A political appointee with little military experience prior to the American Civil War, Brigadier General John B. Floyd is most remembered for abandoning Fort Donelson in 1861 to avoid being captured by Federal soldiers.
John Buchanan Floyd was born on his family’s plantation Montgomery County, near Blacksburg, Virginia, on June 1, 1806. He was the first son and second of nine children of John and Letitia Preston Floyd. Young Floyd’s father was a wealthy planter who also served as Virginia’s governor during the Nat Turner Rebellion (August 21–22, 1831). Because they shared the same names, people commonly referred to the father as John Floyd, and the son as John B. Floyd.
Floyd attended South Carolina College in Columbia, South Carolina (now South Carolina University). There, he studied law and graduated in 1829. Soon thereafter, he established a law practice in Abingdon, Virginia.
On June 1, 1830, Floyd married his cousin, Sally Buchanan Preston, sister of future U.S. Senator William C. Preston of South Carolina. The marriage produced no children.
In 1834, enticed by the cotton boom, Floyd moved to Arkansas, where he practiced law and invested heavily in a plantation named “Swan Lake.” As he struggled to establish his fledgling agricultural operation, the Panic of 1837 ruined him financially. To make matters worse, an outbreak of fever, from which Floyd barely survived, killed many of his slaves. His fortune lost, Floyd returned to Abingdon, Virginia greatly in debt, and he resumed his law practice in 1839.
Virginia Governor and State Representative
In 1847, voters in the Abingdon area elected Floyd as a member of the Virginia General Assembly. Two years later, the legislature selected Floyd to serve a three-year term as Virginia’s thirty-first governor. Floyd held that position from January 1, 1849 until January 16, 1852. In 1855, voters elected him to a second term in the general assembly. He served again from December 1855 to March 1856.
U.S. Secretary of War
After James Buchanan assumed the presidency in March 1857, he appointed Floyd to the position of Secretary of War. Corruption and controversy tainted Floyd’s tenure in that office. Members of his staff engaged in illegal activities, including extending favors and funneling government money to contractors doing business with the War Department. Investigators exposed the matter in 1860.
Floyd got into more hot water that year when the Northern press published accusations that he was moving arms and ammunition from Northern to Southern arsenals in anticipation of civil war erupting. When President Buchanan received word that Floyd had issued orders to ship 124 cannon to unfinished forts at Ship Island, Mississippi, and Galveston, Texas, he requested Floyd’s resignation on December 23, 1860. Floyd honored the president’s request on December 29, but not because his shady financial dealings had embarrassed the administration or because of his efforts to aid Southern secessionists. Instead, Floyd indignantly resigned in protest of Buchanan’s refusal to order Major Robert Anderson to remove the U.S. garrison from Fort Sumter and to turn over the federal forts in Charleston Harbor to the State of South Carolina, which had seceded from the Union on December 20. Buchanan accepted Floyd’s resignation on December 31.
Congressional Investigation and Grand Jury Indictments
Although he was out of the cabinet, Floyd was not yet out of the woods. In January 1861, a House committee began investigating the financial irregularities in the War Department. Floyd testified before a Congressional committee that he was ignorant of the shenanigans. The committee eventually decided that they could not determine the extent of Floyd’s involvement, and the full House chose not to pursue the matter.
On January 27, 1861, the grand jury of the District of Columbia indicted Floyd for conspiracy and fraud. The former secretary appeared in a criminal court in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 1861, to answer the charges against him. Floyd eventually escaped prosecution and possibly imprisonment, when the court threw out the indictment because of a law that granted immunity to persons who had been required to testify before congressional committees.
Following his resignation, Floyd returned home to Virginia, where Governor John Letcher appointed him as a colonel in the Provisional Army of Virginia. A few weeks after the Old Dominion seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, Floyd received a commission as a brigadier general in the Provisional Army of the Confederacy on May 23, 1861.
Army of the Kanawha Commander
As head of the 3,500-man Army of the Kanawha, Floyd spent most of the summer of 1861 trying to maintain Confederate control of western Virginia. In late July, Union Brigadier General Jacob Cox led his “Kanawha Brigade” of Ohio Volunteer Regiments into western Virginia and forced Rebel forces out of the Kanawha River Valley. Floyd countered by crossing the Gauley River with 2,000 soldiers on August 26, 1861, and routing Colonel Erastus Tyler’s 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry encamped at Kessler’s Cross Lanes. Floyd then withdrew to the river and established a defensive position, known as Camp Gauley, at Carnifex Ferry.
Battle of Carnifex Ferry
In early September 1861, Brigadier General William Rosecrans assembled a Union force of approximately 7,000 soldiers and marched on Camp Gauley. Before Rosecrans could concentrate his troops, a battle erupted on September 10. Rosecrans spent the day deploying his brigades one at a time as they arrived at the battlefield, enabling the outnumbered Confederates to repulse the piecemeal Union attacks. During the fighting, Floyd was wounded in the arm. When the combat ended that night, Floyd withdrew rather than face Rosecrans’ fully assembled force the next day. The following morning, Union troops occupied Camp Gauley without incident. Floyd’s retreat following the Battle of Carnifex Ferry further weakened the Confederacy’s influence in western Virginia, paving the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia.
Surrender of Fort Donelson
In early 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston, head of Confederate troops in the West, assigned Floyd to command Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. Floyd assumed his new command on February 13, 1862, just prior to the fort’s investment by 25,000 Union troops commanded by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. During the night of February 15-16, Floyd called a council of war with his subordinate officers, Gideon J. Pillow and Simon B. Buckner. The three men determined that their situation was hopeless and that they must surrender the fort to Grant.
Floyd was reluctant to negotiate the surrender personally because he believed that Union officials might charge him with treason if they captured him. His suspicions were possibly well-founded. Besides the allegations that he had inappropriately sent federal armaments to the South prior to the war, Floyd had also sworn an oath to the United States as the Secretary of War in 1857. Floyd feared that officials might consider the violation of his oath as a traitorous act, leading to a long prison sentence or even hanging. Thus, he chose to evade capture and fled during the night, turning command over to Pillow. Not wishing to accept responsibility for surrendering the fort and its garrison, Pillow also abandoned his men and escaped under cover of darkness, leaving the ignominious task of surrender to Buckner.
Dismissal from the Confederate Army
On March 11, 1862, President Jefferson Davis summarily dismissed Floyd from the Confederate Army for his role in the surrender of Fort Donelson. A humiliated Floyd returned to his hometown following his dismissal, but he was not without a command for long.
On April 16, 1862, at the urging of Governor Letcher, the Virginia Assembly appointed Floyd as a major general in the state militia. Floyd then raised a band of partisans that operated in western Virginia throughout the next year-and-a-half, independent of and sometimes at odds with the Confederate Army.
During the summer of 1863, Floyd’s health began to fail him. He died at his adopted daughter’s home in Abingdon, Virginia on August 23, 1863. Floyd is buried in Sinking Spring Cemetery, Abingdon, Virginia.