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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,036

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This is the grave of John Floyd.

Born in 1806 in Blacksburg, Virginia, Floyd grew up in the Virginia elite. His father, also named John, would later be governor and the biggest supporter of John C. Calhoun’s nullification extremism in Virginia. This says a lot about the politics of the son. However, in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s Revolt, Floyd Sr. began to wonder whether the state needed gradual emancipation in order to provide for its long-term stability. His son would see this as a betrayal of the principle that owning slaves was awesome and he determined to be more extreme than dad. This was a rich guy who expected to own lots of slaves, defend slavery, and be in the law and politics to do so. He was admitted to the bar in Virginia in 1828 but decided he wanted to make it on his own the new territory of Arkansas, so he moved there for awhile. He invested heavily in cotton planting there but it went completely belly-up and he lost most of his fortune in the scheme. He also got sick out there in the swamps (maybe it was malaria but I’m not sure) and was never fully healthy again.

In 1839, having failed in Arkansas, Floyd returned to Virginia to take advantage of his family and all the human beings they owned to become a leader in the politics and law of his home state. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1847, won reelection, and then was elected governor of Virginia in 1849. How did he rise so fast? One, he was a Floyd. Two, he was a rabid slaveholder extremist who wanted greater extremism from the South on the issue. For example, he proposed that the state pass a law taxing imports from states that did not return fugitive slaves. This is a good time to mention how ridiculous the South was on the fugitive slave issue. The actual financial value of escaped slaves was trivial compared to the overall value of slaves in the South. But rather than just let it go and, I don’t know, compensate white slavers whose humans ran to the North, they made it a huge political issue that went farther to alienate the North against the region than anything else they could think of. Just stupid. Plus, the idea of a state taxing another state’s imports also seems unconstitutional to me, but I’m no expert in 19th century legal thinking.

Floyd served a two-year term as governor and then went back into the House of Delegates. He was a huge backer of James Buchanan’s 1856 Democratic presidential candidate. After all, Buchanan was the ultimate doughface, a northern man with southern principles. Who would do more for the Slave Power than Buchanan? Basically, no one. So Buchanan paid Floyd back. The new president named Floyd Secretary of War.

Floyd was a genuinely terrible Secretary of War. He had no ability to administer anything. He was known for complete ineptitude. For example, the 1857 military effort to put down the Mormons in Utah was a total disaster. The Army failed to engage in any major battles and supplying the troops was poorly done. Then once they were supplied, the thing ended and the government sold off all the supplies at a huge loss. That was typical of Floyd’s tenure at War. Floyd was also corrupt. Floyd got his wife a job in the Department of Interior. It was Interior who controlled Indian affairs. Since whites didn’t think Indians were people worthy of decent governance, or you know, being alive, not only did they commit routine acts of genocide, but then they found the part of the government responsible for administering Indian affairs to be perfect for theft. So Floyd’s wife removed bonds from an Indian agency safe and distributed them to many of their friends, including the people running the Pony Express. This went public in late 1860, after Abraham Lincoln had already defeated the divided Democratic Party. There’s not much evidence that Floyd personally benefited and he left office with financial problems. But he was indicted and convicted for his actions in this, though it was overturned on technical grounds.

For as extreme as Floyd was on fugitive slaves, until the election of Lincoln, he had not gone as far as the most extreme southerners and supported secession. But once Lincoln was elected? Please. Floyd basically committed treason inside the federal government after this. Buchanan was not a traitor. But he was intentionally blind to what his southern and southern-sympathetic Cabinet was doing to promote treason in defense of slavery in the last months of his administration. As for Floyd, he started moving American military supplies to the South to help what would soon become the Confederacy. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant absolutely savaged Floyd in a single sentence:

Floyd, the Secretary of War, scattered the army so that much of it could be captured when hostilities should commence, and distributed the cannon and small arms from Northern arsenals throughout the South so as to be on hand when treason wanted them.

On December 29, 1860, after six weeks of Floyd’s active support of treason, he quit. The reason was that Buchanan wouldn’t order Robert Anderson to surrender Fort Sumter, which Floyd believed should go to the treasonous South Carolinians. Floyd had also ordered the nation’s heaviest guns sent to southern forts while the states they were in were in the middle of seceding from the Union. Buchanan overruled this just in time. In 1861, the government investigated Floyd’s actions as Secretary of War. It demonstrated that Floyd’s was semi-treasonous all the way back to John Brown‘s attack on Harpers’ Ferry in 1859. After that point, Floyd went all-in on supplying southern forts at far higher rates than northern forts, essentially laying the groundwork for a southern war for slavery if it chose to engage in it. For all of this, Floyd was indicted in Washington, D.C. for conspiracy and fraud. He showed up for the indictment in January 1861, since Virginia had not yet committed treason in defense of slavery. But the indictments were thrown out. It was awfully hard to convict treasonous or corrupt ex-government officials, as we are finding out again in the 2020s.

Once Virginia committed treason in defense of slavery, Floyd was all in. In fact, he had worried until Fort Sumter that Virginia would not take this action, which he believed would doom slavery in the state and probably lead to his own hanging. He was named a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. This wasn’t because he was good at soldiering. Like most officers, north and south, it was about who you knew and how powerful you were rather than skill. And Floyd was a terrible general. His inability to administer anything, already clear by 1861, applied to the battlefield. He was under Robert E. Lee. He performed terribly at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry in September 1861, a rare loss for the Confederates in these days that gave control over western Virginia to the Union and helped lead to West Virginia seceding from Virginia. As was normal for these big ego guys, he and Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia who wanted to use John Brown’s raid to launch himself into the presidency and thus treated Brown so poorly that he made the man a hero in the North, blamed each other for the loss and the in-fighting became a very big problem for Lee.

In the aftermath, Lee sent Floyd to the west to fight under Albert Sidney Johnston. That general made a serious error. He sent Floyd to guard Fort Donelson in west Tennessee as Grant was marching on it. Grant was a far superior officer. He had already taken Fort Henry. Meanwhile, Floyd was more concerned about being tried for treason in the North if he was the commander when Grant took Donelson. He had good reason to be nervous since he was a traitor of the worst sort and corrupt on top of that! Grant once again just destroyed Floyd in his memoirs:

General Floyd, the commanding officer, who was a man of talent enough for any civil position, was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one. He was further unfitted for command for the reason that his conscience must have troubled him and made him afraid. As Secretary of War, he had taken a solemn oath to maintain the Constitution of the United States and uphold the same against all enemies. He had betrayed that trust.

I mean…pretty accurate! Floyd just bailed. He immediately believed there was no way to defend the fort and didn’t want to come up with one. He handed his command over to Gideon Pillow, who was also a terrible commander. Then Pillow bailed too and handed command to Simon Bolivar Buckner. It was Buckner who famously asked Grant for a conditional surrender, which Grant blew off, demanded an unconditional surrender, became known as Unconditional Surrender Grant, and briefly was a hero in the North until Shiloh blew that up for awhile. Meanwhile, Floyd was an embarrassment. Jefferson Davis fired him immediately and returned him to civilian life. Floyd did take command of a part of the Virginia militia but was isolated from any duties. Moreover, his health was shot by this time anyway. He died in 1863, at the age of 57.

John Floyd is buried in Sinking Spring Cemetery, Abingdon, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other members of Buchanan’s terrible Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Howell Cobb is in Athens, Georgia and Jacob Thompson is in Memphis, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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