JOHN B. FLOYD
Virginia to the Buchanan Cabinet 1847-1856
By Edward L. Henson, Jr.
In a rural society any event
which gives men an excuse for congregating is always tinged with excitement.
Until the inexorable march of industrialism provided more frequent
and more regularized means of bringing men together, nothing could
surpass the court days either in hearty good fellowship or in exuberant
violence. Stories were exchanged, horses and knives were traded, whiskey
was drunk, and fights were provoked. (1) When the February term of
court convened in Abingdon, Virginia,
in 1861, there was a new element of excitement and contention injected
into an already explosive situation. Charging Northern aggression
against their domestic institutions, seven states of the Lower South
had found secession preferable to remaining in the Union
under the rule of Lincoln and the Republican party.
South Carolina had been
out of the Union since December 20 and had
been followed by five of her neighbors at intervals throughout the
month of January. Now word had just been received that Texas
had dissolved its bonds with the government in Washington.
Not one of the hundreds of
men who poured into the little county seat was without an opinion
as to what his state ought to do. An observant stranger circulating
among the knots of earnest, gesticulating men would probably have
decided that, on the issue of secession or union, opinion was about
evenly divided. He would also have experienced a sudden sense of apprehension
when, without warning, the steady drone of argument stopped, and all
eyes turned to a piece of fluttering cloth suspended across the street.
Someone had raised the flag of the Confederacy.
moment of quiet was replaced by the cheering of the secessionists
mingled with the outraged cries of the unionists. Above the din could
be heard the voice of William B. Clark, descendant of one who fought
at King's Mountain, urging those who were loyal to the Union
to tear down "that damned rag." There were as many prepared
to carry out this suggestion as there were those to prevent it. Only
the timely intervention of one of the town's patriarchs prevented
the shedding of blood. (2) The forces which would result in four years
of total war were clearly present in Southwest Virginia
In explaining the presence
of secessionist sentiment in this isolated and mountainous region,
most of the usual reasons prove inadequate. In the eight counties
which extreme Southwest Virginia, the Negro
population, free and slave, constituted less than eleven percent of
the total. (3) Here was no insuperable obstacle to emancipation and
no cause for fear of servile insurrection. It was an area of sheep-raising
and grain-growing where cotton was neither king nor even subject.
Although a few families had sufficient land to enable them to affect
a pseudo-plantation atmosphere, the heart of the economy lay in the
efforts of the small farmer who had the mountaineer's distrust of
pretension. It cannot be said that the Southwestern area was inherently
subservient to those who controlled the state government three hundred
miles to the east. It had fought successfully for manhood suffrage,
for internal improvements, and for tax adjustment. It possessed a
healthy two-party system and was accorded all the respect due to section
that often wielded the balance of power. Southwest Virginia
was bordered on three sides by Eastern Tennessee,
Southern Kentucky, and the area which would
become West Virginia.
All these neighbors revealed striking similarities to her in geography
and in economic interests, and all of them were pervaded by a strong
unionist sentiment throughout the four years of conflict. Yet when
the time came to make the decision for union or secession, "Little
Tennessee," as the politicians called this section of Virginia,
would find itself aligned with the secessionist cause. In explaining
this seeming anomaly, one might turn to a study of a prominent resident
of this area who was in the main-stream of events in the decade before
Even if he had possessed no personal ambition, John Buchanan Floyd's
family ties would have been enough to have thrust him into a position
of leadership in almost any society. He was born in Montgomery
County, Virginia, on
June 1, 1806. His father, John Floyd, was an intelligent
and forceful governor of Virginia
and was also an eminent physician, having studied with Benjamin Rush.
His mother was Letitia Preston, a shrewd
and capable woman who could run the Governor's Mansion and preside
over the family salt mines with equal facility. (4) Through birth
and through marriage his connections thus included the Prestons
and the Johnstons, families with enormous political and military prestige
both in Virginia and
in South Carolina. At
the insistence of his father, young John B. Floyd was sent to South
for his education.
There he had an opportunity to strengthen his ties with relatives
living in that state, and to display an unusual intelligence and facility
of expression. He also revealed a certain petulance which would remain
with him throughout his life. (5) Upon graduation he married his cousin,
Sallie Preston, and established a law practice in Wytheville,
Virginia. He soon found himself
caught up in the flood of adventurers who passed daily through the
streets of Wytheville on their way to Cumberland Gap
and the opportunities of the newly-opened west. He arrived in Arkansas
in time to have his plans wrecked by the panic of 1837 and by an outbreak
of fever among his slaves. Between April and August of that year,
his medical expenses alone amounted to $260. (6) He ultimately lost
forty slaves, about forty thousand dollars, and his own health. After
this disaster, he returned to his brother's home at Burke's Garden,
Virginia, where the clear air was credited with speeding his recovery.
By the summer of 1839 he was hard at work with his brothers in an
effort to repair the family fortune. With "beef selling at enormous
prices everywhere," they determined to buy cattle. It was, however,
exceedingly difficult for a man with a forty thousand dollar debt
to come by the needed capital, and Floyd "...found it impossible
to make any negotiations with any of the Banks for a single dollar."
(7) After meeting with indifferent success in this family venture,
John B. Floyd moved in 1842 to Abingdon where he practiced law. He
could soon write to his mother.
"My success here has been beyond what I could have calculated
upon. I feel that I am making my way in spite of many obstacles...There
is nothing I think lacking for me here but industry and constancy.
These requisites you know are difficult to me for I am lazy and national.
But I hope I have nevertheless manliness enough to stick to the true
course. My practice in this county has been worth to me since I came
here a thousand dollars whereas I only calculated on four hundred
- and it is still increasing." (8) Anyone who reads the correspondence
of the Nineteenth Century is struck by the emphasis which is placed
upon the concept of "manliness." Every human action was
characterized as "manly" or "unmanly". What reaction
this would have upon the attitudes of Southern manhood at the time
of Sumter or Lincoln's call for troops is incalculable. That Floyd
was thoroughly imbued with this spirit is seen further in this letter
to his mother.
"The cloud my dear mother which covers us now is indeed to all
appearances a thick & a dark one but I do not despair - far from
it - the fury of the storm has already been expended and we can now
begin to look around at the effects of it. What are they? Yours sons
are stripped of their property but there is no blot upon one of them.
I know and feel that their standing as men is uninjured and untouched."
(9) In spite of his beliefs to the contrary, Floyd found not only
financial solvency in Abingdon, but he also found a place in its society.
For example, he soon became involved in its church affairs. When a
conference of the Methodist
Church sought to deprive
one Rev. Thomas Stringfield of his "ordination
parchments" for selling a slave, Floyd was one of those who interceded
in his behalf. Stringfield's wife was the
actual owner and the sale was a forced one in satisfaction of a judgment
for a debt. A committee consisting of Colonel David Campbell, General
Peter Johnston, eldest brother of Joseph E. Johnston and the brother
of John B. Floyd's sister's husband, and Floyd himself entered the room where the Methodist
Conference was meeting and announced that it was their duty to inform
them."...that such an abolitionist body as this cannot sit in
the state of Virginia."
(10) The case of Stringfield was speedily reviewed and he was restored to full
By 1847, Floyd had been elected to the House of Delegates and had
achieved the rank of captain in the Virginia
militia. In 1848, he campaigned throughout "Little Tennessee"
for Lewis Cass, accusing the Whigs of "...attempting to practice
the deceptions of 1840 upon the people." Although the Richmond
Enquirer could never be accused of impartiality, this description
of Floyd as a budding politician is of some interest: "If you
were ever to hear Floyd once at the forum, you would want to hear
him again. He never fails to illustrate his views by anecdotes, which
are inimitable, throughout his addresses. We have in him a zealous,
able and eloquent standard bearer, without fear and without reproach."
It was during this campaign that the talents of John B. Floyd came
to the attention of Henry A. Wise, an ambitious politician whose chief
strength lay in his championing of a program of internal improvements
for the western sections of Virginia.
In exchange for this support, the west was expected to help maintain
the position of the eastern slave-holders. (12) There was need for
increased solidarity between the sections of the state. There had
been a split in the Democratic party in Virginia
when the followers of Calhoun opposed the Mexican War. (13)
There was then a danger of creating in miscrocosm
the situation which would ultimately dissolve the Union:
the building of a sectional party in Virginia
which would favor territorial expansion and internal improvements
while opposing slaver. Because of a rapid growth in white population
relative to that of the Tidewater section, the western sections were
already challenging the stagnant east. So long as Virginia
remained one of the two states without universal manhood suffrage,
the shift in power could be temporarily forestalled. There was however,
already agitation for a constitutional convention to remove this anachronism.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the shrewd Henry A. Wise and others
began a campaign to cement Southwest Virginia
to the interests of the Eastern Shore. They
did this with prizes such as the Southwestern Turnpike, a macadamized
road which would begin in Salem
and extend through Wytheville and Abingdon to the Tennessee
line. (14) Another effort at solidarity was the election of John B.
Floyd to the governorship in December 1848.
In the election, the last by the legislature, Floyd was elected as
a western man with eastern principles - a lateral doughface, as it
were. The delegates from those counties which would soon comprise
West Virginia rejected
him almost to a man as did those who represented the Valley. With
few exceptions, his support came from those areas of heavy slave concentration
in the east and from the mountain counties of "Little Tennessee."
(15) When Governor Floyd opened the General Assembly of 1849, he recommended
the calling of a convention to construct a new state constitution.
The call for free manhood suffrage, the popular election of state
and county officials, and certain each section would have its distinct
motives. In the East, the Jacksonian wing
of the Democratic party wanted the support
of the growing laboring class, whereas their western counterparts
were interested in a system of representation which would be more
sensitive to their sectional needs. Even the Whigs, out of power and
feeling that any change would be for the better, supported the general
movement. (16) John B. Floyd's brother, Benjamin Rush, delegate from
took a leading part in the convention. The interests of the western
section are seen in the report of one of his speeches: "We had
been asked by the gentlemen from Fauquier 'how long was the patience
of the East to be abused by the eternal clamor of the West for the
control of their purse strings.' Not a moment replied Mr. F. That
was not what they wanted. They clamored for justice, for right, for
their political equality, and would never desist until it was obtained.
'Why should not 500 western voters have as much political power and
influence as 500 western.'" (17)
The new constitution proved to be popular in "Little Tennessee"
with 3,785 votes cast for it and only 360 against. The adoption was
a victory for the western leaders and their Jacksonian
allies in the East. (18) Another victory for Floyd and Southwest Virginia
came when the General Assembly incorporated the Virginia and Tennessee
Railroad Company in the 1849 session.(19)
John B. Floyd achieved at least several of his purposes during his
term. A new constitution had been brought forth around which all sections
of the state could rally. East-West differences had been minimized
by the chattering of a railroad which would stimulate commerce and
communication between the two sections. If Floyd's tenure also strengthened
what one historian has called the "Abingdon-Columbia, S. C. axis,"
(20) it also brought solidarity to his own state and stilled the sectional
controversies which had long agitated the General Assembly.
These accomplishments seemed to appease, for the time at least, the
feeling of alienation and failure which had plagued Floyd earlier.
As he neared the end of his term, he wrote to his mother:
"If I have in your estimation, lived not altogether unworthy
of my father's character, then indeed I am satisfied, and I hope it
may be excused in me saying to my mother that I feel I have done something
towards rekindling a spirit in Virginia (towards)...progress and improvement."
At the end of his gubernatorial term, John B. Floyd returned to Abingdon
where he lived quietly as a county seat lawyer. He was induced to
resume on active political career, however, by the rise of the Know
Nothing party which, with growing popularity in the eastern section
of the state, threatened to crack the solidarity which Floyd had labored
to achieve. The first trial of strength in the South for the new party
would come in the gubernatorial election of 1856. Floyd's friend,
Henry A. Wise, would run against Thomas A. Flourney,
who bore the Whig-Know Nothing banner. This would be a supreme test
of Wise's long-range strategy of sectional cooperation, and Floyd
and his friends were confident that they could deliver the votes.
The Abingdon Democrat reflected their optimism:
"Since Mr. Wise made his appearance in the Southwest, everything
has put on a bright and flattering appearance...The Abolition Know
Nothing concern is growing 'small by degrees and beautifully less...'
Let Eastern Virginia but half do her duty,
let Mr. Wise be but half sustained...and we will make up all your
shortcomings in the West...Scarce a trace of Know Nothingism will be left in Little Tennessee. On Monday (the
Know Nothing candidate for the State Senate) spoke at our Courthouse,
and was replied to (by) Ex. Governor Floyd - and such a skinning,
'Oh, Lordy!' Governor Floyd is tanning hides at a round rate..."
With the supercharged oratory, the violent editorials, and the "tanning
of hides," there was no facet of daily life which did not take
on political significance. When the chief engineer of the projected
railroad visited in Abingdon in the spring of 1855, he was apparently
indiscreet enough to betray some political preferences. The Abingdon
Democrat immediately charged that "he knew all about Know Nothingism
and nothing about the work of which he had charge." It was assumed
that the Know Nothings, who were by this time called "abolutionists"
by the Democrat, were deliberately sabotaging the railroad construction,
or so the unsuspecting voter was supposed to believe. "It is
important that the voters should know that Messrs. Floyd and (William
K.) Heiskell are in favor of completing
the railroad and that speedily," the newspaper declared. "Whey
they go down to the Legislature next winter they will suggest prompt
and effective measures to remedy the many abuses which have crept
into the management of our public works." (23)
Every age must have its public heroes and, in the Nineteenth Century,
this place was largely filled by the politicians. They were the entertainers,
the gladiators, and the preceptors who added a touch of glamor,
humor, and vicarious excitement to an otherwise drab, melancholy,
and sickly age. Something of the place occupied by the politician
is seen in an editorial appearing int he
Democrat under the title, "A Dangerous Character Abroad."
"Our sympathies for Governor Floyd were deeply excited by reading
the graphic description of the discussion at Jonesville, Lee County,
between that gentleman and Mr. George E. Naff,
published in the last issue of the organ of the abolitionists. It
will hardly be believed, we know, but Governor Floyd was badly used
up...But seriously, it is a good joke; Mr. George E. Naff
demolished Gov. Floyd in a discussion of Lee Courthouse! O, cruel,
cruel Naff!" (24) Floyd campaigned
energetically throughout the summer, speaking at Abingdon and in other
In August, he addressed a "quiet and respectful" audience
The Abingdon Democrat reported it with its accustomed partisan exaggeration:
"He then spoke of Know-Nothingism and
the objectionable manner of its proscriptive policy...They (the Know
Nothings) rose up with one accord and in the person of an elderly
gentleman who should have known better...they undertook an interruption...The
voice of Governor Floyd was heard, and the excited multitude became
still, and with infinite tact they were led once more back to the
subject...This speech was powerful and effective. It made its mark
and will tell in November..." (25)
Whether through the efficacy of speeches such as this one or the assistance
which he received from Henry A. Wise, Floyd was elected to the House
of Delegates and the tide of Know Nothingism
in Southwest Virginia was halted. In spite
of the opposition of John Letcher, Fayette McMullen, and other members
of the Ritchie wing, who did not quite trust him, Wise defeated Flournoy
by a majority of over then thousand votes. (26) Because of his interest
in internal improvements, Floyd was immediately appointed chairman
of the Committee of Roads and Internal Navigation when the General
Assembly convened. (27) In this capacity, he discharged his duties
without apparent sectional favoritism, supporting with equal fervor
proposals for the James River and Kanawha
Canal, eastern roads and
turnpikes, and the Abingdon and Cumberland Gap
railroad. He was also instrumental in adding another county, to his
district when Wise County
was formed in 1856 out of parts of Lee, Scott, and Russell counties.
It was, in fact, Floyd who moved that the county be named for the
Floyd's sensitivity to the problems of those areas having heavier
slave concentration is seen in the frequency with which he introduced
legislation which was connected with slavery. For example, he introduced
a resolution asking that inquiry be made "into the expediency
of appropriating like sums of money to the use of free people of color
who shall emigrate to any non-slave-holding
states and settle permanently therein that are now appropriated for
the removal of such persons to Liberia."
(29) He was also placed on a committee to study means "more effectually
to prevent the escape of slaves." (30)
As in Floyd's first legislative term, which had been truncated by
his election to the governorship, his second tenure would be interrupted
by a call to higher office. This small-town lawyer from a remote section
of Virginia would become
James Buchanan's Secretary of War. (31)
When the time came for the National Democratic Party to name a successor
to Franklin Pierce, Governor Wise led the Virginia
delegation to the Cincinnati
convention. With his prestige much enhanced by his recent victory
over Know-Nothingism in his own state, he used this new stature to the
fullest advantage, obtaining the promise of a cabinet post for the
man who had carried for him Southwest Virginia.
There is evidence of some lack of gratitude on Floyd's part - he thought
he should have had the vice-presidential nomination! (32) In spite
of his disappointment, Floyd campaigned throughout the summer of 1856
for James Buchanan whom he called a "fitting exponent of...national
principles (and) the only candidate now before the people capable
of controlling the excited political elements of the country."
(33) The rigors of his campaign in "Little Tennessee" are
illustrated by this description: "The Governor (Floyd) went on
from Russell to Gladeville, Wise County
a distance of 41 miles, where he addressed some 3 or 400 citizens
in the open air...We understand that some 3 or 4 political conversions
to the support of Buchanan were among the visible effects of the Governor's
address. Indeed, one gentleman, a citizen of Wise, told the writer
that but seven K. N.'s went to the meeting and only two K. N.'s left it...The Democrats of Wise are
sanguine of eradicating Know-Nothingism
from their county..." (34) The climax of Floyd's efforts on behalf
of Buchanan came when he addressed a huge gathering on Wall Street
in New York. (35) With
the energetic efforts of Wise and Floyd and the magic of the watchword
"Anti-abolitionism," James Buchanan received the largest
majority ever accorded by the Old Dominion to a Democratic candidate
until that time. In addition, the jubilant Democrats carried every
congressional district in the state. (36) This was indeed solidarity
- in the Southwest, in the state, and in the Democratic party.
It did not seem possible to Floyd that any conflict of principles
could estrange him from the administration of which he was about to
become a part. In a letter welcoming him into the Cabinet, as Secretary
of War, the President-elect felt that he "...need not specify
the principles on which the administration shall be conducted, as
they may be found in the resolutions of the Cincinnati Convention,
so ably enforced by yourself throughout the
late Presidential canvass." (37) By October of 1857, Floyd was
settled into the routine of his office and could write to his wife
that he was "was...getting on very quietly and pleasantly."
He apparently attacked his duties with energy and dedication: "No
one scarcely has been here...and consequently
I have my uninterrupted opportunity for study & work. I go into
town at 9 and I return at four so my evenings are quite long."
(38) Actually there was present here something more than the wistful
complaint of a husband separated by distance from his wife. Floyd
did not fit into the circle of admirers, sycophants, and bons vivants who surrounded the
gay bachelor president. He would soon became alienated from most of
the cabinet, from James Buchanan, from the National Democratic Party,
and, ultimately, from the United States Government. Thus it was that
John B. Floyd served on the single stars of a Confederate Brigadier
General five months after resigning his position of civilian control
over the nation's military establishment. During the early days of
the War, he disagreed violently with General Henry A. Wise during
the course of a joint operation. He also quarreled with Jefferson
Davis, who relieved him of his command after a controversial withdrawal
from Fort Donelson.
Floyd returned to Abingdon where he died on 26 August 1863 at the age of 57. Towards the end of the war,
Union troops burned his house and most of his papers. His separation
was complete even from the historians who would seek to understand
this complex and unfortunate man.
County was organized in February, 1856. At its first Court day, "a fight occurred
between a man named Dickenson and another named Carrico,
which resulted in the death of Carrico."
Abingdon Democrat, 9 August 1856.
(2) Lewis P. Summers, History of Southwest Virginia (Richmond, 1903), 513.
(3) This compares with about 32% for the whole state. Conclusions
in this paragraph are based on reports of seventh and eighth censuses.
(4) John B. Floyd to his mother, Tazewell Court House, 26 March 1846:
Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant Papers, Clinch Valley
College Library, Wise, Virginia
(5) John B. Floyd to his mother, Columbia, South Carolina, 5 July
1829: Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant Papers.
(6) Bill, Lewis Shanks, M. D. to John B. Floyd, Buck Island, 14 August 1837: Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant
(7) John B. Floyd to George Rogers Clark Floyd, Thorn Spring, Virginia, 19 June 1938: Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant Papers.
(8) Sally Preston Floyd to George Rogers Clark Floyd, ibid.
(9) John B. Floyd to his mother, Abingdon, 23 January 1843, ibid.
(10) Mrs. J. H. Mongle, "Early Methodism
in Southwest Virginia," in Washington County Historical Society
Bulletin, No. 7, December 31, 1942, 1-7. Mrs. Mongle
places this event in 1835 which is chronologically impossible. The
present writer has fixed this date 1845 by certain internal evidence.
(11) Richmond Enquirer, 8 September 1848
(12) Charles H. Ambler, Sectionialism in
Virginia f rom
1776 to 1861 (Chicago, 1910), 243
(13) Ibid, The analogy in the next sentence is not meant to be an
one. The Republican party did not favor territorial
expansion, but they did favormeans of stimulating
settlement of existing territory.
(14) Summers, Southwest Virginia, 507
(15) Journal of the House of Delegates, 1848-49, 61-62. (16) Francis
P. Gaines, Jr., "The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850-51,"
unpublished doctoral dissertation, (University of Virginia, 1950),
(17) Abingdon Democrat
(18) Gaines, "Constitutional Convention," 306ff.
(19) Summers, Southwest Virginia, 495.
(20) George G. Shackelford to present writer, Blacksburg, Virginia October
(21) John B. Floyd to his mother, Richmond, 15 March 1851: Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant
(22) Abingdon Democrat, 25 April 1855
(23) Abingdon Democrat, 19 May 1855
(24) Ibid, 19 May 1855. Naff was Commonwealth's
Attorney of Washington County from 1855 until he became
president of Snide Female College, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1858. He was only 26 at
the time of this encounter and died at 33 of erysipelas. See biographical
sketches in Summers, Southwest Virginia.
(25) Abingdon Democrat, 23 August 1855
(26) Shanks, Secession Movement, 48
(27) Journal, House of Delegates, 1855-56 Session, 5 December 1855.
(28) Ibid, 15 February 1856
(29) Journal, House of Delegates, 7 January
(30) Ibid, 8 December 1855
(31) The present writer has corresponded
with a friend, George G. Shackelford of the VPI History department,
concerning this apparent paradox. His answer is worthy of quotation:
"The Abingdon-Columbia, S. C. axis kept JBF in the increasingly
southernly orientation of the Democracy.
In goals, tho' not in means, WBP (William
Ballard Preston) is not an exception to the
rule...It is almost as if the dynasty was determined to hold on to
the living of Bray no matter what king may reign. JBF was the best
counterweight before Letcher to Whiggery
in the 50's that the decayed Junto could find. In this light, a cabinet post for JBF was
a logical move, since the Whigs had given one to WBP in the triumph
of old Zach."
(32) Henry A. Wise to James L. Kemper, 12 June 1856, Kemper Papers
(33) Abingdon Democrat, 3 July 1856
(34) Ibid, 23 August 1856
(35) John W. Johnston, "John Buchanan Floyd," John P. Branch
Historical Papers, (Randolph-Macon College, 1913), 81
(36) Ambler, Sectionalism in Virginia, 307
(37) Robert W. Hughes, "Major General John B. Floyd," in
A. E. Pollard, lee and His Lieutenants (Richmond, 1867), 789.
(38) John B. Floyd to his wife, Washington, 10
October 1857: Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant Papers.
Pages 42 to 49