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John B. Floyd
John B. Floyd

John Buchanan Floyd (June 1, 1806 – August 26, 1863) was the 31st Governor of Virginia, U.S. Secretary of War, and the Confederate general in the American Civil War who lost the crucial Battle of Fort Donelson.

Early and family life

John Buchanan Floyd was born on June 1, 1806 at Smithfield estate, Blacksburg, Virginia. He was the eldest son of the former Laetitia Preston and her husband, Governor John Floyd (1783–1837). His brother Benjamin Rush Floyd (1812-1860) served in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly but failed to win election to the U.S. Congress. His sister Nicketti (1819-1908) married U.S. Senator John Warfield Johnston; his sisters Letitia Preston Floyd Lewis (1814-1886) and Eliza Lavalette Floyd Holmes (1816-1887) also survived their brothers.[1] The elder Floyd served as a representative in Congress from 1817 to 1829 and as governor of Virginia from 1830 to 1834.

Young Floyd graduated from South Carolina College in 1826 (by some accounts 1829), where he was a member of the Euphradian Society.

He married his cousin, Sarah (Sally) Buchanan Preston (1802-1879), daughter of Francis Preston, on June 1, 1830. They had no children.[2] Some claimed Floyd had a daughter, Josephine, who married Robert James Harlan in 1852. Harlan was a slave of Kentucky politician James Harlan and may have been James' son. In the 1850s, Robert Harlan was living as a free person in Cincinnati, Ohio.[3]


Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1828, Floyd practiced law in his native state and at Helena, Arkansas, where he lost a large fortune and his health in a cotton-planting venture.

In 1839, Floyd returned to Virginia and settled in Washington County. Voters elected him to the Abingdon town council in 1843 and the Virginia House of Delegates in 1847, and he won re-election once, then resigned in 1849 upon being elected governor of Virginia.[4] As governor, Floyd commissioned the monument to President George Washington in Virginia Capitol Square, and laid the cornerstone in the presence of President Zachary Taylor on February 22, 1850.[5] The second Governor Floyd also recommended the Virginia General Assembly pass a law taxing imports from states that refused to surrender fugitive slaves owned by Virginian masters, which would have violated the Interstate Commerce Clause.[6]

When he left statewide office in 1852, Washington County voters again elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.[7] Floyd also bought the Abington Democrat from Leonidas Baugh when the paper's founder won appointment as postmaster, and he had J.M.H. Brunet of Petersburg publish it, but Brunet died and the paper was sold at auction to pay the debts incurred by its next printer, Stephen Pendleton, in 1857.[8]

Active in Democratic Party politics, the former Governor was a presidential elector for James Buchanan after the presidential election of 1856.

Secretary of War

In March 1857, Floyd became Secretary of War in Buchanan's cabinet, where his lack of administrative ability was soon apparent, including the poor execution of the Utah Expedition. Floyd is implicated in the scandal of the "Abstracted Indian Bonds" which broke at the end of 1860 as the Buchanan Administration was reaching its end. His wife's nephew Godard Bailey, who worked in the Interior Department and who removed bonds from the Indian Agency safe during 1860, was also implicated.[9] Among the recipients of the money was Russell, Majors, and Waddell, a government contractor that held, among its contracts, the Pony Express.[10] In December 1860, on ascertaining that Floyd had honored heavy drafts made by government contractors in anticipation of their earnings, the president requested his resignation. Several days later Floyd was indicted for malversation in office, although the indictment was overruled in 1861 on technical grounds. There is no proof that he profited by these irregular transactions; in fact, he went out of the office financially embarrassed.

Although he had openly opposed secession before the election of Abraham Lincoln, his conduct after the election, especially after his breach with Buchanan, fell under suspicion, and he was accused in the press of having sent large stores of government arms to Federal arsenals in the South in the anticipation of the Civil War.

Grant in his postwar Personal Memoirs wrote:

After his resignation, a congressional commission in the summer and fall of 1861 investigated Floyd's actions as Secretary of War. All of his records of orders and shipments of arms from 1859 to 1860 were examined. It is recorded that in response to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, he bolstered the Federal arsenals in some Southern states by over 115,000 muskets and rifles in late 1859. He also ordered heavy ordnance to be shipped to the Federal forts in Galveston Harbor, Texas, and the new fort on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi.[11]

In the last days of his term, he apparently had an intention to send these heavy guns, but his orders were revoked by the president.

His resignation as secretary of war, on December 29, 1860, was precipitated by the refusal of Buchanan to order Major Robert Anderson to abandon Fort Sumter, which eventually led to the start of the war. On January 27, 1861, he was indicted by the District of Columbia grand jury for conspiracy and fraud. Floyd appeared in criminal court in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 1861, to answer the charges against him. According to Harper's Weekly, the indictments were thrown out.

Civil War

After the secession of Virginia, Floyd was commissioned a major general in the Provisional Army of Virginia, but on May 23, 1861, he was appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army (CSA). He was first employed in some unsuccessful operations in the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia under Robert E. Lee, where he was both defeated and wounded in the arm at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry on September 10.

General Floyd blamed Brigadier General Henry A. Wise for the Confederate loss at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, stating that Wise refused to come to his aid.[12] Virginia Delegate Mason Mathews, whose son Alexander F. Mathews was Wise's aide-de-camp, spent several days in the camps of both Wise and Floyd to seek resolution to an escalating feud between the two generals. Afterward he wrote to President Jefferson Davis urging that both men be removed, stating "I am fully satisfied that each of them would be highly gratified to see the other annihilated." [13][14] Davis subsequently removed Wise from his command of the western Virginia region, leaving Floyd as the region's unquestioned superior officer.[12]

In January 1862, he was dispatched to the Western Theater to report to General Albert Sidney Johnston and was given command of a division. Johnston sent Floyd to reinforce Fort Donelson and assume command of the post there. Floyd assumed command of Fort Donelson on February 13 just two days after the Union army had arrived at that spot, also becoming the third post commander within a week. Fort Donelson protected the crucial Cumberland River and, indirectly, the manufacturing city of Nashville and Confederate control of Middle Tennessee. It was the companion to Fort Henry on the nearby Tennessee River, which, on February 6, 1862, was captured by Union Army Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and river gunboats. Floyd was not an appropriate choice to defend such a vital point, having political influence, but virtually no military experience. General Johnston had other experienced, more senior, generals (P.G.T. Beauregard and William J. Hardee) available and made a serious error in selecting Floyd. Floyd had little military influence on the Battle of Fort Donelson itself, deferring to his more experienced subordinates, Brigadier Generals Gideon Johnson Pillow and Simon Bolivar Buckner. As the Union forces surrounded the fort and the town of Dover, the Confederates launched an assault on February 15 in an attempt to open an escape route. Although successful at first, indecision on General Pillow's part left the Confederates in their trenches, facing growing reinforcements for Grant.

Early in the morning of February 16, at a council of war, the generals and field officers decided to surrender their army. Floyd, concerned that he would be arrested for treason if captured by the Union Army, turned his command over to Pillow, who immediately turned it over to Buckner. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest and his entire Tennessee cavalry regiment escaped while Pillow escaped on a small boat across the Cumberland. The next morning Floyd escaped by steamboat with the 36th Virginia and 51st Virginia Infantry regiments, two artillery batteries and elements of the other units from his old command. He safely reached Nashville, having escaped just before Buckner surrendered to Grant in one of the greatest strategic defeats of the Civil War. He never satisfactorily explained upon what principles he appropriated all the transportation on to the use of his particular command".[15] Floyd was relieved of his command by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, without a court of inquiry, on March 11, 1862. He resumed his commission as a major general of Virginia Militia, but his health soon failed and he died a year later at Abingdon, Virginia, where he is buried in Sinking Spring Cemetery.

In memoriam

Floyd County in northwest Georgia, home to the cities of Rome and Cave Spring, is named for his ancestor, United States Congressman John Floyd.

Camp Floyd, a U.S. Army post near Fairfield, Utah from July 1858 to July 1861, was originally named after Floyd.

See also

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