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Clifton R. Breckinridge saw the bitter end of Dixie

Clifton R. Breckinridge saw the bitter end of Dixie
Breckinridge House at 504 North 16th Street, Fort Smith. Built in 1907. Photo circa 1910. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Clifton R. Breckinridge saw the bitter end of Dixie

April 2 will mark the 150th anniversary of the fall of Richmond., Va., the capital of the Confederate States of America. The Civil War was drawing to its ragged end. Five days later, Gen. Robert E. Lee would sign official papers of surrender at a courthouse in Appomattox, Va.

A man who later built a home still standing in Fort Smith witnessed and guarded the retreat of the last of the Confederate government from Richmond and stood suicide watch over its president, Jefferson Davis.

As Richmond fell, Clifton Rodes Breckinridge, then only 18 years old, was called to the side of his father, Gen. John Cabell Breckinridge, the fifth and final Confederate Secretary of War.

Gen. Breckinridge was a significant figure in American history before the Civil War. He had served as the 14th U.S. vice president under President James Buchanan from 1857-1861.

As U.S. senator from Kentucky after his vice presidency, he was nominated to run for president, but lost to Abraham Lincoln. As the country drew closer to war, Gen. Breckinridge urged compromise in the Senate to preserve the Union. But after his home state split internally, he fled behind Confederate lines.

In February 1865, even as he was appointed to be Secretary of War, Gen. Breckinridge had come to the conclusion it was impossible for the South to win the war. By the end of March, Union armies were about to crush Lee's much smaller army at Petersburg, Va., after 290 days of fighting. On the Sunday morning of April 2, Breckinridge received a telegram from Lee, saying he could no longer hold his position. Soon after, Union troops broke through Confederate lines and started marching the 23 miles toward Richmond. Davis and his cabinet members had to pack up and get out of town.

The day before, Breckinridge had ordered the midshipmen of the CSS Patrick Henry, including his son, Clifton, to hurry to Richmond to guard the train that was to take the Confederate government into the deep South for their safety.

Aboard the train was the gold and silver of the Confederate treasury, perhaps a half million dollars. Clifton was to guard the money.

After many delays, the train departed at 11 p.m. with Gen. Breckinridge riding horseback alongside, making sure it got out of town safely.

Turning back to say goodbye to his wife, Mary, Breckinridge spotted fire raging in the heart of Richmond. He had given orders to destroy the whiskey supply. Men pulled hundreds of barrels out of warehouses and started pouring out the whiskey into the street. Great mobs of thirsty men could be seen lying on the ground drinking out of the gutter. Breckinridge had given orders not to burn the tobacco warehouse because it was too close to other buildings, but it was ablaze. When the smoke cleared several days later, 54 blocks of Richmond lay in ruins.

Clifton's father also had given him another task. Fearing that Davis was suicidal, he ordered Clifton to sleep on the floor in Davis' room. Davis could not accept that the war had been lost and wanted to keep fighting, by doubling back to Texas and waging a guerrilla war that could have lasted for years and killed far more soldiers on both sides. As tactfully as possible, Gen. Breckinridge was determined to not let that happen.

Less than an hour before Union forces arrived, Breckinridge rode with some officers and soldiers to Danville, Va., the last capital of the Confederacy. Danville held that distinction for only eight days.

When Breckinridge arrived, Davis and all but one of the remaining cabinet members had steamed on toward Greensboro, N.C., after a courier arrived with a message from Lee saying it would just be a matter of days. Breckinridge found his son waiting for him. Clifton had resigned from the Confederate Navy in order to protect his father.

One could assume that Clifton was at his father's side at a meeting near Durham Station, N.C., with Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, which resulted in the surrender of the forces under Gen. Joe Johnston and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Gen. Sherman required that a bottle of whiskey be passed around before they got down to business. It's reported that Gen. Breckinridge was delighted to accept.

When the meeting was over, Sherman told Breckinridge the sad news that President Lincoln had been assassinated a couple of days before, having been shot in the head at Ford's Theater. Lincoln had been carried across the street to a rooming house where Breckinridge had lived when he was a congressman. Lincoln may have died in the very room Breckinridge had rented.

Since Mary Todd Lincoln was Breckinridge’s cousin, he and Lincoln had been friends. Even during the war, the president let it be known that despite Breckinridge’s poor choice to leave the Union, Lincoln held him in high regard. People who were there reported later that Breckinridge said of Lincoln’s death, “Gentlemen, the South has lost its best friend.”

Sherman advised Breckinridge that in his opinion, it was best for Breckinridge to leave the country. Breckinridge concurred but felt it was his duty to get Davis to a place of safety before he took his leave.

Upon finding Davis again after meeting with Sherman, it was obvious Davis still couldn't accept that the war had been lost. Breckinridge expressed his opinion that indeed the war was over and it was best to try to negotiate the fairest treatment for the worn-out army of the South. Finally, on May 2, Davis and Breckinridge parted ways. Davis would go on to Georgia still believing he could keep the war going, but his party was captured on May 10. Davis was imprisoned for two years after his capture but pardoned by a general amnesty in 1868.

Breckinridge, in the company of his first cousin Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge, Clifton and a small escort of men, traveled south. They were escaping but also hoping to draw away the Union soldiers on an intense hunt for Davis. On May 6, near Sandersville, Ga., Gen. Breckinridge paid his company and told them to go home. He also discharged Clifton and young 2nd Lt. James B. Clay, grandson of Henry Clay. Before the boys got out of Georgia, they were captured, imprisoned, paroled and released by May 17 and finally returned to their families.

In disguise, Breckinridge made his way to Florida and secured a small boat. In early June, he and five other men crossed to Cuba, landing there June 11 with long hair and beards, sunburned and with feet blistered from being in saltwater. From Cuba, Breckinridge sailed to Great Britain, then Canada where his family was reunited.

Breckinridge and his wife took a little house on the north side of Niagara Falls where they really could see America from their front porch. President Andrew Johnson issued a general amnesty on Christmas Day 1868. Early in 1869, John Cabell and Mary Breckinridge finally went home to Kentucky. The war had taken a toll on his health, destroyed his fortune and diminished the Breckinridge family name. The prominent and well-educated family included the general’s grandfather, John Breckinridge, attorney general under Thomas Jefferson.

Gen. John Cabell Breckinridge died in 1875 at the age of 54. Mary would live until 1907.

After the war, Clifton took a job in a family friend's Cincinnati dry goods house while trying to figure out what to do next. In 1867, thanks to a scholarship given to him by Lord Ashburton, an admirer of his father, Clifton enrolled in Washington College, now Washington and Lee College. Gen. Lee served as college president and mentored Clifton, urging him to make his career in public service.

In 1876, he married a distant cousin, Katherine Breckinridge Carson of Mississippi. Jefferson Davis Jr. was his best man. Clifton and his older brother, Cabell, bought a large cotton plantation near Pine Bluff, Ark., and by 1882, he was elected to his first term as a U.S. representative from Arkansas.

He was re-elected in 1884, 1886, 1890 and 1892. The 1888 election was marred by the murder of his opponent, John M. Clayton. He was the brother of Arkansas Gov. Powell Clayton and William H.H. Clayton, U.S. Attorney for the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas and chief prosecutor in the court of Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith. During a recount of votes requested by John Clayton after his narrow loss, someone shot through a window of a house in Plumerville, Ark., killing him.

An investigation ordered by Congress failed to find the killer and exonerated Clifton. Because there was clear evidence that a ballot box likely containing Clayton votes was stolen in Conway County by four masked men, Clayton was declared the winner but the seat was labeled as vacant. Clifton won back the seat in the next two elections.

President Grover Cleveland appointed him U.S. minister to Russia in 1894-1897. Family letters show he disliked that he was required to wear ceremonial knee breeches to the 1896 coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. In another twist of history, Clifton's oldest son, James Carson Breckinridge, a career Marine, was naval attaché in Petrograd, Russia, at the time Nicholas II and his family were murdered during the Russian Revolution.

The family returned from Russia to Pine Bluff, except James, who was already serving in the Philippines. In 1900, President McKinley, a Republican who knew Clifton from their days in the House of Representatives, appointed him to the Dawes Commission, charged with the distribution of individual allotments of tribal land to the Cherokee people. Clifton and Katherine would live in Muskogee, Indian Territory, for the next five years until he resigned in 1905.

Almost 30 years later at his death, Clifton would be the last surviving member of the Dawes Commission. Before his appointment, a letter shows he and Katherine first came to Fort Smith so he could speak at the May 27, 1891, opening celebration of the Iron Mountain-Helen Gould railroad, wagon and pedestrian bridge that crossed the Arkansas River a little south of the J. Fred Patton bridge of today.

Mrs. Breckinridge wrote to her son on May 30, 1891:

Fort Smith is a beautiful place. It has not any more inhabitants than Pine Bluff, but covers more ground, and the buildings are much better, specially the residences, which are very tasteful, and all kept beautifully,with lovely grounds. The bridge that was opened while we were there is quite handsome. It crosses to the Indian Territory. We saw a good many Indians and several white men with Indian wives. One Indian made a splendid speech. These tribes are much more intelligent than the ones in the West.

In about 1905, the Breckinridges moved to Fort Smith, renting a two-story house at 600 North 16th Street. The same house was used as Emmy’s German Restaurant many years later.

He founded Arkansas Valley Trust Co. in 1905, whose building is still standing at 615 Garrison. It was restored by the Westphal family and once again displays the name Arkansas Valley Trust at the top of the building.

The Breckinridges decided to build the first house they had ever owned here. Though they had been married for 30 years and Clifton was 60 years old, he had bitter memories. His father's duplex in Washington, which he shared with “The Little Giant” Stephen A. Douglas, had been confiscated by the federal government at the outbreak of the Civil War, which haunted him every time there was a discussion of owning a home. Perhaps the fact that his wife gained an inheritance played a part in their decision. They hired Fort Smith architect Alonzo Klingensmith to draw plans for a house large enough to hold the furniture they had brought from Russia.

At the corner of North 16th and E streets were the ruins of the Collier house, which had burned in the late 1890s. A new house went up over the basement of the burned house with a foundation of river rocks hauled to the site by wagons. By the fall of 1907, the stucco house was ready for the family to move in. The only child left at home was 12-year-old Clifton Jr. and possibly his older sister, Susanna Preston Lees Breckinridge.

Mrs. Breckinridge was active in social welfare work, establishing a “settlement house” on Towson Avenue where women were taught home economics.

Their son James had a ship named for him, the USS Gen. J.C. Breckinridge (AP-176) and also the James Carson Breckinridge Professional Library at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. But daughter Mary Carson Breckinridge was the most famous of the children.

She established the Frontier Nursing Service in Wendover, Ky., which is still operating. Posthumously, she was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame in 1982 and in 1998, depicted on a U.S. postage stamp in the Great Americans series. Annually, a Mary Breckinridge Festival is held in Hyden, Ky.

Clifton Breckinridge died in 1932 at 86 in Wendover, where he lived with his daughter after the death of his wife.

Author’s note: April 2, 1865, is important to our family. We will reflect this April 2 that one of the participants of that significant day in American history when the Union was preserved, later built the home we have lived in for 47 years. – Joe Wasson

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.
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