Well-placed members of the Knights of the Golden Circle plotted to send Federal arms to the South.
In the decade leading up to the Civil War, a fledgling group called the Knights of the Golden Circle joined forces with a well-establish Southern society known as the Order of the Lone Star. The Knights were the brainchild of George W.L. Bickley of Ohio, a charlatan jack-of-all-trades with Virginia roots who opposed government intrusion into the rights of the Southern slave states. The OLS, with more than 15,000 members in at least 50 chapters, had long been bent on establishing a slaveholding country extending from the American South to Mexico and the Caribbean. Bickley’s hybrid faction adopted the Knights’ name and continued pushing for states’ rights in the South and resisting further federal encroachment on the nation’s slaveholders. Among the Knights’ most powerful members was U.S. Secretary of War John Floyd. As war clouds gathered, Floyd used his position in Buchanan’s administration to direct federal munitions and manpower to support the South. Those efforts would have a significant impact as Southern states began to secede in the winter of 1860-61.
Buchanan’s Cabinet was rife with secessionist sentiment. A member of the U.S. Army who had infiltrated a Knights of the Golden Circle council of war in November 1860 noted that Floyd, Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb and even Vice President John Breckinridge were members of the order, and revealed that directives had been given “to seize Navy-Yards, Forts &c, while KGC members were still Cabinet officers and Senators.” A year before Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, in fact, Floyd had secured “large sums from the U.S. Treasury” and established “plans for securing arms from the U.S. Arsenals and for possessing all the southern fortresses.”
By November 1860, a string of 30 federal forts stretched along the U.S. coastline, mostly in the South, constructed after the War of 1812 to protect against seaward assaults. As Southern states moved toward secession, avid secessionists known as fire-eaters demanded that these coastal forts, as well as numerous other interior forts and arsenals built across the South, be returned to the power of the states where they were located.
Controversy marked much of Floyd’s time in public office. After serving three terms in Congress, he became governor of Virginia in the early 1850s, only to have his tenure stained by a banking scandal and financial irregularities.
A strong proponent of states’ rights and American expansionism, Floyd saw himself as a bold man of action who preferred not to be bothered by administrative details. That was the case when he became Buchanan’s secretary of war in 1856 and headed a department with nine bureaus and 93 employees supervising the U.S. Army’s finances and extensive supply network.
As early as 1859, Floyd’s War Department had begun supplying the six so-called Cotton States with a disproportionate share of arms designated by the federal government for use by state militias. In fact, only 10 days before the start of South Carolina’s secession convention in Charleston, Floyd had approved the state’s request for its full 1861 allocation of federal arms.
Rifles and muskets were also transferred to federal arsenals in the South, where they would be readily available for seizure once states seceded. In addition, Floyd approved government sales to secessionist sympathizers of obsolete federal arms that were channeled through intermediaries. By January 1861, Southern newspapers were bragging that 290,000 stands of arms had been acquired through the takeover of federal arsenals, with 417,000 further arms purchased by the Cotton States, noting that the total could increase to 1 million once Texas and the border states joined the Confederacy.
Floyd was also accused of filling key federal military positions with pro-South officers. In the spring of 1860, he appointed Colonel William W. Loring, a North Carolinian and reputed Knights member, to become commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of New Mexico. In November 1860, Floyd appointed Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, a native Kentuckian who had relocated to Texas, to head the U.S. Army’s merged Department of the Pacific, headquartered in San Francisco. Johnston, a close friend of Jefferson Davis, sympathized with his adopted state of Texas, where he maintained extensive landholdings.
Floyd also appointed Brig. Gen. David Twiggs, a native Georgian and states’ rights sympathizer, to command the huge Department of Texas, with almost one-third of the U.S. Army’s manpower. Major P.G.T. Beauregard was appointed as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy despite his secessionist proclivities. During his month-long tenure, Beauregard advised Southern cadets on when they should leave West Point to join the Confederate Army.
On his way to New York, Beauregard likely tied in with Paul J. Semmes, an officer in the Georgia militia who had been appointed by the state’s governor, Joe Brown, as special purchasing agent to acquire arms and munitions for Georgia with the $1 million appropriation approved by the state’s legislature. U.S. Army Colonel William J. Hardee, the prior commandant of West Point, assisted Semmes in this effort. In December 1860, Semmes and Hardee set up shop at New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel and finalized contracts with manufacturers such as Colt, Parrott, Veile and E.I. du Pont. They also ordered six cannons known as Columbiads from the U.S. government’s Fort Pitt Foundry. On the way north, they stopped off at Washington, D.C., and obtained advice and assistance in Floyd’s War Department on military purchasing.
In addition to approving disproportionate arms sales and appointments of Southern officers, Floyd became increasingly erratic in his behavior after November 1860, supporting suspicions of his dis loyalty and alleged Knights connections. Early in November, Floyd met with a number of ardent secessionists, including Francis Pickens, who was soon to become governor of South Carolina. By December, Floyd announced to the press that he believed the secession of the Cotton States was inevitable.
At the end of October 1860, Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, tried to alert Buchanan to likely plots against federal installations, as reported by the Army informer. Scott warned that “from a knowledge of our Southern population, it is my solemn conviction that there is some danger of an early act of rashness preliminary to secession viz., the seizure of some or all of [nine designated federal forts in the Southern states].” Scott noted these forts had in sufficient garrisons and recommended “all these works should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any of them by surprise or coup de main ridiculous.”
Scott managed to circumvent Floyd (who despised Scott and often pocketed his recommendations) and present his views directly to the president. A wily diplomat from Pennsylvania, the 69-year-old Buchanan had obtained his 1856 nomination by catering to Southern interests and had appointed three Southerners to his Cabinet. Like Floyd, the Cabinet officers predicted a disastrous reaction if U.S. troops suddenly appeared in the South to reinforce the federal forts. At his meeting with Buchanan, Scott indicated that he presently had only five companies available to provide reinforcements. This made it easy for the president, who was trying to head off the secession movement, to dismiss Scott’s suggestions.
Buchanan did have concerns, however, about the security of the forts, particularly those in Charleston’s harbor. After Lincoln’s election, Buchanan repeatedly re viewed the security of the forts with his Cabinet. Floyd of course opposed sending reinforcements to Charleston.
In his annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1860, Buchanan claimed that the federal forts were “property of the United States” and “had been purchased for a fair equivalent, by the consent of the legislature of the State.” He said that if an attempt were made to seize the forts, “the responsibility for consequences would rightfully rest upon the heads of the assailants.” Buchanan also said that the secession of any state was equivalent to revolution and was not justified on the basis of Lincoln’s election. He nevertheless seemed to countenance secession by noting that if the Northern states refused to repeal their personal liberty laws, which impeded Southerners from reclaiming their slave property, then the injured Southern states, after pursuing all constitutional means, “would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the government of the Union.” And he undercut any threat of federal retaliation by con ceding that the government lacked authority under the constitution to militarily coerce any seceding state.
On December 12, Scott arrived in Washington to again urge reinforcing the forts, and detailed a larger complement of Army units he could now assign for this purpose. Scott met personally with Buchanan on December 15, but the president continued to hold off. He wanted to wait for the results of South Carolina’s convention and any attempts by the state’s commissioners to negotiate a settlement. By not taking immediate action against Charleston’s forts, Buchanan hoped to prevent South Carolina’s likely secession from spilling over to other Southern states.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Floyd found himself at the center of several scandals. Charges against him alleged that he was surreptitiously channeling 124 heavy guns to several Southern forts under construction. Initially ordered in October, the huge Columbiads were manufactured at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Arsenal. On December 20, Floyd gave highly unusual verbal instructions to have the guns loaded on the ship Silver War and sent to Ship Island, Miss., and Galveston, Texas, not their originally intended destinations. Learning the Columbiads were being loaded at the dock, a committee of outraged Pittsburgh citizens sent a telegram to Buchanan on Christmas Day complaining that “an order has issued from the War Department to transfer all the effective munitions of war from the arsenal in this city to Southern forts.”
A Northern newspaper lamented: “The Columbiads are the largest and most destructive species of ordnance known to our service. At a time when Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas are preparing to make war upon the Union, an order is issued by Floyd to transport these guns into the midst of the avowed enemies of the country. The people of Pittsburgh met, protested against the criminal act, and asked the war department to countermand the order.” Buchanan quickly countermanded the order, but Floyd was applauded for his actions by the Southern press.
Interior Department employee Godard Bailey, a relative of Floyd’s wife, had transferred $870,000 from the Indian Trust Fund to a defense contractor on the basis of drafts Floyd had previously endorsed. When Buchanan found out about it, he became outraged. That, coupled with the irate telegram from the Pittsburgh citizens, convinced him it was time to ask Floyd to resign. Floyd initially agreed to resign but then became irate and said he needed to protect his honor. He vacillated for nearly a week, though he continued to show up for Cabinet meetings.
Then, during the night of December 25, Major Robert Anderson secretly moved his federal garrison at Fort Moultrie to the more defensible Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston’s harbor. This decision was made by Anderson himself in order to protect his men from the increasingly belligerent Charleston mobs. It stunned Floyd, who was brought the news by none other than U.S. Senator Louis Wigfall from Texas. Buchanan, who was equally blindsided, convened a series of contentious Cabinet meetings, during which Floyd learned to his surprise that he had earlier signed a memorandum giving Anderson authority to use his “sound military discretion” to protect his garrison.
After the Northern members of his Cabinet threatened to resign, Buchanan decided to back Anderson’s move to Fort Sumter. In the interim, the newly installed governor of South Carolina, Pickens, had ordered the seizure of Moultrie and the other federal forts, arsenal and customhouse in Charleston. To save face, Floyd alleged that Buchanan had gone back on his pledge to the South to preserve the status quo and used this as the reason for finally submitting his resignation on December 29. Joseph Holt, a hard-hitting Unionist from Kentucky (who had been serving as postmaster general), was chosen to replace Floyd as secretary of war.
By early January 1861, Floyd was in Richmond helping to organize the radical elements in favor of secession. He admitted that he had supplied arms to the South in anticipation of armed rebellion, and at a banquet held in his honor flaunted his double-dealing while serving as Buchanan’s secretary of war. After he left office, Floyd was indicted on multiple charges, but by then it was too late.
Floyd’s resignation triggered a series of incidents involving federal forts in the South. On January 2, Louis Wigfall telegraphed Congressman Milledge Bonham at Charleston: “Holt succeeds Floyd. It means war. Cut off supplies from Anderson and take Sumter as soon as possible.” Wigfall had earlier coauthored the “Southern Manifesto” for the establishment of a Southern Con federacy joined by 30 other Southern congressmen. At the Willard Hotel in Washington, Wigfall was allegedly overheard boasting of the extent and power of the KGC to such an extent that members of the legislative cabal had to tell him to keep quiet. In late December 1860 and January 1861, seizures occurred at more than 20 federal forts and arsenals. Most of the seizures were made after the state in which the installation was located had seceded. But several were carried out before secession by irregular bands of insurgents.
The Richmond Enquirer openly advocated seizure of federal forts in Virginia and Maryland, as well as government installations in the District of Columbia, writing in a December 17 editorial:
Let the first convention then, be held between Maryland and Virginia, and, these two states agreeing, let them provide sufficient force to seize the city of Washington, and, if coercion is to be attempted, let it begin by subjugating the States of Maryland and Virginia. Thus practical and efficient fighting in the Union will prevent the power of the Union from falling into the hands of our enemies. We hope Virginia will depute her commissioners to Maryland first, and providing for the seizure of Washington city, Forts McHenry, Washington, and Old Point, Harpers Ferry and Gosport navy yard, present these two States in the attitude of rebels, inviting coercion. This was the way Patrick Henry brought about the revolution and this is the best use that Virginia can make commissioners of any kind.
The Enquirer editorial didn’t mention Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads, probably because it was already under surveillance, and KGC leader Virginius Groner had been planning its seizure. Later in December, Groner spearheaded a group preparing to seize the lightly garrisoned fort. Groner, with Virginia’s adjutant general William Richardson, approached Governor John Letcher with a letter from Henry Wise advocating the seizure. Letcher later confirmed: “As far back as January 8, , I consulted with a gentleman [i.e., Groner] whose position enabled him to know the strength of [Fort Monroe] and whose experience in military matters enabled him to form an opinion as to the number of men that would be required to capture it.” Letcher undercut the seizure plan, however, by demanding that the insurgents first seek approval from other Virginia officials. Groner felt this would lead to leaks and alert federal authorities.
In Wilmington, N.C., an anomalous group called the Cape Fear Minute Men held a series of pro-secession meetings in mid-December 1860. Then reports came that a federal revenue cutter was on its way to garrison two unmanned federal installations, Forts Johnson and Caswell, on the Cape Fear River. William Ash, a railroad president and Democratic politician, approached North Carolina’s governor, John Ellis, on January 1, 1861, seeking permission to seize the forts. Ellis refused, contending he had no authority to authorize such an act. The Cape Fear Minute Men decided to proceed anyway. The Smithville Guards, from a town close to the forts, joined them.
At 4 a.m. on January 9, a band of about 20 insurgents arrived by steamboat and surrounded Fort Johnson. The raiding party knocked at the door of the fort’s sole caretaker, a sergeant, and asked him to give up the keys to the fort’s magazine. The sergeant initially threatened to protect the ordinance stores with his life, but eventually gave them the keys. Fifteen men were left to guard Fort Johnson, while the remainder proceeded to Fort Caswell, a masonry structure controlling the entrance to the Cape Fear River. There the men carried out a similar seizure.
Learning about the occupation of the two forts, Ellis told members of North Carolina’s militia to go to Smithville and order Captain Stephen Decatur Thurston to restore the forts to the possession of the United States. Thurston and Hedrick complied on January 14. Ellis sent a letter to Buchanan notifying him of the withdrawal, explaining the takeover was precipitated by discredited reports that federal troops were on the way to garrison the forts. Buchanan told Ellis he had no intention of garrisoning the forts with federal troops while he was president, but he did allow his secretary of the interior, Jacob Thompson, to visit North Carolina as a commissioner on behalf of Thompson’s home state of Mississippi. Thompson urged Ellis to adopt “efficient measures for the common defense and safety of the south.”
Insurgents similarly seized the partially completed federal fort at Ship Island in Mississippi, one of the forts to which Secretary of War Floyd had ordered the Columbiad shipments. Mississippi’s KGC-affiliated governor, John Pettus, was concerned about the establishment of a new federal fort on Ship Island. Pettus feared the U.S. government would use the fort to restrict commerce and land troops once Mississippi passed its secession ordinance (which its convention did on January 9, 1861).
Before noon on January 13, an armed party landed on Ship Island, telling the federal overseer they were acting on their own responsibility and that they came to take possession of the works under construction. A second group arrived in the afternoon, hoisted a fag and left 10 men on the island. On January 20, a third body of insurgents arrived and took forcible possession of the fort, causing the army lieutenant overseeing the crew to finally cease construction and cede possession of the island.
Thus a number of federal forts and arsenals in the South were seized in early 1861 by irregular bands of insurgents before the respective states had seceded. As in Virginia, where Groner and Wise were involved, the KGC was known to be active in North Carolina, in addition to Mississippi, where Governor Pettus was a recognized KGC sympathizer. Such insurgent actions co-opted strategic federal defensive positions and captured a sizable quantity of weapons and ammunition for the nascent Confederacy. Weapons were also transferred to the seceding states through the machinations of Floyd. But would the KGC succeed in capturing the nation’s capital—the District of Columbia—which had also been targeted in the KGC’s Council of War order?
David C. Keehn is an attorney and author. This article is an adaptation from his recent book Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.