Historical Society of Southwest Virginia

 

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JOHN B. FLOYD
From
Southwest Virginia to the Buchanan Cabinet 1847-1856
By Edward L. Henson, Jr.

 

Sketch of John B. Floyd

 

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.  

The 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 Sumter.

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 Carolina College 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 status.

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." (11)

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 Wythe County, 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." (21)
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..." (22)
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 county seats.
In August, he addressed a "quiet and respectful" audience in Lebanon. 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 new governor.
(28)
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.

Footnotes:
(1) Wise 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 Papers.
(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 exact
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), 79-80.
(17) Abingdon Democrat
(18) Gaines, "Constitutional Convention," 306ff.
(19) Summers, Southwest
Virginia, 495.
(20) George G. Shackelford to present writer,
Blacksburg, Virginia October 1965.
(21) John B. Floyd to his mother,
Richmond, 15 March 1851: Floyd-Johnston-Sargeant Papers.
(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 1856.
(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

 

 

 

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