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Civil War hero William W. Belknap rose from Keokuk militiaman to U.S. Secretary of War. Then it all came crashing down.


The Notorious William W. Belknap, Library of Congress

Iowa was a bulwark of the Union in the Civil War, with more of its citizens joining the U.S. Army than any other state per capita. Over 13,000 Iowans gave their lives to defeat the Confederacy. Many veterans went on to politics or government service, but none achieved the dubious fame of William W. Belknap.

Born in New York, Belknap moved to Iowa in 1851 after graduating from law school and set up practice in Keokuk. He became involved in politics and served one term in the Iowa House (1858-60). When the war came in 1861, he was appointed as captain of the local militia, the Keokuk Rifles.

In 1862, he joined the Army as a major in the newly organized 15th Iowa Infantry. Belknap compiled a distinguished war record from Shiloh and Corinth through Sherman’s March to the Sea. In 1869, President Grant appointed him Secretary of War. Belknap was an able administrator, but not an honest one. Within a year, he was accepting bribes.

By 1876, the corruption was too obvious to ignore. (Belknap issued signed receipts for some of the bribes.) The U.S. House began an impeachment inquiry. Belknap immediately resigned, The House unanimously voted to impeach him anyway. The Senate didn’t convict, but 23 of the 25 senators who voted to acquit publicly stated they were sure he’d taken the bribes.

After months living in Philadelphia, Belknap briefly returned to Keokuk. He soon moved back to D.C., where he resumed his legal practice. Belknap died in 1890, and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. Despite his disgrace as secretary of war, Belknap was still admired by many of the men who served under him in the war. They collected money to raise a monument to him, and a year later a six-foot-tall granite headstone with a bronze relief bust of Belknap in his dress uniform was placed at his grave.

Explore more Iowa history here.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s December 2022 issues.


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