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John Buchanan Floyd (1806–1863)

John Buchanan Floyd was the governor of Virginia, secretary of war, a brigadier general in the Confederate army, and a lawyer and planter who lived in Arkansas for a period.

John Buchanan Floyd was born on the Smithfield Plantation, outside Blacksburg, Virginia, on June 1, 1806. His father, John Floyd, served in the House of Representatives and as the governor of Virginia. His mother, Letitia Preston Floyd, came from a prominent Virginia family. Floyd was the oldest of twelve children.

Floyd attended South Carolina College and opened a law practice in Abington, Virginia, in 1829. The next year, he married Sarah Buchanan Preston. The two adopted a daughter.

In 1834, Floyd and a brother moved to Arkansas, purchasing a cotton plantation named Swan Lake in Phillips County. The brothers were initially successful, as the price of cotton rose for several years, but the Panic of 1837 destroyed the cotton market. Floyd was in debt, balancing the purchase of land and slaves on obtaining large returns from ever increasing cotton crops. At the same time, he almost died from a fever that killed many of his slaves. Overwhelmed with debt, Floyd lost the plantation to creditors, and the Phillips County sheriff auctioned off his property. Floyd returned to Virginia, where he once again practiced law.

Floyd followed his father into politics in 1847, when he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. During this period, the governor of the state was selected by the General Assembly, and Floyd was chosen by the General Assembly for that office in 1849. Floyd called for a constitutional convention, which convened, and the document was adopted in 1851. Among the changes implemented by this constitution was the elimination of a property requirement to vote and the direct election of the governor as well as the extension of the term of that office from three to four years. Floyd became the last governor to both be appointed by the legislature and serve a three-year term in office.

Serving as the governor until 1852, Floyd returned to Abington and reentered law practice. In 1855, he was reelected to the House of Delegates and was selected by President James Buchanan to serve as secretary of war in 1857. Floyd organized the Utah Expedition of 1857–58 while in office.

In 1860, Floyd appointed a cousin through marriage, Joseph E. Johnston, as quartermaster general of the army, passing over more senior officers. He was later accused of profiting from government military contracts and transferring arms to military installations throughout the South before secession to allow for those states to easily seize the weapons. Many of these shipments occurred after John Brown’s raid in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Neither charge was ever proven, and after a disagreement with Buchanan over the president’s refusal to order the abandonment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Floyd resigned on December 29, 1860.

Returning to Virginia, Floyd was appointed as a major general in the army of Virginia, and after his home state seceded, he received an appointment as a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He took command of the Army of the Kanawha in August and led the force at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry on September 10. Despite this Confederate defeat, Floyd remained in command until January 1862, when he was transferred to the Western Theater.

Floyd took command of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River on February 13, 1862, just as Major General Ulysses Grant attacked the position. After several days of combat, Floyd and his fellow generals decided that the fort must be surrendered. Unwilling to become a prisoner, Floyd passed command of the fort to Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, who in turn passed command to Brigadier General Simon Buckner, who surrendered on February 16. Floyd escaped through the encircling Federal lines accompanied by several regiments that he brought from Virginia, leaving the bulk of the Confederate army, including an Arkansas regiment, to be surrendered.

Floyd and his command reached Nashville, Tennessee, where they helped evacuate the city before it fell to Union forces the next month. On March 11, 1862, Floyd was removed from command without the benefit of a court of inquiry by order of President Jefferson Davis. He returned to Virginia, where he resumed his position with the Virginia militia but soon returned to Abington. In ill health from military service, he died on August 26, 1863. Sarah Floyd died in 1879, and both are buried in Sinking Spring Cemetery in Abingdon.

For additional information:
Hamilton, James. The Battle of Fort Donelson. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.

Pinnegar, Charles. Brand of Infamy: A Biography of John Buchanan Floyd. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Warner, Ezra. Generals in Gray: Lives of Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.   

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated 9/27/2017

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