe Tennessee and North Carolina stay in the Union and it would be able to defeat the rest of the slave states. I think 1850 would be barely doable even OTL because of a healthy, vibrant Scott; at the very least he wins battles that keep the South from gaining the confidence that leads to lots of recruits joining up - it's like a win at that version of Bull Run plus a few years of grinding.

But what if it's 1830? I can just see if the Union won, the alternate Lost Causers saying nullification was the main cause - but here it wouldn't just be the Tariff that drove them. It would be that they didn't want to give up slavery.

It's a matter of the heart - man's heart is deceitfully wicked. If not abolished, there will be some who insist upon it. Even if it is mostly dying out.
I do not know how accurate it is, but I have read (not on the internet, but in a nonfiction book written by a professor, with footnotes and a bibliography—not that it automatically makes it right, just clarifying that this isn't something I read on Reddit one time with the only source as "trust me bro") that North Carolina was...not enamored with secession, and mainly joined with the CSA because Virginia did, both as Virginia kinda being the leader, but at least as much because of strategic considerations: if Virginia seceded and North Carolina didn't, then they'd be a Union enclave, and even expecting a quick war one way or another, having your whole state occupied except for what can be held on the coast with the navy is not a thrilling prospect.
I do not know how accurate it is, but I have read (not on the internet, but in a nonfiction book written by a professor, with footnotes and a bibliography—not that it automatically makes it right, just clarifying that this isn't something I read on Reddit one time with the only source as "trust me bro") that North Carolina was...not enamored with secession, and mainly joined with the CSA because Virginia did, both as Virginia kinda being the leader, but at least as much because of strategic considerations: if Virginia seceded and North Carolina didn't, then they'd be a Union enclave, and even expecting a quick war one way or another, having your whole state occupied except for what can be held on the coast with the navy is not a thrilling prospect.

My last look at the literature suggests that this *was* a factor. [See here, for example.]

And after all, North Carolina was the last state to secede (Not counting rogue convention votes in Missouri and Kentucky that never were made effective in more than a fraction of those states) . . .

Note that North Carolina met TWICE to consider secession - and on the first occasion, February 28, 1861, the Unionists eked out a win, 47,323 to 46,672.

That said, I do not think we should underrate the impact of Fort Sumter, and Lincoln's response to it (the calling up of troops to suppress rebellion) on a fair slice of Unionist-leaning cohorts in NC. Consider the reaction (April 24, 1861) of the Raleigh Weekly Standard, which I am clipping here below. Stop for a moment, and understand that the Standard had been one of the most zealous newspapers in NC pushing the Unionist cause in the February ballot. Look how much their tune has changed! Now, their refrain is that they believe that Lincoln's Proclamation left North Carolina with only two alternatives: resistance or unconditional submission, and North Carolinians had to now resist. They felt Lincoln had betrayed them.

It did take North Carolina a little time to hustle up a second convention on secession, not least because secessionist leaders thought they'd have a better shot if they waited to make sure Virginia seceded. When it finally happened on May 20, it was unanimous; the remaining Unionists, which were of course still substantial, especially in the western part of the state, simply stayed home. But they clearly would have lost the vote even if they had all come, and they damned well knew it.

To some degree, Lincoln really did underestimate the blowback that his move would create in the Upper South (Border) states. But I also think the evidence indicates that this was a risk he was willing to run after Sumter.

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They might even burn the slave quarters with the slaves inside them so they couldn't inherit the land through the Freedman's Bureau after the war. It would be incredibly gruesome but they're so desperate and spiteful toward black people that I 100% believe they're capable of doing such an act.
I'm trying to imagine the logistics of this and I find it hard to fathom. You would need quite a few men and you'd have to do it at once on a single plantation, so I don't imagine that would be a issue. The problem though is that as soon as word gets out, you have a immediate slave revolt or mass fleeings in the neighbouring plantations that would cascade outwards as the slaves figure they've nothing left to lose if they're going to be killed anyway. You could try for a coordination genocide, but it'd be hard to organise any outside of a county without word slipping.
I'm trying to imagine the logistics of this and I find it hard to fathom. You would need quite a few men and you'd have to do it at once on a single plantation, so I don't imagine that would be an issue. The problem though is that as soon as word gets out, you have a immediate slave revolt or mass fleeings in the neighbouring plantations that would cascade outwards as the slaves figure they've nothing left to lose if they're going to be killed anyway. You could try for a coordination genocide, but it'd be hard to organise any outside of a county without word slipping.
At the very least, there could be some local rampages that would be a good indication of the mindset of the planters at this point.
Chapter 54: This Has Been a Magnificient Epic
On October 26th, barely over two weeks after the coup d’état that had overthrown the regime of John C. Breckinridge, the citizens of Richmond witnessed the execution of their former leader. The military Junta that now ruled the Confederacy intended for the occasion to be festive and triumphal. For it to be a powerful reminder that the people and principles that made the country reigned supreme and would not be destroyed by Breckinridge’s treachery any more than by the armies of Lincoln. But what was supposed to be a happy celebration was quickly turning into a tragic fiasco, as citizens saw how the happy bands of 1861 were now only made of a few convalescents and amputees, the only people who could be spared from the trenches. Their music was, moreover, overshadowed by the now almost continuous roar of Union artillery. And instead of joyous catharsis, grief settled in following the grim spectacle. Far from an event showing the determination and unity of the South against enemies both within and without, the execution of Breckinridge instead just emphasized how despite its defiance the House of Dixie was continuing to crumble.

In many ways, the coup that overthrew Breckinridge became the defining event of the American Civil War. Several events approach it in importance, including the Battle of Union Mills and the assassination attempt against Abraham Lincoln. But while it is true that these profoundly shaped the course of the war itself, the coup and the subsequent executions gave form to the end of the war and its aftermath, being the central point of division within Southern politics and culture for decades to come and typifying the post-war narrative. It is hard to even conceive of a version of the United States where the coup didn’t happen. There is no broad consensus regarding what would have happened had Breckinridge remained in power, and the multitude of questions and the even greater number of possible answers have been and will continue to be debated. Whether Breckinridge was a kind leader who tried his best to achieve a better peace, a fool deluded by the planter aristocracy, or a tyrant who ultimately lost control of his lackeys, will never be answered, and what one believes can still say a lot about one’s modern political convictions.

The central question has always been whether Breckinridge truly intended to conclude a peace with the Union, and if so, under which terms. The Junta and its followers always justified their actions on the idea that Breckinridge planned to immediately and unconditionally surrender to Lincoln. Framing Breckinridge’s measures in conspiratorial terms, they saw the Five Monstrous Decrees and his recruitment of Black slaves as part of a treasonable plan to destroy the South and hand it over to Lincoln, in exchange of personal immunity or even rewards for himself and his clique. Representative Thomas Gholson of Virginia for example warned that “the returned negro-soldiers, familiar with the use of fire-arms and taught by us that freedom was worth fighting for,” would not tolerate the continued enslavement of their families and their indefinite disenfranchisement, but would fight violently for their objectives and most likely would count on Lincoln as an ally. Breckinridge, Gholson concluded, could only support Black recruitment if he wanted to destroy the South, not save it.

At first, some Confederates had been able to reluctantly swallow Black recruitment as long as it remained limited. Some went as far as proposing that freedom should not be granted even to the soldiers themselves, and in an astounding display of cruelty there were proposals that the wives and children of Black recruits should be held in military prisons to keep the soldiers from deserting. But Breckinridge’s decree allowing for the widespread conscription of Black slaves went much farther than this and flagrantly violated the Constitution. Worse, his refusal to heed Congress or create a Supreme Court made many believe that there was no legal way to limit his powers, for he might merely ignore the Congress if it were to impeach and remove him. Altogether, for the opponents of Breckinridge his continuance in power could only destroy the Confederacy. Whether this was because of treason or incompetency, laying aside constitutional procedures in favor of decisive action became the only alternative.


Robert August Toombs

In fact, Toombs and his allies had arrived to that conclusion months before the coup. Robert August Toombs was a man full of contradictions. With shaggy hair and an unkempt goatee, Toombs was known for being irascible and erratic, an appearance and behavior that did not seem fitting to his privileged background and notable career. Once a prominent Unionist that had played a key role in the Compromise of 1850, Toombs was also something of a reformer, who pushed for laws limiting the use of physical punishments and even forbidding “under proper regulations, the separation of families.” Toombs was in this way an unlikely but sincere embodiment of the idea of slavery as a patriarchal system, which imposed on enslavers the duty to look after “their people.” But Toombs also fully believed in the supreme power of slaveowners as a sacred principle. Such beliefs transformed him into one of the fiercest Fire-Eaters. When Lincoln was elected, Toombs almost immediately came out in favor of secession, leaving the United States Senate by thundering that “We want no negro equality, no negro citizenship; we want no negro race to degrade our own; and as one man [we] would meet you upon the border with the sword in one hand and the torch in the other.”

Initially confident that he would be elected the President of the new slaveholders’ nation, Toombs was bitterly disappointed by the election of Breckinridge, and although he was appointed the first Secretary of State he soon resigned in search of military glory. Toombs did perform admirably in the Battle of Anacostia, but never achieved great distinction. Toombs fully believed this lack of success was owed solely to Davis’ personal enmity against him. “So far as I am concerned, Mr. Davis will never give me a chance for personal distinction. He thinks I pant for it, poor fool,” sneered Toombs in a private letter, just before he resigned from the Army. Breckinridge would soon earn Toombs’ deep contempt too, as the Georgian observed how Breckinridge proposed and upheld measures that Toombs considered unjustifiable, such as the draft and impressment. In fact, Toombs personally resisted the hated laws, defiantly telling a Confederate general that “my property, as long as I live, shall never be subject to the orders” of others. In the face of Breckinridge’s “despotism,” Toombs would soon lament that “I know not what is to become of this country. Breckinridge's incompetency is more apparent as our danger increases. Our only hope is Providence.”

Following the defeats at Atlanta and Mobile, Toombs started to look beyond Providence for answers as to what to do with Breckinridge. In a letter to his dear friend, Alexander Stephens, Toombs said that “There is but one remedy – it is begone Breckinridge.” Other Fire-Eaters like Robert Barnwell Rhett were advocating for Lee to become “the military head of the Government,” in essence a dictator. “Is there no high toned gentleman in the land, like General Lee, or General Joseph E. Johnston, who could be raised by Congress to the position now held by this incompetent man?” wondered Rhett. Such talk was not even confined to a small group anymore. “Revolution, the deposition of Mr. Breckinridge, is openly talked of!” fretted a civilian, while John Jones wrote that “There are rumors of revolution, and even of the displacement of the President by Congress, and investiture of Gen. Lee.” Such scheming resulted in several Congressmen sending Representative William C. Rives to approach General Lee and offer him “absolute power” to “guide the country through its present crisis.” An appalled Lee immediately refused, asserting that “if the President could not save the country, no one could.” It was clear that Lee remained loyal to Breckinridge, and it was even clearer that no military coup could materialize without Lee’s support.

This is what made Lee’s death such a decisive event. People both then and now have recognized that Lee would not tolerate any attempt to forcibly overthrow Breckinridge, meaning that a coup could not prosper. But Lee’s death completely overturned the situation. It resulted in a wave of hysteria and panic that threatened to destroy Southern morale. Upon receiving the news, the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia “wept like children when told that their idolized General was no more,” and similar mourning was seen as Lee’s corpse was moved to Richmond – the General was buried in the Confederate capital, for his home at Arlington had long been occupied by Union forces. The civilian population shared this despair. Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote bitterly that “The end has come. No doubt of the fact,” while in Richmond and other cities “there was a look of despair on every face as if suddenly had been severed the cord that bound them to the distant past of happiness and hope.” A visitor to the Executive palace observed how Breckinridge “seemed quite broken at the moment,” but he could not fault the President for the news “crushes the hopes of nearly all.” Because many believed that Lee was the only man keeping the Confederacy from sinking, his death both justified the coup and made it feasible.

While it seems that Toombs and the other members of the Junta genuinely believed that Breckinridge meant to betray them, the conspiracy was partly motivated by personal vendettas and hatred against Breckinridge. Beauregard, for example, accused Breckinridge of repeating “the contemptible and ruinous sabotage” that had already caused the lost at Fort Saratoga and Union Mills. Beauregard never deviated from the view that Breckinridge was to fault for his defeat at Fort Saratoga, claiming that Breckinridge knew he would fail and sent him there to get rid of him. Johnston similarly regarded Breckinridge and Davis as the “architects of my humiliation” for the events at Marietta, and even seemed to take satisfaction at Atlanta’s fall, for it revealed “the men who schemed against me . . . as traitors and incompetents.” All these men had a long record of resisting and denouncing Breckinridge, and thanks to the support of Fire-Eaters like Toombs and Rhett they could also claim to be representing the “true Confederate cause,” that of “the defense of Southern institutions and government” from “abolition tyranny,” a “monstrous cause” that Breckinridge had been shown to follow.


Robert Barnwell Rhett

The strangest addition to the movement was Alexander Stephens. Disgusted with the course Breckinridge was charting, Stephens was rarely in Richmond, instead living in his Georgia home. Naturally pessimistic, Stephens was actually something of a peace advocate. In the summer of 1864, he and Governor Brown supported a resolution calling on the people to ask for peace “through their state organizations and popular assemblies.” In truth, this was not an effort for unconditional peace. Instead, Stephens believed that an open proposal of peace would weaken the Lincoln administration and strengthen the Copperheads. If negotiations could be started, the Confederates could just then drag them out until the North let them go. But Stephens’ gamble seemed more likely to weaken and divide the South. As a result, Stephens was harshly denounced as a Tory. Several Georgian regiments passed resolutions condemning Brown and Stephens, and Senator Herschel Johnson sternly rebuked Stephens for allowing “your antipathy to Breckinridge to mislead your judgement . . . You are wrong in view of your official position; you are wrong because the whole movement originated in a mad purpose to make war on Breckinridge & Congress;—You are wrong because the movement is joyous to the enemy.”

Stephens deeply resented this reproach, writing to his brother that he could see “the hand of Breckinridge” in the censure he was receiving. Stephens was further dismayed by Breckinridge’s actions, especially his refusal to heed Congress on the matter of Black recruitment something he believed to be the “greatest and most fatal blow against the edifice of constitutional government.” Knowing that the presence of the Vice-President in the Junta could afford some semblance of legitimacy to his coup, Toombs worked assiduously to recruit Stephens, who finally accepted when he learned of Breckinridge’s apparent intention to unconditionally surrender, whereas Stephens still believed he could extract better terms from the Northern government. Stephens, at the end, would play no great part in either the execution of the coup or the events that followed, and with sincere hurt he would claim for the rest of his life that Toombs, once a close friend, had misled him regarding the true purposes of the coup.

The final member of the Junta was General Jackson, and his motives are the hardest to discern. This is even more galling because Jackson was in many ways the most important member of the Junta. The putschists would need to command the loyalty of the Army of Northern Virginia, for Breckinridge could not be removed if it upheld the President. With Lee gone, the only General who approached his standing among the soldiers was Jackson. Beauregard and Johnston both hadn’t held a command in months and were moreover tainted with previous failures at Anacostia and Fort Saratoga that made many doubt whether they would be able to command the soldiers’ loyalty. Jackson, by contrast, and despite his own disastrous defeat at Union Mills, still retained the widespread love and respect of the Army of Northern Virginia, being perhaps the only one that could maintain the unity of the Army, convince it of the necessity of overthrowing Breckinridge, and then lead it in Lee’s absence. But the question of why he decided to support the Junta has remained.

Intensely private and rather neurotic, Jackson was a man of many contradictions and eccentricities. A slaveowner but never a large planter, Jackson went against the prevalent convictions to teach the people he enslaved to read and write. Jackson was inspired to this endeavor by his deep Christian faith, seeing it as his duty to “lift his people up.” Jackson’s wife even claimed that he “would prefer to see the negroes free, but he believed that the Bible taught that slavery was sanctioned by the Creator.” Just like he believed he had to support slavery because it was ordained by God, Jackson also thought that “The South as an independent nation was the next step in Christian history,” as historian Charles Royster explains, “and Jackson would glorify God by doing His work as strenuously and as conspicuously as he could.” Such beliefs led the Northern abolitionist Wendell Philipps to consider Jackson an “honest fanatic on the side of slavery,” a sort of Southern John Brown, bringing religious fervor and aggressive decisiveness to bear in the enemy’s side. But Phillips knew little about Jackson – just like most everyone else.


At the same time as Lee was denigrated as "the King of Spades," Jackson became the first Southern War Hero

Jackson did not confide even on his closest subordinates, and his letters to his wife were also devoid of personal details, because Jackson feared the enemy would intercept them. In many ways, the legend overshadowed the man, with both Northerners and Southerners knowing him more for his aggressiveness on the field. A Federal testified that among Marylanders “the greatest horror is entertained of Jackson whom they seem to regard as a species of demon.” The destruction Jackson wrought during the Pennsylvania campaign, where he called for “unrelenting war” among Northern homes, and his massacre of Black soldiers at Harpers Ferry all seemed to confirm these fears. The methods even appalled some Southerners. “Stonewall is a fanatic,” reflected Mary Chesnut. “The exact character we want to raise the black flag. He knows: to achieve our liberty, to win our battles, men must die.” But most other Southerners celebrated him, characterizing him as “the idol of the people, and is the object of greater enthusiasm than any other military chieftain of our day.”

Jackson’s faith led him to believe that God may test the faith of Southerners with such tragedies as Lee’s death, but He would ultimately grant them victory on the field. “I have been taught never to despair, but to wait, expecting the blessing at the last moment,” Jackson wrote following his chief’s demise. But more than faith was at work here. Jackson was profoundly alarmed by Breckinridge’s intention to abandon Richmond, thus rendering all of Lee’s sacrifices in vain. Jackson furthermore opposed Longstreet’s appointment as Lee’s successor, for he blamed Longstreet for the defeat at Union Mills and resented how Longstreet had, in his view, tried to dump the blame on Lee and Jackson. Finally, due to either vanity or delusion, Jackson seemed to believe that God had chosen him to step forward and save the Confederacy in its hour of need. It is unknown when Jackson joined the conspiracy, but given how quick the conspirators found about Breckinridge’s decision to evacuate Richmond, and given that all other assistants to the reunion remained loyal to Breckinridge, the only reasonable conclusion is that Jackson was aware of the conspiracy at least after Lee’s death and fully joined it after the last reunion, supplying them with the information that spurred them to act.

On October 8th, meeting in a Richmond warehouse, the members of the Junta met to plan their next move. Things were moving with dizzying speed following Lee’s death, which was almost immediately followed by the news that Breckinridge planned to evacuate Richmond. They, however, did not originally plan to strike at once. Due to his loyalty to Breckinridge and the hatred felt by Jackson and Johnston against him, Longstreet had never been included in the conspiracy. But now the conspirators were discussing whether he could be induced to betray Breckinridge, and if not, what to do with him. Then the next day Breckinridge sent Beauregard and Johnston orders to move south to oversee the South Carolina defenses and produce a report on Cleburne’s Army, respectively. Shortly thereafter, Breckinridge ordered Jackson to move with his corps to Petersburg. Breckinridge’s order was particular, for it carefully delineated which regiments Jackson was to take with him, those being the first ones that came under his command could thus be expected to be the most loyal to Jackson personally. These orders made many believe that Breckinridge had found of their conspiracy.

Breckinridge had indeed been alerted that something was up, but he didn’t seem to fully appreciate the extent of the conspiracy. He believed that Beauregard and Johnston were good for bitter denunciation and little else, and though he took the threat of Toombs more seriously, Breckinridge just believed him unable to command the loyalty of the soldiers. Breckinridge’s fatal mistake was, then, that he was not aware of Jackson’s treachery. Nonetheless, Breckinridge took some precautions. His orders were sent by personal couriers instead of soldiers, men who were personally trusted by the President, under strict instruction to maintain their content in reserve. An order to Longstreet, moreover, explicitly asked for Kentucky regiments, including part of the “Orphan Brigade,” to be sent to Richmond first before any others, possibly showing that Breckinridge suspected the loyalty of most soldiers and wanted regiments that could be better expected to remain faithful to the government. Toombs et al found of this order when the courier to Longstreet’s quarters was intercepted and then killed when he refused to give over his papers. Afraid that Breckinridge was going to arrest then, the conspirators decided to strike first.


Varina Davis

On the early hours of October 10th, soldiers under Jackson moved into the Executive Mansion, while other regiments were put under Johnston’s and Beauregard’s commands and placed at key points around Richmond. The few guards outside were quickly subdued, but when the soldiers tried to enter the house they were received by gunfire. “What are you doing?” asked an anguished soldier. “Why are you attacking our President?” “Because he’s a traitor!” bellowed one of Jackson’s men. Breckinridge’s guards could not put up long resistance, and the soldiers entered the house. Breckinridge, awakened by the noise, had been escorted by his loyalists to the kitchen, to try and escape. But before he could do so the soldiers burst in. With no trace of fear, Breckinridge raised his hands and calmly said “Gentlemen, here I am. Please, do not harm anyone else.” The former President of the Confederacy was then arrested and conducted to a Richmond prison.

Over the next few hours several more Confederate leaders were arrested under Jackson’s orders. Most of Breckinridge’s cabinet was similarly surprised and detained, as well as some of his Congressional allies. Further south, the train in which Jefferson Davis was returning to Richmond was stopped by soldiers. An aide frantically entered the car and informed Davis that “the government has been overthrown.” Refusing to panic, Davis exited the car and stood there calmly. The soldiers that surrounded him immediately yelled at him to surrender, but Davis answered that he would never “surrender to scoundrels and traitors.” He then advanced towards the officer in horseback, ignoring his gun, and intending to “employ an old trick he had learned in the war with Mexico whereby he could unseat the horseman by grabbing his boot heel out of its stirrup and flipping the man over the other side to the ground.” But then Davis’ wife threw her arms around him, crying “Don’t shoot!” and Davis had no option but to give up. Muttering “God’s will be done,” Davis was shackled and put into a car with the rest of his party.

The coup against the Breckinridge regime was complete. What had seemingly started as an effort to prevent Breckinridge from committing treason, revealed itself as a complete Fire-Eater take-over of the government. This was shown by the appearance of Toombs and the other leaders of the Junta before an anxious and afraid Richmond crowd. At the center was Toombs, standing proudly, with a rather awkward Jackson next to him. “We started this war because we wanted no Negro emancipation and no Negro equality,” Toombs boomed. But “the presence of a traitor at the very heart of our government threatened to sink our cause,” by the “adoption of the dreadful doctrine of abolition, and the subversion of our institutions by despotism.” But “we, the patriotic and true men of the South have ousted the assassins of liberty,” and would now “push forward and make a square fight for our liberties. While the patriot draws breath, neither the lackeys nor the legions of Lincoln shall never overcome us. They may burn all our land and murder all our men, but they will never obtain our consent to our ruin.” This final fiery declaration drew momentous cheers, which Toombs appreciated with a manic smile.

Toombs thus plainly presented the Fire-Eater interpretation of the war: it was an effort to protect Southern society from abolition and Black equality, and it was better for the South to be utterly destroyed than for it to willingly concede. Because of this, Breckinridge could not be allowed to conclude any kind of peace, because a fate under Radical Republican rule was worse than continuing the war. Toombs and his ilk thus portrayed Breckinridge’s actions as clear treason, a stab on the back of the brave soldier who would see all his efforts and sufferings rendered meaningless, and an affront to General Lee’s legacy and wishes. For those who opposed the Junta, especially after it ended up leading the South to a devastating defeat, Breckinridge became something of a tragic victim. The man who tried his best to achieve the independence of the Confederacy, not because of a love of slavery, but because he loved his people and genuinely thought it would be the best for them. Realizing their defeat was at hand, Breckinridge honorably tried to conclude a peace to spare his people of bloodshed. But did Breckinridge truly intend to surrender? If so, why and under which terms?

Because Breckinridge’s “Blind Memorandum” never, in fact, specified what “further measures” should be adopted in the face of Northern victory, several people have believed that surrender was merely one option among many. Lee and Davis then convinced Breckinridge to continue the fight, and such measures as the recruitment of Black soldiers, desperate as it might have been, are proof that he intended to do so. During the quick, rather farcical trials that followed the coup, Davis maintained this argument, vehemently asserting that Breckinridge and his government never truly considered surrendering as a real alternative. In Davis’ version, Breckinridge was only evacuating Richmond so that “our Armies, relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points” would be “free to move from point to point, and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy; operating in the interior of our own country.” In other words, it was not a surrender, but part of a grand plan to return from the brink and win the war.


Jefferson Davis giving a speech

Davis’ arguments formed the basis of the first major position regarding Breckinridge’s intentions: Breckinridge was never planning to surrender, and Toombs and the Junta were lying just to seize power for themselves. Davis pointed to how Breckinridge sent him in a morale raising tour to Georgia and North Carolina. If Breckinridge just planned to surrender, why would he do something so clearly counterproductive to his own goals? Sent south shortly after the Petit Cabinet had endorsed Black recruitment, Davis defiantly declared at several locations that the government would never surrender and defended Breckinridge’s decrees as part of a plan that would soon bear victories. In Virginia, he declared that the Southern armies would soon “compel the Yankees, in less than twelve months, to petition us for peace on our own terms.” In North Carolina, he assured crowds that the Confederacy remained “as erect and defiant as ever . . . nothing has changed in the purpose of its government, in the indomitable valor of its troops, or in the unquenchable spirit of its people.” And, giving in to delusion, he assured Georgia that Sherman would “escape with only a bodyguard,” while Thomas would be pushed “back to the banks of the Ohio” giving “the peace party of the North an accretion no puny editorial can give.”

Grant mocked Davis’ speeches, asking “Who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat?” The Southern soldiers seemed to share this skepticism. Whereas in a previous tour they had received Davis with great cheers, now they remained silent and somber. While Davis’ tour was not a success, the very fact that he was allowed to go on it lent strength to the argument that Breckinridge planned to continue the war. The common rebuttal has then been that Breckinridge did plan to resist, until Lee’s death, which convinced him that there was no hope after all. But Davis too discounted this. Breckinridge, Davis argued, may have considered surrendering, but at the end would see reason and realize that a Union victory was worse than resistance to the last. “For himself he cared nothing,” Davis said of Breckinridge, “it was his dear people that he was thinking of. What will now become of our poor people?” Davis’ version of events was accepted by many Confederates who opposed both peace and the coup, allowing them to believe that Breckinridge was going to continue fighting but was betrayed by Toombs’ coup. At its most extreme, these supporters convinced themselves that Breckinridge would somehow have been able to turn the war around and defeat Lincoln with an Army of Black soldiers, meaning that their ultimate defeat was completely the fault of the Junta.

But after the war, evidence quickly mounted showing that Breckinridge had little faith in the policy of Black recruitment and was planning a negotiated peace before Lee’s death. In this scheme, he was helped by John A. Campbell. A former Justice of the US Supreme Court, Campbell had resigned from his post after the outbreak of hostilities. Previous to that, he had opposed secession and had attempted to negotiate with Secretary of State Seward in order to avoid war, but this effort failed. Appointed the Confederate Attorney-General due to his career as a distinguished jurist, Campbell’s influence was in fact rather limited at first. Nonetheless, and even though he complained that Breckinridge was not “a man of small details,” Campbell respected the President. On the other hand, he grew to detest Jefferson Davis, not understanding how “the President is able to afford him his confidence,” and calling him “an incubus and a mischief.”

It was during the last months of the Breckinridge regime that Campbell took a new, far more prominent role, shown in his appointment as Assistant Secretary of War and his inclusion in the Petit Cabinet. At first glance, this seems particular. Moving Campbell from a full Cabinet post to an assistant position seems a downgrade, and given his personal issues with Davis it does not seem logical either. It was, furthermore, the only position that was changed after Breckinridge revealed the blind memorandum. Campbell’s inclusion in the Petit Cabinet was also curious because no other Assistant Secretary was ever included, when following the logic at the very least the Assistant Secretary of the Navy should have been invited too. Campbell’s inclusion shows then that he enjoyed Breckinridge’s trust, and his appointment may have been a way to better justify why he was included while other men were excluded. Campbell himself claimed in his personal diary that Breckinridge meant to “tender to me the portfolio of War Minister,” but did not “out of regard for Mr. Davis.” If Campbell is to be believed, Breckinridge originally planned to remove Davis as Secretary of War during their private meeting and appoint Campbell in his place, but ultimately relented.

The issue is even more complex because a lot of it hinges on what was discussed in the “lost meeting” between Breckinridge and Davis. Neither man ever told anyone of what they had discussed, and since neither survived the coup, they didn’t leave any posterior records either. Based on Campbell’s words, many have argued that Breckinridge was indeed going to ask for Davis’ resignation, seeking to do it privately to spare Davis the humiliation. Some have gone farther and have suggested that Breckinridge frankly told Davis that he was going to surrender, and when it was apparent that Davis would not stand by it, he lied to Davis, and then continued to mislead him by pushing for a policy of Black recruitment he knew would fail. Afterwards, Breckinridge sent Davis in a southern tour only to get rid of him, allowing the President to freely scheme with Campbell in favor of peace. Some have contested Campbell’s account. Varina Davis, for example, always maintained that “Mr. Breckinridge felt too much respect and love for my husband” to do such a thing, and produced letters and memos from Breckinridge keeping Davis updated on the situation, which he certainly wouldn’t have sent if he meant to completely sideline Davis.


John Archibald Campbell

The first reunion of the Petit Cabinet had seemingly decided that the Confederacy would continue the fight by recurring to the use of Black soldiers. But the correspondence between Breckinridge and Campbell confirms that Breckinridge was still considering peace terms even after the reunion, and before Lee’s death. In one letter, Breckinridge told Campbell that continuing “Ineffective hostilities” would only cause the war “to degenerate into that irregular and secondary stage, out of which greater evils will flow to the South than to the enemy.” Consequently, even though “opinions will be divided,” they ought to choose the course that would earn “the gratitude of our countrymen and the respect of mankind.” Campbell’s answer, saying that “the actions of those who refuse all negotiations upon the basis of Union . . . compel conservative men to act independently,” and that the Confederacy needed “men who would take upon themselves the responsibility of action,” also implies that Breckinridge hid information from some of his allies. Note that the phrasing “the responsibility of action” was also used by Breckinridge after reading the blind memorandum, making many believe that Campbell and Breckinridge were already talking before that.

This makes it apparent that, after the fall of Atlanta, Breckinridge adopted Campbell’s opinions, and those of the Confederate peace movement more broadly. We must understand that these advocates of peace were never truly in favor of unconditional surrender, but rather believed, as Johnatan Worth said, that a conditional peace was “the only hope of saving anything from the wreck” and “avoid further abolition, confiscation and prosecution for treason.” In Campbell’s estimation, “the only question now is the manner” in which the Union would be “reconstructed . . . whether the South shall be destroyed and subjugated” or if it could return with its “rights” intact, even at the price of its former “advantages of power, influence, or political supremacy.” A North Carolina planter likewise made the point that, while it was their “duty to persist in the struggle” as long as victory was a possibility, once it was “demonstrated . . . that our original aim cannot be attained, we will ‘accept the situation’ and make the best terms in our power,” and Senator Graham outright believed that Lincoln would be willing to “guarantee slavery as it now exists, and probably make other concessions” in exchange of a surrender.

Breckinridge discounted the notion that slavery itself could be saved, and truthfully didn’t consider that point all too important. Unlike other Confederates, Breckinridge never explicitly recognized the Confederacy’s raison d’être as the protection of slavery and didn’t seek to appeal to base racism to motivate Southerners to fight. Instead, Breckinridge portrayed the cause of the Confederacy as the defense of the “eternal and sacred principles of public and of personal liberty” against a Union that sought to destroy them. Now it seemed like a negotiated peace was the best way of defending those principles, and if peace included sacrificing slavery, so be it. This should not absolve Breckinridge of the ignominy of having led the slaveholders’ rebellion Even if Breckinridge was not as virulently racist as other Confederates, he still willingly helmed a government that sought to perpetuate slavery, enforced racial subordination through appalling violence, and clearly considered the White Southern claim to self-determination infinitely more important than the Black claim to liberty. Nonetheless, the important matter is that Breckinridge realized the war was lost and tried to spare his people of suffering instead of continuing to the bitter end.

In other letters, Campbell fully elaborated on the terms of peace that would be considered acceptable. The South had lost, Campbell admitted, “but it is not necessary that she should be destroyed.” He proposed to surrender all Confederate forces, and in exchange they would ask Lincoln for immunity from prosecution and confiscation. Campbell also thought he could convince Lincoln to allow the Confederate State Legislatures to remain in power, and even allow them to create militias to “enforce order” and enact all “necessary regulations” regarding the freedmen and their rights. Within Campbell’s proposal there was also the implicit possibility of the Southern State legislatures rejecting the 13th amendment and saving slavery. However, it seems to be that Breckinridge did not believe that Lincoln would pardon him and other high civil officials. This is why when he first brought up the subject of peace he directly said he would be willing to surrender himself to Union forces and intimated that his secretaries all should flee the country with their loved ones before it came to that.


The Virginia Legislature

Decades after the war further proof was discovered that Breckinridge was seeking to start negotiations before Lee’s demise. Secretary of State Benjamin, contrary to all expectations, was the only member of Breckinridge’s cabinet to avoid imprisonment, having disguised himself as “Monsieur Bonfals” and fleeing to England, where he spent the rest of his life as a barrister. But after he died in 1884, a letter was discovered where he claimed that the Confederate government did send an offer of peace to the Lincoln administration. More astoundingly, Benjamin said that Davis was part of the deliberations. According to Benjamin, Davis “in a sour and foul mood,” kept insisting that Lincoln would not accept any “fair terms,” and tried to add a passage asking Lincoln for peace “between our two nations,” while Benjamin and Campbell both insisted on asking for peace for “our one common country” instead, with Breckinridge ultimately just deleting the passage entirely.

Given that Breckinridge considered Benjamin something of a shifty sycophant, for a time the letter was dismissed. However, a couple of years later, the peace proposal was discovered among the papers of Secretary of State Seward. Because Davis always asserted that no serious efforts at peace were made, it’s been suggested that this was meant to be rejected by Lincoln to show Southerners the need to continue the war. But the secrecy with which the proposal was made implies that it was a true attempt to begin negotiations. According to the available evidence, in the first days of October a message arrived at Philadelphia, having been treated with uncommon care. Signed by Breckinridge, it asked Lincoln to appoint commissioners for a meeting to “secure peace and an end of hostilities.” The message then suggested that an immediate cease-fire could be called and in exchange Breckinridge would “surrender all the organized forces under his authority.” It went on to propose that “all current State Legislatures” be “recognized as the legitimate civil authorities in their jurisdiction” for the purposes of “concluding the terms of peace and the arrangements necessary to maintain order and security.”

Lincoln took great care to prevent the message from leaking to public opinion, fearing that the news that the Confederacy was asking for peace would strengthen his Copperhead opponents. The Lincoln Cabinet unambiguously agreed that the Union government would accept “no receding . . . on the slavery question” and “no cessation of hostilities short of . . . the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.” But Lincoln did say that “liberal terms” could be offered in exchange of surrendering and seemed to toy with the idea of allowing the Confederate State Legislatures to meet. At once, the Cabinet opposed this, with the fiery Stanton declaring that “rebel organizations” should not “have any participation whatever in the business of reorganization.” Somewhat chastised, Lincoln explained that he only meant to allow “the gentlemen who have acted as the legislatures in the Southern States” to convene to withdraw from the Confederacy and ratify the 13th amendment, but Lincoln conceded the point. At the end of the meeting, Lincoln decided that he personally and Secretary Seward would meet with commissioners appointed by Breckinridge. But before a response could be sent, the Breckinridge government was overthrown.

Because the terms in this peace proposal are substantially the same as those Campbell had discussed with Breckinridge, it can be safely concluded that both men were working together to obtain a negotiated peace. Regarding Breckinridge’s other actions, the historical consensus has been that he believed he could extract better terms if the Confederacy seemed still capable of resisting. A Black Army may not turn the tide, but it would make the South look more formidable. Likewise, abandoning the futile defense of Richmond and joining with Cleburne would allow the Confederacy to retain a larger army on the field. In other words, Breckinridge was strengthening the Confederacy not to win the war, but because doing so would afford them more leverage in eventual negotiations. Finally, Breckinridge tried to maintain the widest support possible by deliberately obscuring his intentions, something that proved a grievous mistake because it allowed his enemies to misrepresent his objectives.

But the lack of clarity regarding Breckinridge’s true intentions ended up serving him well. Those who had wanted to continue the war, could believe that Breckinridge was going to keep fighting until he was backstabbed by Toombs’ coup, fantasizing that his desperate measures would have somehow seized victory from the jaws of defeat. Those who had wanted peace, could believe that Breckinridge, out of love for his people, was going to obtain great concessions from Lincoln until the Junta deposed him and led them to irretrievable disaster and complete submission. Even some who at the time had supported the coup, would later admit that Breckinridge was right, after continuing the fight just delivered greater devastation and suffering with no gain at all. Breckinridge must have realized that it was better to remain silent, because then everybody could see in him whatever they wanted to see. As a result, and unlike Davis, Breckinridge never offered any throughout explanation or passionate defense of his actions, maintaining a dignified stoicism during his trial.


Breckinridge, Davis and Lee would be engraved in Southern myth as the "Great Triumvirate" of the "true" Confederate cause that the Junta destroyed

Breckinridge’s only, and most famous statement, came during the last day of the trial. Allowed to make a final statement, Breckinridge stood tall before the multitude and started to speak:

Gentlemen, you have asked me about my intentions. They were simply the fulfillment of my duty. My first duty, gentlemen, has always been to my people and to the soldiers, and I always intended to make any and every sacrifice to protect them. This act of perfidy and usurpation has surely condemned our cause at last. I am afraid not for myself, for my fate has already been decided. You may do whatever you wish with me, but don’t sacrifice the people for your arrogance. What I propose is this: That the Confederacy should not be captured in fragments, that we should not disband like banditti, but that we should surrender as a government, and we will thus maintain the dignity of our cause, and secure the respect of our enemies, and the best terms for our soldiers and people. This has been a magnificent epic. In God’s name let it not terminate in a farce.​

Afterwards, Breckinridge walked to the other defendant, Davis, and bid him farewell. It was the last time both men would see each other. That night, Breckinridge was visited by his wife, who sobbed as she said “I love you better than my own life, and would freely give it to save yours.” His son Clifton was there too. Clifton later revealed that he and other Kentuckians had proposed to try and free Breckinridge by staging a mutiny, but Breckinridge opposed this, telling Clifton that “the best thing you can do is return home.” Breckinridge’s probably feared for his family’s safety, for Toombs had allowed them to return to Kentucky, but this could be revoked if Breckinridge tried to escape. Later, Breckinridge met with Colonel James Wilson, his aide, who had been allowed to escort Breckinridge’s family back home. He asked Wilson to take good care of his family and sighed forlornly “I never got to see my Kentucky again.” Breckinridge, his eyes teary, took a breath before he continued. “I have asked myself more than once, ‘Are you the same man who sent thousands to their deaths, never to see their homes again? The soldiers lying there stare at you with their eyes wide open. Is this the same world?’” Breckinridge then said goodbye to Wilson and waited for his execution in the dawn.

In another cell, Jefferson Davis was also parting from his loved ones. The young Davis children did not understand their father’s imprisonment, and had to be removed from the room amidst tears. Davis then shared a tender moment with Varina, whom he called his “Dear Winnie.” Having tried so hard to maintain a defiant, dignified manner during the trial, Davis finally let his guard down in his wife’s presence, not attempting to conceal his anguish. “I wish I could go to Mexico, and have the world from which to choose,” Davis said, tearfully. “This is not the fate to which I invited [you] when the future was rose colored to us both.” Davis had hoped “there would be better things in store for us,” but “I had to fight against the suffering of the women and children, and carnage among the few brave patriots who still opposed the invader.” Varina tried to console Davis, telling him “you must remember that you did not invite me to a great Hero’s home, but to that of a plain farmer,” and that after “sharing all the pleasures of life,” she had no regrets either. Davis’ family was also given passes, and they used them to abandon the United States, never to return.

The next day, Davis was executed quickly without much fanfare. Maintaining his dignity, he said nothing to the executioners, only throwing them an icy glare that managed to unnerve some of the young soldiers. But Davis was executed by firing squad, and then interred in a common grave. Breckinridge entered afterwards, with the Junta trying to turn the macabre event into a triumphal pageant. Toombs, having by then realized that allowing Breckinridge to speak had been a grave mistake, had instructed the bands to play as loudly as they could, to prevent him from saying anything else. Without any fear, Breckinridge stood before the firing squad, and calmly said “Gentlemen, do your duty.” The soldiers hesitated. One began to cry: “No, I can’t kill Father John, I can’t!” Furious, Toombs ordered the soldiers arrested, and brought in another few that efficiently concluded the grim task. Instead of celebrating, most of the crowd started to weep, and they would soon be dispersed by Confederate soldiers, while Breckinridge’s corpse was also interred in a common grave.


John C. Breckinridge before his execution

The attempt to utterly destroy Breckinridge’s reputation and show all the South that he was a traitor had gone awry. Instead, the Junta had turned him into a martyr. They learned from their mistake, and the next round of executions took place with no public trials and no fanfare. But it was too late. From all over the South, people mourned Breckinridge’s death, with tolling bells and funeral processions. The news was especially hard for poor Confederates, who had seen Breckinridge as their champion and protector. “They took our John,” many would say, “because they wanted to keep their slaves.” For poor Southerners, the leader they loved “was murdered because he loved us and would not stand to see the slavers kill us for their greed.” The death of John Cabell Breckinridge thus represented for many the death of the “true” Confederate cause, and its replacement with a cause that only catered to the arrogant aristocracy, which unwilling to sacrifice anything, decided to sacrifice all the poor Whites instead, starting by disposing of the only man who had cared for the people. Breckinridge’s downfall consequently secured not only that the war would continue to a disastrous and bloody end, but created a cleavage in White Southern society that would define its politics for decades to come.
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Incredible chapter man! This division will pay dividends for the union! Can't wait to see the confederacy teared limp by limp and all those slaveholders punished!
Welp, the aristocrats just fucked themselves over big time. Even if racism doesn't go away the southern aristocrats are going to go down as vile traitors to pretty much any american.
Holy crap they actually executed Breckinridge and Davis! I figured something would happen to them, Breckinridge especially but I wasn't expecting a fucking Stalinesque show trial followed by a public execution. Longstreet's gotta be trying to convince as much of the army as he can to bail back to the union with him after this.
Good grief, I really did not expect that Toombs would try to make the execution of Breckinridge a public event. Given how erratic he was, I suppose that wasn’t out of the question for him. Great writing as well, I already felt bad for Breckinridge but to make me feel bad for Jefferson Davis? Well done.

I also enjoyed the tone of historians trying to dissect the dying spasms of the Confederacy. This is the sort of environment that breeds theory after theory with new evidence coming out.
Cannot wait to see the final collapse of the CSA, especially as those officers and politicians aligned with the Nationalists or otherwise on the junta’s “hit list” decide they’d rather face the Union’s justice than whatever the junta has in store for them.