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Was The Secretary Of War A Traitor?
On the brink of the Civil War southern arsenals began to fill with thousands of federal guns, sent there by a Cabinet officer
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
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.