Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Stephen B. Elkins (1891–1893): Secretary of War

Stephen Benton Elkins was born in 1841 near New Lexington, Ohio. After graduating from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1860, Elkins taught school, then quit his job to serve in the Union Army as a captain of militia in the Seventh Missouri Infantry. In doing so, Elkins would fight both his brother and father, who had joined the Confederate Army. Though he was captured by William Quantrill’s raiders, one of Quantrill’s party, a former classmate, protected Elkins so that he was able to return to Missouri.

Elkins studied law and was admitted to the Missouri state bar in 1864, the same year he moved to New Mexico Territory. Upon his arrival, he began to learn Spanish so he could represent those living in the area. Within one year, the people so respected Elkins that they elected him to the territorial house of representatives. He served in that body from 1864 to 1865, and then worked as territorial district attorney in 1866. In 1867, President Andrew Johnson named Elkins territorial attorney general and charged him with ending slavery in the territory.

Though Elkins was a Johnson appointment, his hard work guaranteed continued service in that position during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. From 1872 to 1877, Elkins served as New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Washington, D.C., where he worked for New Mexico’s statehood. Elkins was a leading legal authority in New Mexico, as well as a prosperous businessman who had invested in land and mining, founding and presiding over the First National Bank of Santa Fe.

By 1890, Elkins had moved to West Virginia, where he founded the town of Elkins. He served as vice president of the West Virginia Central & Pittsburgh Railroad before purchasing the Morgantown & Kingwood Railroad, and then merging it with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Elkins had become a wealthy railroad baron by the 1880s, but he was still heavily involved in politics. He declined the Republican nomination for President in 1888 but was tapped by Republican President Benjamin Harrison to become secretary of war following the resignation of Redfield Proctor. Elkins served from 1891 until the end of the Harrison administration in 1893, during which time he expanded the responsibilities of the Division of Military Intelligence and recommended that the salaries of noncommissioned officers be increased. In 1895, Stephen Benton Elkins was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1911.