Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William H. Hunt (1881): Secretary of the Navy

A native of South Carolina, William Hunt split his young life between New Haven, Connecticut, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1844, he was admitted to the Louisiana bar and opened a prosperous law office in New Orleans. During the Civil War, Hunt reluctantly served in the Confederate Army as a drillmaster in New Orleans and celebrated the fall of New Orleans to Union forces in 1862.

Hunt's support for the federal government and for the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 led him into the Republican Party. He served as council to Louisiana's Republican governor in 1873 during an electoral dispute and served as a federal judge in 1877 after some consideration for the Supreme Court.

Hunt received James Garfield's nomination for secretary of the Navy as a southern representative in the cabinet, and he was confirmed in March 1881. Hunt assumed stewardship of a Navy Department suffering from decades of neglect. With most of the tiny fleet obsolete, Hunt set out to rebuild as much of the Navy as he could.

He established a naval advisory board to provide input on vessel construction, and tried to convince Congress to adopt the board's recommendation of a $30 million construction project for dozens of new warships. However, in the middle of his efforts, President Chester Arthur reassigned Hunt to the position of ambassador to Russia. Congress appropriated funding for only a few ships, and Hunt, weakened by ill health, died in St. Petersburg in February 1884.