Was The Secretary Of War A Traitor?


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.