John B. Floyd, the Secretary of War who ran away from Fort Donelson

John Buchanan Floyd. Image Source: Library of Congress.

John B. Floyd was a politician and military officer who served as the 31st Governor of Virginia, and 24th Secretary of War from 1857 to 1860, during the administration of President James Buchanan. In 1860, as the Secession Crisis loomed, Floyd was accused of moving weapons and supplies to the southern states in anticipation of the outbreak of war, which led to his resignation. After the war started, Floyd became a Brigadier General in the Provisional Confederate Army. He took command of Fort Donelson in February 1862 as Ulysses S. Grant moved in to attack the fort.

Battle of Fort Donelson, Painting
Battle of Fort Donelson. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Ulysses S. Grant Moves on Fort Donelson

On February 6, 1862, Union forces under the command of Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry in Tennessee. After the surrender, Grant turned his attention to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. From February 12 to 13, he marched 25,000 men 12 miles and positioned them in a semi-circle around the western side of Fort Donelson.

Floyd in Command of Fort Donelson

Meanwhile, General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was head of Confederate troops in the West, gave command of the fort to John B. Floyd. Floyd assumed the position on February 13. Over the night of February 15-16, Floyd called a council of war with his officers, Gideon J. Pillow and Simon B. Buckner. Together, they decided the situation was hopeless and they would have to surrender the fort to Grant.

Floyd’s Dilemma

Floyd was reluctant to personally negotiate the terms of surrender. He was still under suspicion of having aided the southern war effort when he was Secretary of State, and he was worried Union officials might charge him with treason if he was taken as a prisoner. If that happened, he might end up in prison — or even sentenced to death.

Floyd Abandons His Command

Fearing for his life, Floyd turned command over to Pillow and fled Fort Donelson. The move left Pillow with the responsibility of surrendering the fort and the garrison. However, Pillow did the same as Floyd and escaped under cover of darkness. The task of surrendering Fort Donelson was passed to Buckner.

President Davis Dismisses Floyd from the Army

On March 11, 1862, President Jefferson Davis dismissed Floyd from the Confederate Army for his role in the surrender of Fort Donelson. Floyd was humiliated and returned to his hometown in Virginia.

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy
Jefferson Davis. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Learn More About the Life and Career of John B. Floyd

Early Life

  • John B. Floyd was the first son and second of nine children of John and Letitia Preston Floyd.
  • Floyd’s father was a wealthy planter who also served as Virginia’s governor during the Nat Turner Rebellion (August 21–22, 1831).
  • He studied law at South Carolina College in Columbia, South Carolina (now South Carolina University), and graduated in 1829.

Marriage and Legal Career

  • On June 1, 1830, John B. Floyd married his cousin, Sally Buchanan Preston, sister of future U.S. Senator William C. Preston of South Carolina. They had 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.
  • After being ruined financially by the Panic of 1837, he returned to Abingdon, Virginia, and resumed his law practice in 1839.

Virginia Politics

  • In 1847, voters in the Abingdon area elected John B. Floyd to the Virginia General Assembly.
  • In 1849, the Virginia General Assembly selected him to serve a three-year term as Virginia’s 31st governor.
  • He served as Governor of Virginia from January 1, 1849, until January 16, 1852.
  • In 1855, Floyd was elected to a second term in the general assembly. He served in that position from December 1855 to March 1856.

Secretary of War

  • After James Buchanan assumed the presidency in March 1857, he appointed John B. Floyd as his Secretary of War.
  • Floyd’s tenure as Secretary of War was marked by corruption and controversy.
  • President Buchanan requested Floyd’s resignation as Secretary of War on December 23, 1860.
  • He resigned as Secretary of War on December 29, 1860.
  • Buchanan accepted Floyd’s resignation on December 31.

Indictment for Conspiracy

On January 27, 1861, the grand jury of the District of Columbia indicted Floyd for conspiracy and fraud. Floyd escaped prosecution, and possibly prison when the court threw out the indictment because of a legal technicality.

Civil War

  • Floyd was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army.
  • His withdrawal from the Battle of Carnifex Ferry weakened the Confederacy’s influence in western Virginia, paving the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia.
  • Floyd assumed control of Fort Donelson on February 13, 1862.
  • He abandoned Fort Donelson on the night of February 15-16.
  • On March 11, 1862, President Jefferson Davis dismissed him from the Confederate Army for his role in the surrender of Fort Donelson.
  • On April 16, 1862, at the urging of Governor Letcher, the Virginia Assembly appointed Floyd as a Major General in the state militia.

Death of John Floyd

John B. Floyd died at his adopted daughter’s home in Abingdon, Virginia on August 23, 1863.