Was The Secretary Of War A Traitor?


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.