"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Sunday, December 17, 2023

William Worth Belknap


This 1891 or 1897 medallion sculpture  of William Worth Belknap by Carl Rohl-Smith decorates Belknap's imposing headstone in Arlington National Cemetery.

Goode dates this sculpture 1891 but Save Outdoor Sculpture gives the date as 1897. (See SIRIS) The monument was ceremonially turned over to the U.S. government on December 22, 1897. (The Anaconda Standard December 24, 1897.)

The plaque says:

William Worth Belknap
Born 1829 - Died 1890
Colonel 15th Iowa Vol. Infantry
Brigadier & Brevet Major General U.S. Vols.
Secretary of War 1869-1876
Erected by his Comrades of the
Crocker Iowa  Brigade
11th, 13th, and 16th Iowa Vol. Infantry
Army of the Tennessee
Companions of the Military Order of the
Loyal Legion of the United States
and Other Friends.

The plaque emphasizes Belknap's Civil  War service. This photo of General Belknap and his staff in 1865 belongs to the Library of Congress.

The plaque does not mention that Belknap was the only cabinet member, so far, to be impeached. The scandal surrounding Belknap's impeachment is referred to as "the Trader Post Scandal", or "the Indian Ring." Belknap had lobbied for and congress had passed a law giving the Secretary of War, sole discretion in the awarding of "traderships" the right to sell goods to soldiers at military posts. Belknap was accused of selling these traderships. He resigned on the morning of March 2 , 1876 and was unanimously impeached by the House that afternoon. In the subsequent Senate trial, the vote was 35 for and 25 against impeachment. Most of the 25 'no' votes were grounded on the idea that the Senate lacked jurisdiction to try a person no-longer a government official. (Fellow Silver-Springers should note that one of Belknap's lawyers in this affair was Montgomery Blair.)  William W. Belknap's descendant Andra Belknap applies the lesson of Belknap's impeachment to ex-president Donald Trump in USA Today, Jan. 15, 2021.

The Library of Congress also has this photo of Belknap.

and the  United States Army Center of Military History, has this 1874 oil portrait of William Worth Belknap by Daniel Huntington.

Belknap, with the help of Huntington, established the portrait gallery of Secretaries of War of which this is an example.

The Military History Center has this short biography of Belknap.
WILLIAM WORTH BELKNAP was born in Newburgh, New York, on 22 September 1829; graduated from Princeton University in 1848; studied law at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; was admitted to the bar, 1851; moved to Keokuk, Iowa, and entered the practice of law; served in the state legislature, 1857–1858; was commissioned major in the 15th Iowa Infantry, 1861; participated in the Civil War battles of Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg; was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the 4th Division, XVII Corps, 1864; participated in General Sherman’s operations in Georgia and the Carolinas; was mustered out of service as a major general, 1865; married and lost his first two wives, Cora LeRoy and Carrie Tomlinson, and married Mrs. John Bower, his second wife’s sister; was collector of internal revenue in Iowa, 1865–1869; served as Secretary of War, 25 October 1869–2 March 1876; launched the secretarial portrait gallery, circa 1872; recommended that Congress act to fix May 1 as the start of the fiscal year; inaugurated the preparation of historical reports by post commanders; proposed actions to preserve Yellowstone Park; was impeached by a unanimous vote of the House of Representatives for allegedly having received money in return for post tradership appointments; resigned the secretaryship before being brought to trial, March 1876; was tried by the United States Senate, but the vote fell short of the two-thirds required for conviction; moved to Philadelphia, then returned to Washington to resume the practice of law; died in Washington, D.C., on 13 October 1890.
The New York Times noticed ex-secretary Belknap's sudden death on October 14th 1890 and discussed his military and political career.

Update: When this entry was written, in December of 2023, W. W. Belknap was indeed "the only cabinet member, so far, to be impeached." However, in February of 2024, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas became  "the first sitting Cabinet secretary to be impeached", as Jacqueline Alemany of the Washington Post put it, distinguishing Mayorkas from Belknap by the fact that Belknap resigned before he was impeached. 

General Belknap
The National Tribune October 14, 1890

Up-update: The articles of impeachment against Alejandro Mayorkas were dismissed  as unconstitutional by the Senate voting "along party lines" on April  17, 2024. (See The Washington Post.)

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