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Was The Secretary Of War A Traitor?

July 2024
13min read

On the brink of the Civil War southern arsenals began to fill with thousands of federal guns, sent there by a Cabinet officer

In 1861, when the word “traitor” came to be used pretty loosely, the average northerner would probably have placed John B. Floyd no lower than second on the blacklist of treason. Floyd, everybody said, was a sinister secret agent who had used his position as Secretary of War in President James Buchanan’s Cabinet to send guns by the carload to Dixie. He had armed the South with federal muskets. As the war went on and the defeat of the Confederacy turned out to be more than a three-months’ outing, Floyd’s villainy seemed to grow even more monstrous. Hadn’t he proved his apostasy by going south and becoming a Confederate general?

But was John B. Floyd guilty as charged? The question remains as puzzling today as it was a century ago.

A balding, sharp-nosed, middle-aged Virginian who had been governor of his state, as had his father before him, Floyd was jovial, gregarious, and likable. While there had been talk of financial frauds during his governorship, nothing had been proved against him, and he entered Buchanan’s Cabinet in 1857 with a good reputation. A believer in states’ rights, he nevertheless opposed secession, maintaining that the South should attempt to secure redress within the Union. But as War Secretary in the ante-bellum years he showed not the slightest conception of orderly housekeeping. His personal financial affairs were always in anarchy, and his contempt for records and inability to keep a prudent watch over the disbursement of the millions at his disposal soon had the war office in the same condition. Buchanan was often vexed with complaints about Floyd’s maladministration. He had so many proofs of the Secretary’s incompetence that he should have eased him out of office long before crisis came, simply in the interests of good government. But the President liked Floyd and had such a distaste for unpleasantness that he let the matter slide, ft was an omission he would come to regret.

In 1859 the Army was making a change-over from the old flintlock smoothbore musket to an improved percussion weapon with rifled barrel. As more new rifles were made, Floyd had a job getting rid of the old guns. By law, each state was entitled to its quota for militia use, but he was able to sell only 31,600 of them at $2.50 apiece. The outdated muskets were a drug on the market in both North and South. Then, in the spring of 1860, when he had about 250,000 of them on his hands, he shipped 40,000 to southern arsenals, along with 65,000 old flintlocks altered to percussion and 10,000 new rifles. This was doubtless done to make room for the new rifles in northern arsenals, and since the move was made when only calamity-howlers foresaw war, there was nothing irregular about it.

Not until the fall of 1860 did Floyd’s gun transactions take on a tinge of deviousness. In October, when South Carolina leaders were actively planning secession in the event of Lincoln’s election, Governor William H. Gist of that state moved to add 10,000 men to his militia, and therefore needed 10,000 muskets. He sent Thomas F. Drayton to Washington to buy them. Drayton saw Floyd, who agreed to sell the slate 10,000 smoothbore muskets provided it was done under wraps.

“As this interview with Mr. Secretary Floyd was both semi-official and confidential,” Drayton wrote Gist, “your Excellency will readily see the necessity … of appointing an agent to negotiate with him, rather than conduct the negotiations directly between the State and the department.”

By this time Carolina hotspurs were talking in such a truculent vein that Floyd decided it might not be discreet to sell them even to Drayton, who was a well-known South Carolinian. He suggested a more impersonal intermediary—the Bank of the Republic in New York, whose president, G. B. Lamar, was a southernborn secession sympathizer. The deal was completed, and South Carolina got the guns.

Viewed in retrospect, it was an unwise transaction, for these guns later shot holes in Yankee soldiers. The Secretary’s furtiveness gave the affair a conspiratorial air, yet South Carolina was still in the Union, still entitled to the arms under the quota system. Later, when the Palmetto men tried to buy 40,000 more muskets, Floyd turned them down cold.

This was at the time when Major Robert Anderson and his undersized garrison were stationed uneasily at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. Readily accessible from the mainland, the fort was a pushover for attack from the rear; local firebrands were threatening to take it over, and Anderson was appealing to Floyd for reinforcements. Even the most aggressive of the Carolinians knew they had no color of legal jurisdiction over a federal fort—certainly not until secession became a fact —but they were willing to use “popular indignation” as a cudgel over the administration. Let a single man or gun be sent to Anderson, they said, and there would be no restraining the people from attacking and overwhelming the garrison. It was South Carolina’s aim to keep the federal force defenseless until secession was voted, after which the state would negotiate for the forts and seize them if negotiation failed.

Floyd at first took the firm position that the forts were strictly a federal trust and that the Carolinians were using the threat of violence to gain a control they could not secure otherwise.

“You tell me,” he protested on one occasion, “that if any attempt is made to do what under ordinary circumstances is done every day, you will be unable to restrain your people. Suppose you are not able to restrain them now , am I bound to leave those garrisons unprotected, to the mercy of a mob; am I not bound to enable them to resist an unlawful violence which you cannot control?”

This was a sound stand, but he receded from it when two fellow Cabinet members, Jacob Thompson of Mississippi and Howell Cobb of Georgia, warned him of its perils. Floyd now said that rather than cause violence he “would not consent that a man nor a gun” be sent to Charleston. When President Buchanan, growing worried about Anderson’s position, talked of sending reinforcements, Floyd opposed it vehemently and with success. The Army chief, General Winfield Scott, who was strongly in favor of bolstering the garrison, got nowhere because Floyd had pushed him out of control and was handling all correspondence with Anderson himself.

Floyd’s next move was to send Major Don Carlos Buell to confer with Anderson and give him confidential instructions. On December 11 Buell told Anderson he would have to get along with his seventy-odd officers and men, but that if he were attacked or felt attack imminent, he could move his command across the channel to Fort Sumter, a far stronger bastion that was as yet unfinished and ungarrisoned. These instructions were put on paper, a copy of them being approved later by Floyd.

Possibly by this time the Secretary was so beset by woe that he did not know what he was doing. For two years he had been sponsoring financial irregularities that could not much longer be hidden. In 1858 he had started playing Santa Claus to the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, a transportation company holding government contracts to deliver supplies by horse and wagon to army posts on the western frontier. When William H. Russell, the Vermont-born head of the firm, came to him and admitted financial distress, Floyd was sympathetic. He later explained that he thought the Vermonter a man of vast resources whose embarrassment was only temporary. He also believed the company the only one equipped to deliver supplies across the plains, so that unless it survived, the army garrisons in the West would go hungry. Floyd thereupon hatched a scheme to keep Russell solvent.

He began accepting drafts drawn by Russell in anticipation of future work. These drafts were not in the form of money but were negotiable paper, signed by the Secretary of War, and Russell used them as security in borrowing cash from banks and individuals who believed the drafts to be legitimate and backed by the government. The contractor, delighted at this magic solution to his troubles, soon beat a path to Floyd’s door, asking for more drafts.

Floyd was remarkably accommodating. Russell meanwhile was being paid in full—in cash—for work his company had actually performed. The theory was that he would use this cash to pay oft and retire the outstanding drafts, but nothing of the sort happened. Since these transactions were unauthorized by law, the least the Secretary could have done, once he had entered into such a rubbery arrangement, was to make sure that Russell was paying off the earlier drafts and thus climbing out of the hole. Instead, Floyd just kept turning the crank, issuing more drafts, while Russell sank deeper into the red. In 1859 Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana heard about the practice through a legal client and spoke to Floyd, warning him it was risky. Floyd said he would cease, but did not. Early in 1860 Buchanan got wind of Floyd’s dealings, though he had no conception of the magnitude of the Secretary’s paper edifice, and ordered him sharply to stop it. Floyd agreed—and kept right on turning the crank.

But as Russell kept skidding closer to bankruptcy, Floyd’s own honor and reputation became deeply involved. If Russell’s drafts were allowed to go to default, those holding them, in the belief that they were guaranteed by the government, would cause an investigation and bring the whole business to light. Floyd now had to keep Russell from bankruptcy not only to feed the Army but to save himself from exposure and disgrace. By the summer of 1860 Russell was against the wall, unable to pay off some of the drafts. He had to have cold cash, and fast.

It happened that an Alabamian named Godard Bailey, a clerk in the Interior Department, was a connection of Floyd’s, his wife being a cousin of the Secretary. Bailey had got his job through Floyd’s influence. Although he was as poor as a churchmouse, Bailey was caretaker of a gold mine—$2,500,000 in negotiable bonds held in trust by the government for several Indian tribes. He knew of Floyd’s peril and wanted to help his benefactor. In July of 1860, Bailey met Russell in the War Department. They had a quick chat, after which Bailey returned to his office, took out $150,000 in Indian bonds and delivered them to Russell. In return Russell gave him his note for the same amount, which was valueless. In “helping” his friend Floyd, Bailey had come near outright theft on the strength of Russell’s promise that his embarrassment was only temporary and that he would return the bonds in ninety days.

For a native of Vermont, Russell had little respect for Yankee thrift. He used the bonds as security on which to borrow money, pay off some of his obligations, and continue frantic manipulations aimed at recouping previous losses. Soon he was broke again, the bonds in other hands. In September he went to Washington and hit Bailey for another “loan.” This time Bailey gave him $387,000 more, to “save the honor” of Secretary Floyd. But Russell ate up money like an elephant downing peanuts. More drafts were coming up for payment, and he had to satisfy the holders or all was lost. Meanwhile Bailey was doctoring his books to show that the bonds he had given away were still in the safe where they belonged. Protecting Floyd’s honor had become an extensive underground enterprise carried on—so Floyd and everybody else later swore—without his having the slightest knowledge of it.

In December, again hard up, Russell made another honor-saving call on Bailey, presenting the same alternatives—more money or ruin for everybody concerned. Bailey handed him $333,000 in Indian bonds. Previously Russell had given him his notes for the bonds, but now he took up the notes and gave Bailey instead a batch of the drafts signed by Floyd. Having rifled the Indians’ till for a total of $870,000, Russell gave as “security” Floyd’s drafts bearing a face value of $870,000, which Bailey hopefully locked in the safe. He might as well have stuffed it with old newspapers.

All this was going on in the background while the Secretary supposedly was grappling with the problem of preserving peace in Charleston. Although Floyd claimed to know nothing about the pilfering of the bonds, he well knew that the drafts he had authorized were in a bad way. While the nation faced crisis, the Cabinet officer chiefly concerned in protecting its interests was in a cold sweat about the exposure moving inexorably closer. Even in the best of circumstances Floyd was an executive failure. Under this dual stress he could hardly have been at his best.

Reversing his original determination to maintain Anderson’s garrison, he urged the President to withdraw the force that so angered the Charlestonians. For all his hopes of avoiding an outbreak, Buchanan refused such a surrender. Anderson stayed. By December, Captain John Foster, the army engineering officer supervising a body of workmen at Fort Sumter, was so fearful that the Charlestonians would seize his unguarded fort that he got forty muskets from the local arsenal to distribute among the workmen. Watchful citizens learned of the removal of the muskets and telegraphed a protest to Washington. Floyd, who had sold 10,000 muskets to the Carolinians, was outraged that his own men should have forty. He wired Foster, “If you have removed any arms, return them instantly.”

As yet he had made no overtly disloyal move. That came on December 20, 1860, when he quietly directed the ordnance bureau to send 113 heavy columbiad cannon and eleven 32-pountlers from the Pittsburgh arsenal to the federal forts at Ship Island, Mississippi, and Galveston. Both forts were unfinished, ungarrisoned, and far from ready for armament. Guns there would be useless, unguarded, and a handsome prize to be seized by secessionists. Unknown to the President or the Cabinet, the order went through, but when Unionists in Pittsburgh learned of it, they decided it could not go unprotested.

While this was brewing, Godard Bailey had reached the end of his rope. Knowing that an audit would expose him, on December 22 he wrote his boss, Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson, and admitted giving away $870,000 in Indian bonds. Thompson flew to the President, Bailey’s safe was opened, and in it were found the Floyd drafts in place of the missing bonds.

The resulting scandal was a cruel blow to an already unpopular administration. Instead of sacking Floyd instantly, Buchanan decided to permit him to resign, but he was so averse to unpleasant scenes that he asked the Secretary of State, now Jeremiah Black, to request Floyd to go. When Black declined, Buchanan got Vice President John C. Breckinridge to handle the matter. Breckinridge passed the bad news to Floyd, who, after some grumbling, consented to resign.

But he did not. He lingered on, discredited but still in office, while the newspapers had a holiday with the bond-and-draft scandal. Buchanan momentarily expected to receive the resignation, but it did not come. Meanwhile Russell and Bailey were arrested, and the House appointed a committee to investigate their transactions. South Carolina, now seceded and describing itself as a brand-new republic, sent commissioners to Washington to negotiate for the federal property in the state, hoping to buy Forts Moultrie and Sumter like so much real estate.

In Charleston, Major Anderson had been reviewing the instructions authorizing him to move to Sumter in case of attack or if attack seemed imminent. If he waited until an assault actually began, he was lost. On December 26 he secretly moved his garrison from Moultrie to Sumter, a formidable bastion surrounded by water and therefore not cursed by Moultrie’s indefensibility against land attack. It was a maneuver that took careful planning, courage, and plenty of luck. Andersen, a devout, unwarlike Kentuckian—who, in spite of his southern background, remained loyal to the Union—made the move entirely in the cause of peace, believing weak Fort Moultrie to be a standing incitement to attack.

Earlier in December Buchanan had held an informal talk with several South Carolina congressmen, who left with the distinct impression that he had assured them there would be no reinforcement, no change in the military status in Charleston. When the news of Anderson’s transfer to Sumter trickled in to Washington on December 27, the Carolina commissioners angrily said it was a breach of faith. This was most decidedly a change in the military status, they insisted—exactly what Buchanan had promised not to do. Within a week the elderly President had been rocked by the secession of South Carolina, then by the Floyd scandal and finally by Andersen’s move to Sumter, which made war a frightening possibility.

“My God!” he groaned. “Are calamities never to come singly?”

Although his resignation had been requested four days earlier, John Floyd still showed no intention of quitting. He saw in this new complication at Fort Sumter his chance to make a graceful exit, instead of being kicked out of the Cabinet in ignominy. The Secretary put on a fine show of offended righteousness, saying that Anderson had disobeyed orders and Buchanan had broken his “pledge.” Secretary of State Black, on the contrary, cheered Anderson’s move.

“Good,” he said. “I am glad of it. It is in precise accordance with his orders.”

“It is not,” Floyd snapped.

“But it is,” Black insisted. “I recollect the orders distinctly word for word.”

So the orders given Anderson via Major Buell were brought in. They not only supported Anderson but were endorsed by Floyd: “This is in conformity to my instructions to Major Buell.”

Floyd then retreated from this contention and barricaded himself behind the other—that Buchanan’s pledge had been broken. This was strange logic, for if Anderson’s move had indeed broken a presidential assurance, then Floyd himself, in issuing the order permitting the step, was responsible. Angrily he told Buchanan that “the solemn pledges of this Government have been violated by Major Anderson” and insisted that the only way to “vindicate our honor” and prevent war was to haul the garrison out entirely. On December 29, when it became clear that the President was not hauling out the garrison, Floyd resigned. In the South he was hailed by many as an honest fellow who had quit the Cabinet rather than have any part in pledge-breaking.

Just before Floyd resigned, however, Buchanan got another unpleasant surprise when a telegram from indignant Pittsburghers arrived in Washington to protest about the 124 cannon being readied for shipment south. The order was promptly rescinded. (The forts at Ship Island and Galveston later fell into Confederate hands, and so would the cannon had they been shipped there.)

At this same time the congressional committee was questioning reluctant witnesses in an effort to fix blame in the bond-and-draft scandal. Both Russell and Bailey insisted that Floyd was ignorant of the bond misappropriation. Russell, taking refuge in a leaky memory, could recall little about his pranks with the public funds but was certain of one thing—the money was gone.

When Floyd testified before the committee, he defended his practice of issuing drafts as the only way he could keep Russell in business and the frontier army fed. Under questioning he admitted an ignorance of the workings of his own department and a failure to keep adequate records of transactions involving millions that aroused the committee’s ire. They reported in part: “Whether this [Floyd’s] manifest contempt of counsel, disobedience of law, and violation of a solemn promise, can be reconciled with purity of private motives, and faithfulness to public trusts, is for the House to determine. It is the opinion of your committee that they cannot.”

A few days later Floyd went home to Virginia, so broke he had to borrow money to leave Washington. By now his cannon order had caused newspaper reporters to jump to the conclusion that he had followed a continuous practice of sending a disproportionate number of arms south. The cry that Floyd “armed the South” was heard everywhere. The belief lingered even after a House committee cleared the former Secretary, except in the case of the 124 cannon that never got away.

In the matter of the missing Indian bonds, however, Floyd was indicted for corruption in office, Russell and Bailey for fraud. Criminal prosecution of these men should have answered many interesting questions, but it never came to pass because the House had pulled an enormous boner. By an act of 1857, no person examined as a witness before either branch of Congress could be held to answer in a criminal case involving the matter upon which he had testified. Saved by a technicality, the accused men were beyond the power of the law.

Considering Floyd’s capacity for creating chaos, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that when he quit Washington the Union’s gain was the South’s loss. When he later became a Confederate general, he showed no transcendent military skill and had poor luck in his opponents. In February of 1862 he joined General Simon Bolivar Buckner and General Gideon Johnson Pillow in defending Fort Donelson in Tennessee. With Grant pressing hard, Floyd handed over command of the fort to Buckner and escaped with a part of his force, leaving Buckner to surrender. For this he was relieved of command, returning in considerable humiliation to Virginia. He died there in 1863, a man so downright disorderly and careless that it is still hard to tell where confusion ended and mischief began.

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