Belknap, William W.


Grant’s 2nd Secretary of War, 1st of 2 Cabinet members ever to be impeached by Congress!



Type:  Letter

 (1829-1890) Lawyer, Civil War US Army officer, government administrator in Iowa, 30th US Secretary of War (Grant). Belknap was impeached March 2, 1876, for his role in the “trader post scandal” but was acquitted by the Senate ,1st Cabinet secretary in US. history to be impeached.

A lawyer, he moved to Iowa, practiced law, served a term as a Democrat in the Iowa House of Representatives. A major in the 15th Iowa Vol. Infantry, wounded at Shiloh.  Served as a regimental, brigade, division, and corps commander, and served in high-level staff positions. By the end of the war, Belknap was a brigadier general and a brevet major general of volunteers. After declining a regular Army commission, Belknap was appointed Iowa’s Collector of Internal Revenue by President Johnson.

In 1869, President Grant appointed him Secretary of War, replacing John A. Rawlins who had died of tuberculosis. In 1871, Belknap was investigated by Congress after he was directly involved in the sale of arms and munitions to France while the US was ostensibly neutral during the Franco-Prussian War. That year, Belknap arranged aid for victims of the catastrophic Chicago Fire.

During Reconstruction, Belknap’s War Department and the military worked under the supervision of President Grant and the Attorney General to occupy the former Confederacy and attempt to implement changes in government and the economy while protecting freedmen from increasingly violent insurgency. Belknap supported Grant’s Reconstruction policy, opposed by most Democrats.

In 1875, Grant, Belknap, and other members of Grant’s administration, secretly agreed to remove troops from the Black Hills after gold was discovered. The US had protected the area from white settlers as part of a treaty with the Lakota. The troop withdrawal allowed a gold rush of white settlers to take place, and the US took de facto possession after the Lakota refused to sell their sacred lands. In 1876, the Fort Sill trader post scandal led to his sudden resignation and impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House, trial by the Senate, and acquittal. His DC federal trial was dismissed. Belknap resumed practicing law in Washington until he died.

During summer 1870, Belknap successfully lobbied Congress to grant him sole power to appoint and license agents, sutlers, with ownership rights to highly lucrative “traderships” at western frontier military forts. These monopoly traderships were good investments and highly sought after. On July 15, the Commanding General of the Army’s power to appoint traderships was repealed, empowering Belknap.

To ensure maximum profits, Belknap ordered soldiers stationed at forts having Belknap-approved sutlers to buy supplies only through authorized traderships. Soldiers on the frontier, forced to buy goods at exorbitant prices far exceeding the usual rate, were left in debt or destitute. Hostile Native Americans bought supplies at these traderships, incl. high-quality single-shot breech-loaders and repeating rifles. At the same time, Army requisitions for rifles were filled by Belknap’s War Department with inferior single-shot breech-loaders that jammed frequently and were no match for superior breech-loaders and repeating rifles. The policy had a negative effect on troops’ firepower and may have contributed to Custer and the 7th Cavalry’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876, several months after Belknap was out of office.

Belknap’s 2nd wife, Carita, was socially ambitious and unwilling to live in Washington on Belknap’s salary. When the couple arrived in Washington from Iowa in 1869, Belknap rented a large house vacated by Secretary of State Seward. Hosting large parties was a social requirement for cabinet members. One event had 1,200 guests, and the resulting raucous behavior led to extensive damage and vandalism, incl. destruction of curtains, couches, and other furniture. The Belknaps could not afford to pay the damages and were faced with leaving Washington society and reducing expenses by living in a boarding house, or finding a way to increase their income.

Carita engineered a plan to obtain a lucrative Indian tradership position at the recently built Fort Sill in Oklahoma Indian Territory. She lobbied Belknap to appoint a NY contractor named Marsh to the Fort Sill tradership. John Evans, an experienced sutler, was already appointed and did not want to give it up. To settle the question, Marsh drew up an illicit partnership contract that allowed Evans to keep the tradership at Fort Sill, but pay Marsh $12,000 per year in quarterly installments. Marsh was required to give half of his $12,000 to Carita, also in quarterly installments. All agreed to the arrangement; however, Carita received only 1 payment before her death in Dec. 1870. After Carita’s death, Marsh kept paying the quarterly share of the profits to Carita’s younger sister Amanda, who had moved in with the Belknaps, ostensibly to hold as a trust fund to benefit Carita’s child. This profiteering arrangement between Amanda and Marsh was done with Belknap’s knowledge and consent. After Carita’s child died in June 1871, Amanda left, and Belknap continued taking the quarterly bribery payments until Dec. 1873, when she became Belknap’s 3rd wife. He rented a large new house and they continued accepting Marsh’s quarterly payments. Their extravagant lifestyle created envy among Democratic political figures and DC’s permanent residents. However, that they were receiving kickbacks was not publicly known until Feb. 1876, when the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives launched an investigation which discovered that Belknap and his wives received about $20,000 (some $400,000 today) in bribes from Marsh.

On Feb. 29, 1876, rumors that Belknap was receiving profits from traderships reached Rep. Hiester Clymer, chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of War. He began an investigation into the War Department. Although Clymer and Belknap were friends and were college roommates, Clymer was a racist who strongly opposed Republican Reconstruction. Marsh testified that Belknap had personally taken Fort Sill tradership profit payments. Belknap declined to testify.

On the morning of March 2, Secretary Belknap and Interior Secretary Chandler arrived at the White House. Belknap, extremely anxious, openly wept, confessed to Grant, and handed Grant a brief resignation letter. Grant wrote a letter accepting Belknap’s resignation, which he placed on a White House mantel at 10:20am.  Clymer’s committee was informed at 11am of Belknap’s resignation. His resignation did not prevent action by the Clymer committee which unanimously passed resolutions to impeach Belknap and drew up 5 articles to be sent to the Senate; Belknap resigned and would be impeached at “the same time” on March 2, 1876, by unanimous vote of the House of Representatives. This was the 1st of 2 times in US history that a cabinet secretary was impeached, the 2nd being the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Feb. 13, 2024. On March 4, 1876, a month before his Senate impeachment trial, Attorney General Pierrepont had Belknap arrested and put an armed guard around his home to ensure he did not attempt to flee.

Starting April 5, 1876, Belknap was tried by the Senate. With 40 votes needed for conviction, 25 senators voted no on each count thus acquitting him by failing to reach the required 2/3 majority. All Senators agreed Belknap took money from Marsh, but 23 who voted for acquittal on August 1 believed the Senate did not have jurisdiction. Grant’s speedy acceptance of Belknap’s resignation undoubtedly saved him from conviction.

After Senate acquittal on August 1, the guards around his house were removed and he was indicted by a grand jury, set for trial in DC federal court. On Feb. 2, 1877, Belknap visited Grant and pleaded for his indictment to be dismissed. Grant wrote Attorney General Alfonso Taft that the district attorney should be directed to dismiss the case. On Feb. 8, Belknap’s case was dismissed.

He eventually returned to Keokuk where he practiced law largely representing railroads. Years after his impeachment, his reputation still remained damaged by corruption charges, but he remained popular among Civil War veterans; he coauthored the 1877 book History of the Fifteenth Regiment, Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry. On Oct. 12, 1890, Belknap died suddenly from a massive heart attack in Washington and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

ALS as Secretary of War on official 10 x 8 lined War Department/Washington City letterhead, May 10, 1871, to a Newburgh, NY man, pleased to send his autograph. With steel engraving.

Condition: Very good

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