On this day in 1839, Cary Breckinridge was born at Catawba near Fincastle in Botetourt County. Breckinridge is not himself a big deal in Virginia history, but he strikes me as being a straight-from-Central Casting representative of the well-to-do white Virginian of his time. Not entirely fancy himself (although his father did own 150 slaves!), he nevertheless had fancy relatives. His cousin, for instance, was John C. Breckinridge, who lost Virginia by only a few votes in the 1860 presidential election but handily won New Market a few years later.
Cary, or “The Major” as he was often called, also fought in the Civil War. Our entry describes him as “physically imposing” and reports that he suffered five wounds and reportedly had five horses shot out from under him. He also was taken prisoner at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford in 1863, an event one of his brothers witnessed and described in a letter that was later published in their sister Lucy’s diary:
Some of the Regt. saw him [Breckinridge] completely surrounded firing right and left, his horse wounded and broken down, saw him lift his hat in the act of surrendering, and saw a Yankee lead him off by the arm. Today a citizen from the opposite side of the river said he saw the Major riding very composedly along with one Yankee close by him and ten more following some distance behind, the rest of our prisoners were compelled to walk.
After the war, Breckinridge was, of course, “a stalwart of the local Conservative Part and its successor, the Democratic Party,” using his Confederate service to good political effect. His contemporaries described him as a “giant.”
A version of this post was originally published on October 5, 2011.