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Escape of Breckinridge

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General John Breckinridge. Courtesy Florida

State Archives.

Six haggard men running from Union soldiers arrived at the Indian River on June 1, 1865.

On the run were General John Breckinridge, his aide Colonel James Wilson, Tom Ferguson, the general's slave, Colonel John Taylor Wood, and two Confederate soldiers, Sergeant Joseph O'Toole and Corporal Richard Russell, from the Second Florida Cavalry. O’Toole and Russell were helping the group escape to The Bahamas.

Breckinridge was a Confederate general and the Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America.  Since the CSA had surrendered, the Union army had been searching out and arresting the leaders of the Confederacy. Prior to hostilities, Breckinridge has served as vice president of the United States under James Buchanan and as a senator from Kentucky. He even ran for the presidency in 1860. A nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Wood served in the Confederate Navy and had captured thirty-five Union vessels. 

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Colonel John Taylor Wood. Public

domain image.

Once the rag-tag group arrived on the Indian River, the men rowed south passing Union lookouts during the night. They reached the Jupiter Inlet on June 4. From there, they continued their journey southward stopping on present day Palm Beach to rest and search for food. However, they were almost captured by a Union naval patrol. The quick thinking Wood convinced their would-be captors that they had been paroled and just looking for turtle eggs which they exchanged with Union sailors for food and tobacco.

After their close encounter with the Union Navy, the men left Palm Beach and continued southward. In the area of Boynton Beach, the men traded with some Seminoles and on June 7, they spotted and stole a sailing vessel from some Union deserters at New River (Fort Lauderdale). 

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Map of possible escape route of General Breckinridge and

group through Florida. Courtesy HSPBC.

When they reached Miami, the men exchanged gunfire with a group of armed men. In the end, they stopped firing and obtained supplies from the group. Afterwards, a schooner appeared and chased the group through Biscayne Bay. Only by crossing over a reef did they escape the schooner which had fired their cannon at them. They spent the night at Elliot’s Key then sailed on to Cuba.

Once they arrived Cárdenas, Cuba, the local officials learning who they were, sent word to Governor-General Concha. Breckinridge and his companions were well-received and traveled to Havana where they met the governor-general.

Breckinridge went on to Europe and later to Canada. He returned to Kentucky after President Andrew Johnson pardoned him. While Breckinridge returned home, Wood would not.

Wood was born in the Northwest Territory, Minnesota, in 1831. His mother, Margaret Mackall Taylor, was the daughter of General and US President Zachary Taylor and the older sister of Sarah Knox Taylor who was the wife of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis.

During the Mexican-American War, Wood served in the U.S. Navy on two warships, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. At the beginning of the Civil War, Wood resigned and entered service with the navy of Virginia then with the Confederate Navy.

He served on the CSS Virginia, Jefferson’s aide-de-camp, appointed a colonel in the cavalry, commanded the CSS Tallahassee, and captured numerous Union vessels. After the General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Wood accompanied Jefferson on his flight south. When Union forces captured Jefferson, Wood escaped and joined Breckinridge. After the group made it to Cuba, Wood traveled to Nova Scotia where he lived until his death in 1904.

According to an article written by Wood in 1885, Russell and O’Toole returned to Florida, both Breckinridge and Wilson had “crossed the great river,” and Tom Ferguson’s fate was unknown.

Bibliography

Dillon, Rodney E. Jr. “The Civil War On The Gold Coast,” New River News XIX, no. 4, (1981): 3-6.

Snyder, James D. A Light in the Wilderness: The Story of Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & The Southeast    Florida Frontier. Jupiter: Pharos Books, 2006.

Wood, John Taylor. “Escape of General Breckinridge,” Famous Adventures and Prison Escapes of the Civil War, edited by G.W. Cable, 298-338. New York: The Century Company, 1893. PDF e-book.

Wynne, Nick andJoe Crankshaw. Florida Civil War Blockades: Battling for the Coast. Charleston: The History Press, 2011.

 

 

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