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|William Worth Belknap|
|30th United States Secretary of War|
October 25, 1869 – March 2, 1876
|President||Ulysses S. Grant|
|Preceded by||John Aaron Rawlins|
|Succeeded by||Alphonso Taft|
September 22, 1829|
Newburgh, New York, U.S.
|Died||October 12, 1890
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Mrs. John Bower
|Alma mater||Princeton University
|Profession||General, Lawyer, Politician|
|Years of service||1861 - 1865|
Brevet Major General
|Commands||15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment|
|Battles/wars||American Civil War|
William Worth Belknap (September 22, 1829 – October 12, 1890) was a United States Army Major General, government administrator in Iowa, and United States Secretary of War. Although Belknap served with distinction in the Civil War, his tenure as President Grant's Secretary of War was controversial, for having indirectly sold weapons to France and for accepting illicit kickbacks in exchange for making a tradership appointment. The latter led to his resignation, impeachment by the House, and trial in the Senate during the summer of 1876.
Belknap, a native of New York, graduated from Princeton college in 1848, studied law at Georgetown University, and passed the bar in 1851. Belknap moved to Iowa and started a law practice and partnership. Belknap entered politics as a Democrat and was elected Representative in Iowa legislature in 1857. When the Civil War broke out in spring 1861, Belknap joined Union Army and was eventually promoted Brevet Maj. General in 1865 for his gallantry during Maj. Gen. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign earlier in 1864. In hand-to-hand combat at Atlanta, Belknap crossed an entrenchment, captured the Confederate commander, and physically dragged him over to the Union side. Belknap was appointed Iowa Collector of Internal Revenue by President Andrew Johnson and served four years. In 1869, President Grant appointed Belknap Secretary of War. As secretary, Belknap requisitioned portrait paintings by various artists for previous Secretaries of War to be displayed in honor of the United States Centennial. He also aided Chicago Fire victims in 1871 and pardoned James Webster Smith, America's first African American cadet at West Point. During the Reconstruction Era, Belknap's War Department and the U.S. military worked under supervision of President Ulysses S. Grant and the U.S. Attorney General's office to vigorously enforce the mandates of this policy upon the defeated South.
Belknap was the only former Cabinet secretary ever to have been impeached by the House of Representatives. A Congressional investigation in 1876 revealed that Belknap had received kickback payments in return for a lucrative contract. Starting in 1870, Belknap and two successive wives had taken quarterly payments for the award of a Fort Sill "tradership" position[clarification needed], immediately after Belknap had been given sole authority to appoint post-traderships by Congress. Belknap resigned his position as Secretary of War shortly before being impeached by the House. President Grant had accepted his resignation before the House voted on Belknap's impeachment, later that same day. Belknap was tried in the Senate, but was acquitted when the vote for conviction failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority. A significant number of Senators believed that the Senate did not have jurisdiction to put a private citizen on trial. Belknap, with his reputation damaged, returned to his law practice until his death in 1890. Historians[who?] have debated how much Belknap's second and third wives influenced Belknap into accepting Fort Sill profit money from appointed sutler Caleb P. Marsh.
Belknap was born on September 22, 1829 in Newburgh, New York to career soldier William G. Belknap, who had fought with distinction in the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War. His mother was Anne Clark Belknap. In 1848, Belknap graduated from Princeton University. After graduation Belknap studied law at Georgetown University. In 1851, he was admitted to the bar, moved to Keokuk, Iowa, and entered into a law partnership with Ralph B. Low. He served in the Iowa House of Representatives as a Democrat for a single term from 1857 to 1858.
Belknap was married three times. The first was in 1854 to Cora LeRoy who died in 1862. Belknap remarried to Carita S. Tomlinson from Kentucky in January, 1869. Carita, however, died of tuberculosis shortly after childbirth in December, 1870. Belknap remarried a third and final time on December 11, 1873 to Amanda Tomlinson Bower, widow of John Bower and Carita's sister. Belknap was the father of Hugh R. Belknap, U.S. Representative from Illinois.
When the American Civil War started, Belknap, a loyal Democrat, joined the Union Army in the Autumn of 1861 and was commissioned Major in charge recruiting the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry on December 7. Belknap, a tall and handsome man, was naturally suited to the rigors of being a soldier and he taught new enlistment companies coming into Iowa.
In March 1862, Maj. Belknap and the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry were finally mustered into military action. Traveling by steamer from St. Louis, Maj. Belknap was sent to the front at the Battle of Shiloh; arriving at Pittsburgh Landing on April 6 serving under the Army of the Tennessee. Maj. Belknap was ordered to the front to serve under Maj. Gen Prentiss at the Hornet's Nest. Maj. Belknap and his raw 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry troops were forced to fight like regular army veterans on Maj. Gen. Prentiss depleted line. Maj. Belknap fought bravely, was slightly wounded, and his horse was shot and killed from under him. After Shiloh, Maj. Belknap served as acting commander of the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Corinth. Col. Hugh T. Reid, commander of the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, had been severely injured in the neck at Shiloh and removed from active duty. Col. Reid stated that at Shiloh Maj. Belknap, "was always in the right place at the right time, directing and encouraging officers and men as coolly as a veteran" At Corinth, Major Belknap was noted for his "conspicuous gallantry". After Corinth, Major Belknap and the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry for a time served on guard duty. Maj. Belknap was formerly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on August 20, 1862. Lt. Col. Belknap was promoted to Colonel of the Iowa 15th Volunteer Infantry on June 3, 1863. Col. Belknap's primary military operation took place at the Siege of Vicksburg until July 4, 1863. On December 24, 1863 Col. Belknap was in command of the 11th Iowa Volunteer Infantry and the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry reinforcing Redbone, Mississippi, south of Vicksburg. On February 26, 1864 Col. Belknap served as Provost Marshall of Post in Canton, Mississippi.
On June 8, 1864 Col. Belknap and the veteran 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry were transferred to the 4th Division, XVII Corps at Ackworth, Georgia. On July 22, 1864 at the Battle of Atlanta, Belknap served with distinction, having broken through Confederate breastworks. Vigorously fighting in hand-to-hand combat, Col. Belknap crossed the breastworks, physically captured Confederate Col. Harris D. Lampley, 45th Alabama Infantry, dragged him over to the Union line, and took him as prisoner. On July 28, 1864 Col. Belknap was in charge of the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry and the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry having reinforced Maj. Gen. R.L. Smith's XV Corps. On July 30, Belknap was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the 4th Division, XVII Corps, and participated in Major Gen. Sherman's operations in Georgia and the Carolinas. After Atlanta was taken by the Union Army, Belknap accompanied Maj. Gen. Sherman on his March to the Sea. Belknap was promoted Brevet Major General on March 13, 1865 as a reward for his bravery in the Atlanta Campaign. On August 24, 1865, Brevet Maj. Gen Belknap was mustered out of the U.S. Army.
In 1865, after the American Civil War had ended, President Andrew Johnson appointed Belknap, now retired from military service, to the post of Iowa Collector of Internal Revenue. In that position, Belknap was responsible for collecting millions of dollars in federal taxes. Belknap served in that position for four years, until he was appointed Secretary of War by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. During his term as Collector, Belknap associated himself with the Republican Party in the period of Reconstruction.
On the advice of General of the Army William T. Sherman, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Belknap to Secretary of War on October 25, 1869, to take the place of Sec. John A. Rawlins who had died in office earlier of tuberculosis. Belknap at that time was a protégé of Sherman's, having fought in the Atlanta Campaign and accompanied him on Sherman's March to the Sea. President Grant believed Belknap had served capably during the American Civil War and deserved to head the War Department. After his appointment, Sec. Belknap imposed or recommended several positive initiatives. He recommended that Congress act to fix the date of May 1 as the start of the fiscal year. He inaugurated the preparation of historical reports by post commanders, and proposed actions to preserve Yellowstone National Park. Not all of Sec. Belknap's actions were well received, however. He initiated a protocol that bypassed and weakened the authority of General of the Army Sherman. Subsequently, in 1874, Sherman left Washington D.C. and moved his headquarters to St. Louis. Major General Oliver O. Howard was also ostracized by Sec. Belknap. While stationed in Oregon, in 1874, Major General Howard candidly expressed his opinion of Sec. Belknap. Howard stated that Belknap was deceptive to "General Grant", that Belknap was not a true Republican, and that he associated nightly with "foul-mouthed" Democratic Kentucky associates. Howard also opined that Belknap was "not in favor" of the President's Indian Peace policy. That statement is likely related to a conflict, during Sec. Belknap's tenure, between the U.S. War Department and the U.S. Department of Interior as to which Department would control the destiny of American Indians. In the context of this era, Belknap's actions may not be seen as overtly aggressive or overreaching. In terms of Reconstruction, historian Jean Edward Smith, notes that Grant, former General of the Army, supervised the use of the U.S. military and that Belknap "had less freedom of action then other cabinet members."
Upon assuming office in 1869, Sec. Belknap conceived an idea to make a series of portraits of previous civilian heads of the War Department in honor of the then upcoming 1876 U.S. Centennial. Sec. Belknap hired renowned artists Daniel Huntington, Robert Weir, and Henry Ulke and had them paint portraits of the long list of his predecessors in the War Department. Sec. Belknap's own portrait was painted by Daniel Huntington in 1874. The Secretary of War portraits were then assembled into a distinct collection to be viewed by the public. The portrait painting of the Secretary of War was continued by Sec. Belknap's successors. In addition to secretaries, portraits were made of other persons notable for their war conduct distinction. Sec. Belknap has been given "unqualified credit" for his creation of the War Department gallery in Washington D.C.
In 1870, Sec. Belknap lobbied Congress, and on July 15 was granted the sole power to appoint and license sutlers with ownership rights to highly lucrative "traderships" at U.S. military forts in the Western frontier. The power to appoint traderships by the Commanding General of the Army, at that time being William T. Sherman, was repealed. Having been granted the sole power to appoint traderships, Sec. Belknap further empowered those traderships with a virtual monopoly. Soldiers stationed at forts with Belknap appointed sutlers could only buy supplies through the authorized tradership. These monopoly traderships were considered good investments during the Gilded Age. Soldiers on the Western frontier, who were thus forced to buy supplies at higher than market prices, were left destitute as a result. Hostile American Indians bought supplies at these traderships, including high-quality breech-loaders and repeating rifles. Soldiers, however, were requisitioned by Sec. Belknap's War Department inferior breech-loaders that jammed on the third round. The policy affected the firepower of the U.S. troops and may have contributed to the defeat of Col. Custer and the 7th Cavalry at Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Custer, however, had refused for unclear reasons to bring Gatling guns with the ability to shoot 150 rounds per minute, that would have strongly increased his regimental fire power.
In 1870, Sec. Belknap's second wife, Carita, successfully lobbied her husband to appoint a New York contractor (Caleb P. Marsh) to a trader post at Fort Sill located in the Indian Territory. John S. Evans, however, had already been appointed to that position. To settle the question of ownership, regarding the tradership, an illicit partnership contract, authorized by Sec. Belknap, was drawn. The contract allowed Evans to keep the tradership at Fort Sill, provided that he pay $12,000 of the annual profits to Marsh. Evans would be allowed to keep the remaining profits. Marsh, in turn, was required to split half of his receipts from the contract, $6,000 per year, with Carita. However, Carita only received one payment before her death (tuberculosis after childbirth) in 1870. After Carita's death, Marsh continued to pay Sec. Belknap Carita's share of the profits, for the benefit of her child. Although the child died in 1871, Sec. Belknap continued to accept quarterly kickback payments from Marsh. When Sec. Belknap remarried, to Carita's sister, Amanda, both Sec. Belknap and Amanda continued to accept the quarterly payments from Marsh.
During the Franco-Prussian War that lasted from 1870 to 1871, the United States declared neutrality. Sec. Belknap had been criticized and accused by Grant Administration critics, Charles Sumner and Carl Schurz, for violating neutrality and selling arms to French agents. Sec. Belknap sold obsolete U.S. War Department firearms to a neighbor of the Remington family. Samuel Remington, as arms-selling agent to the French Government, subsequently arranged the sale of those firearms to France. Sec. Belknap subsequently sold 54,000,000 cartridges to the French Army that would specifically fit the firearms he had previously sold to the Remington neighbor. A Congressional investigation which took place in 1872 exonerated Sec. Belknap, and no criminal charges for impeachment were initiated.
During the Reconstruction Era, in 1870, former slave James Webster Smith, through private sponsorship, became the first African American cadet to enroll at West Point. Smith, however, was immediately and severely hazed by white cadets. It is believed that the Academy's military establishment was determined to force Smith out. One of Sec. Belknap's nephews, a cadet at the Academy, had been reprimanded (but not otherwise punished) for hazing Smith. In one instance, Smith was arrested and taken to a military court for fighting a white cadet. However, Major General Oliver O. Howard, an advocate for African American civil rights and in charge of the trial, acquitted Smith of all charges and gave him a light punishment for unruly conduct. This outraged the Academy's Bureau of Military Justice, who made a formal protest to Belknap on November 20, 1870. In a second instance in January 1871, Smith was arrested again for not holding his head up when marching, after being severely harassed by white cadets. This time Smith was convicted and his case was appealed to Belknap. Smith was pardoned by Belknap and allowed to return to West Point as a plebe. In 1874, Smith continued at West Point, until, Prof. Peter S. Michie, a white supremacist, gave Smith a private test, in defiance of traditional West Point practice. Smith was forced out of West Point after having failed the test and was denied a retest by Michie. Ironically, Belknap believed Smith had been shown more favor than white cadets at West Point. Major General Thomas H. Ruger, appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1871, reduced the amount of hazing of cadets by 1873 and made strong efforts to eradicate the "discreditable" practice. Belknap admired Ruger's performance as West Point Superintendent and stated, "I am pretty satisfied with the success of your management, and private conversations with officers of all grades, & with civilians too, who have been there since your accession..." Other African Americans followed Smith's entrance into West Point and Henry O. Flipper became the first to graduate from the Academy in 1877. Smith was finally commissioned an officer by West Point in 1997, one hundred and twenty three years later.
From October 8, 1871 to October 10 a devastating fire burned and destroyed much of Chicago. The fire killed hundreds of people and caused $200,000,000 in damages. Over 100,000 citizens were left destitute and homeless. Sec. Belknap, concerned for the victims, promptly took action on October 9 and sent food rations from St. Louis, tents from Jeffersonville for the many homeless persons, and two company troops from the Omaha infantry to keep peace and order. On October 10, Sec. Belknap in writing a dispatch to Lt. General Philip Sheridan stated that the fire was "...a national calamity. The sufferers have the sincere sympathy of the nation." Sec. Belknap ordered military officers around the nation to send supplies to Chicago "liberally and promptly".
Louisiana during Reconstruction was one of the most politically turbulent and disputed states. Rival political factions fought for power in the state government, requiring the deployment of federal troops to keep peace. During January 1872, the War Department was kept on high alert, concerned with the potential for violent confrontation, in New Orleans, between Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth's faction and former speaker of the Louisiana House, George W. Carter's faction. To prevent disorder Major General William H. Emory, Louisville District Commander, in charge of New Orleans, decided that federal troops were needed to prevent violence. Belknap at the War Department informed General in Chief William T. Sherman and supported Emory's request for the use of federal troops. On January 5, federal troops were deployed in New Orlean to prevent violence until the 11th. Sec. Belknap advised President Grant that Emory was the best man on the scene to make the decision to use military force. On the 9th a riot broke out after a Gov. Warmoth supporter was assassinated; Gov. Warmoth's state police retaliated by attacking and dispersing Carter's faction at the Gem Saloon; Emory deployed reinforcement troops on the 10th to restore order. On January 12, Grant, wanting to stay out of state politics, told the mayor of New Orleans through the War Department that martial law would not be declared in Louisiana. An angry mob of thousands of Carter's men took to the streets. Emory deployed troops equipped with Gatling guns. Carter's men dispersed knowing Emory would use U.S. military force to keep the peace. On January 15, Grant wrote to Belknap that he desired to prevent the "danger of bloodshed" without having to take sides with any two factions. On January 16, Att. Gen. George H. Williams told Gov. Warmoth, that Grant would only take sides if there was a "clear case of legal right and overruling necessity." On January 22, as both Gov. Warmoth and Carter formed rival militias and the two were ready for war, President Grant issued orders through the War Department for Emory to use troops if necessary. When Emory communicated Grant's message to both Gov. Warmoth and Carter, the two rival factions dispersed and a 10 month peace was kept.
In 1873, the construction of the America's first steel arched bridge, named after James B. Eads, was nearing completion in St. Louis. Belknap, under influence from the Keokuk Packet steamliner company, was opposed to its completion. He desired the bridge torn down, so steamers would not have to lower their smoke stacks to go under the bridge. Sec. Belknap created a commission to either destroy the bridge, or to build a canal around the bridge for steamers to pass. Eads, who was friends with Grant, visited Washington D.C. in November 1873 before Belknap submitted the report to Congress, and asked that Grant rescue the bridge from destruction. Belknap stated he had the authority to keep the rivers from being obstructed according to federal law.
President Grant reminded Belknap that Congress had authorized the construction of the bridge. President Grant was convinced that Congress would not authorize money to tear the bridge down, overruled Belknap's decision, and told Belknap in person "You certainly cannot destroy this structure on your own authority...General, you had better drop this case."  Belknap was embarrassed, stood up blushing, bowed to President Grant, and left the meeting. The Eads Bridge was completed in 1874 and is still in active use today.
During the summer of 1875, Sec. Belknap decided to explore Yellowstone the nation's first national park, signed into law by President Grant on March 2, 1872. Accompanying Sec. Belknap were Col. Randolph B. Marcy, Lt. Col. James W. Forsyth, and Chicago businessman William E. Strong. Leading the expedition was Lt. Gustavus C. Doane, who had led the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870, the first extensive federal survey of the Yellowstone territory, that was responsible in part for the formation of Yosemite National Park. Lt. Doane left Fort Ellis, where he was stationed, and made preparations for Sec. Belknap's party arrival at Mammoth Hot Springs. On July 26, Sec. Belknap's party reached Fort Ellis and proceeded to meet Lt. Doane at Mammoth Hot Springs. Led by Lt. Doane, Belknap's party attempted to retrace the original 1870 Expedition in addition to hunting for any big game found on the journey. Sec. Belknap's party included 24 soldiers and two ambulances. The two-week expedition proved to be troublesome as Lt. Doane was unable to find big game to hunt and after briefly viewing the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Sec. Belknap's party had to wait several hours before Lt. Doane finally found the trail.
On February 29, 1876 upon rumors that Belknap was receiving profits from traderships, Representative Hiester Clymer launched an investigation into the War Department. Although Clymer and Belknap were friends, Clymer was an extreme partisan Democrat who strongly opposed Republican Reconstruction. Caleb P. Marsh testified that Belknap had personally taken Fort Sill tradership profit payments in exchange for a tradership partnership agreement between Marsh and Fort Sill sutler John S. Evans. On March 1, Belknap and his counsel went before Clymer's committee, however, Belknap declined to testify. In a White House meeting on March 2, Belknap appeared before President Grant, who asked for Belknap's resignation. Earlier that morning, Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow had told President Grant of Belknap's impending impeachment. President Grant accepted Belknap's resignation at 10:20 A.M. Clymer's committee was informed of Belknap's resignation at 11:00 A.M. Although Belknap's resignation caused great commotion among House members, it did not forestall action by the Clymer committee. The committee unanimously passed resolutions to impeach Belknap and drew up five articles of impeachment to be sent to the Senate. Belknap, by then a private citizen, was impeached by a unanimous vote of the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Michael C. Kerr wrote to the Senate that Belknap resigned "with intent to evade the proceedings of impeachment against him." Belknap's case was constitutionally unprecedented and would serve as reference for nine other civilian officials resignations before trial, including President Richard Nixon.
Belknap was tried by the Senate, which ruled by a vote of 37-29 that it had jurisdiction despite the resignation. However, Belknap was subsequently acquitted of the charges when the vote for conviction fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Twenty-three of the senators who voted for Belknap's acquittal believed that the Senate did not have jurisdiction. Grant's speedy acceptance of Belknap's resignation undoutedly saved Belknap from conviction. Grant replaced Belknap with Alphonso Taft as Secretary of War.
After his Senate acquittal, Belknap was indicted by a grand jury on August 1, 1876, and set for trial in the Washington D.C. District Court. However, the district courts were unlikely to convict for any crimes that involved less than $47,000. Washington D.C. District Attorney H.H. Wells, who was in charge of the Belknap case, was advised by Attorney General Alphonso Taft, upon President Ulysses S. Grant's instructions, that the evidence against Belknap would not sustain a conviction in court and that Belknap had suffered enough during the Senate trial. On February 8, 1877, Belknap's case, indictment No. 11,262, was dismissed by Justice McArthur.
Belknap moved to Philadelphia, after resigning as Secretary of War, then returned to Washington to resume the practice of law. Belknap, his reputation damaged by the Senate trial, never returned to hold political office. In 1887, Belknap coauthored the book History of the Fifteenth Regiment, Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry.
Belknap died suddenly from a massive heart attack in Washington, D.C. on Sunday October 12, 1890. The New York Times stated his death occurred on Sunday between 1:00 A.M and 9:00 A.M., having died alone, at his residence in the Evans building on New York Avenue. Prior to his death, Belknap had played cards with his friends on Saturday night, then retired to his rooms for the evening. Belknap's wife, Amanda, was in New York City at the time. At 8:30 A.M. on Monday morning, Belknap's business associate, John W. Cameron, picked up Belknap's mail on the first floor of Belknap's home and business residence and proceeded to the second floor where Belknap lived. Cameron and a maid found that all the rooms had been locked. A janitor was summoned to open the doors, and a step ladder was used to peer into Belknap's bedroom. Belknap had placed his hat and coat on a chair and his lifeless body was found on his bed. Belknap's left arm had been raised toward his head with his left hand tightly clenched. Belknap's bed clothes were disheveled and he appeared to have struggled for breath. The physician who initially examined Belknap's body stated Belknap had died of apoplexy, however, an autopsy by the coroner revealed that Belknap had suffered heart disease. The War Department was notified and received with "genuine sorrow" Belknap's death, since Belknap had been a popular Secretary of War.
Belknap was buried in Section 1 at Arlington National Cemetery on October 16, 1890. The ceremony was conducted by St. John's Episcopal Church. The site features a granite gravestone with a bronze relief memorial designed by sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith. The bronze relief (2 ft. x 2 ft.) bust shows Belknap wearing a dress uniform with his hair parted on the proper right side as well as a long, full beard. The relief is placed on the front of a granite base (6 ft. x 5 ft. x 5 ft.). This piece was surveyed by the Smithsonian's Save Outdoor Sculpture! survey in 1995 and its condition was described as treatment being needed. The relief is signed by the artist: C.R. 1897.
A plaque on the front of the granite base is inscribed:
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John Aaron Rawlins
|U.S. Secretary of War
Served under: Ulysses S. Grant