John Buchanan Floyd was born on the Smithfield plantation in Montgomery County, Virginia, on June 1, 1806, the son of John Floyd, who was governor of Virginia (1830–1834) during the Nat Turner Insurrection. He attended South Carolina College, where he studied law, and after graduating in 1829, practiced for a brief period in Abingdon, Virginia. In 1830 he married his cousin, Sally Buchanan Preston, granddaughter of General William Campbell, who led the defeat of British forces at the Battle of King’s Mountain during the American Revolution, and sister of William C. Preston (1794–1860), a senator from South Carolina. Caught up in the excitement of the cotton boom, Floyd and one of his brothers relocated to Arkansas, where they invested in a cotton plantation. While this enterprise was initially profitable, the panic of 1837 left Floyd with massive debts and he lost the plantation. A fever, meanwhile, killed many of Floyd’s slaves and, very nearly, Floyd himself. He returned to Abingdon and successfully practiced law.
A Democrat, Floyd was elected to the General Assembly in 1847, and in 1849 that body voted him governor of Virginia on a promise of internal improvements aimed especially at the state’s western counties. He immediately called for a state constitutional convention, which met in Richmond from October 14, 1850, until August 1, 1851. Known as the Reform Convention, it took up several unresolved controversies from the 1829–1830 convention, in particular the apportionment of representation to the General Assembly and the qualifications for suffrage. In the end, the poorer, less powerful western portion of the state gained some representation against the eastern portion, and, in another victory for westerners, property restrictions for suffrage were eliminated. The election of governor was also turned over to the people, and the executive’s term increased from three to four years.
After his three-year term, Floyd retired from politics to practice law again, but in 1855 he sprang to the defense of the Democratic Party in its battle against the insurgent Know-Nothing Party. The Know-Nothings were mostly young, white Protestants who rushed in to fill the gap left by the collapsed Whig Party. Their views tended to be anti-liquor, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigration, which meant that they were a threat to the Democrats, whose rolls were being filled by many hard-drinking Catholic emigrants from Europe. Partly as a reward for his staunch service, the newly elected Democratic president, James Buchanan, appointed Floyd secretary of war in 1857.
In an administration viewed as corrupt and ineffective, Floyd’s tenure at the War Department nevertheless stood out. Critics accused him of shady dealings involving padded government contracts that were then used as collateral for bonds from an Indian trust fund at the Department of the Interior. In 1860, he appointed a family member—Joseph E. Johnston, a cousin through marriage—quartermaster general of the army over more senior men, including Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, making enemies of these future Confederate generals as well as the future Confederate president and former secretary of war, Jefferson Davis. (The dispute would follow Davis to Richmond during the war, when in 1861 he ranked A. S. Johnston and Lee above J. E. Johnston.) As the secession crisis heated up, Northerners additionally accused Floyd of funneling arms and supplies from Northern to Southern armories. Finally, after disagreements with Buchanan over the Fort Sumter crisis in December 1860, Floyd resigned his position on December 29 and returned to Virginia. There, he recruited a brigade of troops after the state’s secession on May 23, 1861, and was commissioned a brigadier general.
During the Civil War
Floyd’s military career began in western Virginia. If he had once served the region well politically, he was less effective militarily. As head of the 3,500-man Army of the Kanawha, he spent much of his time during the late summer and autumn of 1861 bickering with Brigadier General Henry A. Wise, another former governor of Virginia. Under Lee’s leadership, the Confederates lost much of what is now West Virginia, and in the winter of 1861, Floyd was transferred west. There, General Albert Sidney Johnston assigned him to command Fort Donelson, an ill-defended, fifteen-acre fortification on the Cumberland River in Tennessee.
Floyd arrived on February 13, 1862, just in time for the fort to come under attack by a combined navy and army task force under Ulysses S. Grant. After Union ironclads surprisingly were repulsed, Grant laid siege. In the icy wind and rain of February 15, Confederates attempted to break out, and the fierce fighting left almost a thousand combined dead on both sides and the Confederate troops under Floyd still trapped. Historians have since charged Floyd with indecision and even a lack of involvement, both in planning and in leading the fighting; and when it came time to surrender, he fled. He and his second in command, Gideon Pillow, were both political generals, and Floyd, because of his controversial tenure as secretary of war, was especially fearful of being taken prisoner. As a result, he and 1,500 Virginia troops escaped to Nashville, Tennessee, in the middle of the night, leaving command to Pillow. He in turn passed it on to Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, who then was forced to accept Grant’s famous demand of “unconditional surrender.”
The following month, after Floyd had helped to evacuate Nashville—the first Confederate capital to fall to Union forces—he was relieved of command by Davis, without even the courtesy of a court of inquiry. Floyd returned to Abingdon, and the state government of Virginia appointed him a major general in the militia. He campaigned around the Big Sandy River with partisan bands, but the hardship and fatigue harmed his already poor health. Floyd died at his adopted daughter’s house on August 23, 1863.