Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Hilary A. Herbert (1893–1897): Secretary of the Navy

A staunch white supremacist and Confederate officer, Hilary Abner Herbert was one of the first southerners to serve in the cabinet in the decades after the Civil War. Born on his father’s plantation in South Carolina, Herbert studied at the University of Alabama and University of Virginia, but because of ill health, he ended his studies without a degree. Nevertheless, he was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1856.

Herbert volunteered in the Greenville Guards at the outbreak of the Civil War and rose to the rank of colonel following extensive action in Virginia as part of the Eighth Alabama Infantry. After the war, Herbert practiced law in Montgomery, Alabama. He was elected to Congress in 1876 as a conservative “Bourbon” Democrat who resisted the changes wrought by Reconstruction. Herbert successfully opposed the so-called “Force Bill” that provided federal oversight at southern polling places.

In 1885, Herbert gained a seat on the House Naval Affairs Committee and became one of the leading Democratic advocates for a strong, modernized American navy. President Grover Cleveland selected Herbert for his cabinet in 1893. As secretary of the Navy, Herbert pressed forcefully in Congress for naval allocations, securing larger and larger budgets to ensure the construction of larger, state-of-the-art warships. He served the entirety of the second Cleveland administration and returned to his law practice in 1897. The World War II-era destroyer U.S.S. Herbert was named in his honor.