Impeached in America: William W. Belknapp

The only Cabinet member ever to be impeached was Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War. William W. Belknapp was impeached for corruption in 1876, a corruption that was closely intertwined with his marital affairs.

William Belknapp

Belknapp was a Civil War hero. He was a major in the Iowa Voluntary Infantry. During his active duty he participated in the Battle of Shiloh where he had his horse shot out from under him He served under General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Battle of Atlanta and joined Sherman’s march to the sea. It was Sherman who recommended Belknapp to Grant for the Secretary of War position.

Belknapp had married Cora LeRoy in 1854, but she passed away in 1862. Seven years later he married Carita S. Tomlinson of Kentucky.  In Fall of an Iowa Hero, L Edward Purcell describes the Belknapps’ lifestyle at the time. “Belknapp and Carita set up housekeeping in a fashionable home in Washington, where they entertained on a grand scale. The sumptuous furnishings of the house, including imported carpets, expensive furniture and the finest crystal and china, provided the setting for lavish dinner parties. The Belknapps were among the foremost Washington socialites, treating their guests with the best food and vintages.”

Sherman himself would later link this to Belknapp’s impeachment. He told a newspaper reporter in 1876, “Of course I do not know the cause of this demoralization, but having lived in Washington during his tenure of office, I can form a pretty good idea of it. In my opinion his downfall is due more to the vicious organization of Washington society than anything else. I refer to the ridiculous extravagance of those who move in the first social circles at the Capitol. Very few of the Cabinet officers are able to live within their salaries.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 5, 1876)

Here’s how the Belknapps supplemented that salary. Belknapp had established rules at the department that “sutlers,” appointed by him, would control all of the purchases at military forts in the West. This generally resulted in soldiers, many of them immigrants, paying much higher prices for things like boots. It also resulted in sales of guns to Native Americans, something that General George Custer resentfully testified about before a House committee investigating expenditures at the War Department. 

Carita Belknapp made contact with a contractor in New York named Caleb Marsh, who was the husband of one of her friends. She suggested that Marsh apply to be the sutler for Fort Sill, which was in the Native American territory that would later become Oklahoma. She would use her influence to assure that her husband gave Marsh the post. There was, however, already a sutler at Fort Sill, John S. Evans. No problem. Marsh and Evans worked out a deal. Evans would be allowed to continue to manage the trading post and in return would pay Marsh $12,000 a year in quarterly payments. Marsh, in turn, would send half of that Carita’s way.

Carita only received one payment before dying of tuberculosis after childbirth. Purcell describes what happened after that, based on Marsh’s later testimony before the House committee. “When Marsh came to Washington for the funeral, he was drawn aside by her (Carita’s) sister Puss, then a widow caring for Belknapp’s son. Puss artlessly informed Marsh she knew about the money due Carita and said it would go now to the child in her care, When Marsh agreed to continue payments, Puss suggested the money go directly to Secretary Belknapp. From 1871 to 1976, Marsh gave Belknapp more than $20,000, all of it from Evans payoff money.”

Three years later, Amanda Tomlinson Bower (Puss), became the third Mrs Belknapp. More than 100 years later a story in the Washington Post would suggest: “Puss Belknap’s gowns, emeralds and coral-beaded parasols were infamous in Washington, attracting attention and speculation that led to investigation into her husband’s department.” (First Ladies Amid the Fray)

The investigation in the House was led by Hiester Clymer, a Democratic congressman who had been Belknapp’s roommate at Princeton. Upon hearing that Marsh would be testifying before Clymer’s Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, he booked a meeting with Grant and offered his resignation. Writing for HistoryNet, John Kostner, chronicles Grant’s summary of that meeting: “He burst into tears and took hold of my hand.…I understood that he was expecting an investigation that he could avoid by resigning; that the facts, if exposed, would not damage him so much as his wife. He spoke of his dead wife, too. I told him that he had a great many friends and that they would help him out, but he said it was impossible; that he had shouldered all the blame and would be ruined. He insisted it would save me and the government a great deal of trouble if his resignation was accepted.…So I wrote him a letter accepting the resignation.” 

The resignation did not stop the impeachment. In fact, it was unanimous in the committee.

When the impeachment trial came before the Senate, Belknapp’s defense took the position that the Senate had no jurisdiction because Belknapp was no longer in office. The whole trial followed closely what we would see at Trump’s insurrection trial. The Senate first voted on whether it was appropriate to proceed with the trial and that was approved by a vote of 37-29. The vote to convict was 35-25 in favor, not enough for the required two-thirds majority. Twenty-three of the senators who voted against conviction said they thought he was guilty but voted they the way they did because they didn’t think it was constitutional to hold the trial after Belknapp resigned. (They must have been Mitch McConnell’s ancestors.)

Belknapp suffered some lean years immediately after his impeachment but eventually established a private law practice. Amanda, aka Puss, packed up her daughters and moved to Paris.

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1 Response to Impeached in America: William W. Belknapp

  1. sportsdiva64 says:

    Interesting. We have a street near my home in Springfield Gardens/Locust Manor named Belknap Street. Different spelling but I wonder if it was named after him. Thanks for giving us all this info on these historical figures that we don’t hear about much

    Liked by 1 person

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