Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William W. Belknap (1869–1876): Secretary of War

William Worth Belknap was born in 1829 in Newburgh, New York. He graduated from Princeton College in 1848, studied law at Georgetown University, was admitted to the bar in 1851, and then began a law practice in Iowa. In 1856, Belknap was elected to the Iowa state legislature, where he served as an antislavery Democrat for one two-year term.

With the coming of the Civil War, Belknap fought as a major in the Fifteenth Iowa Infantry and saw action at Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg. By 1864, he had been promoted to brigadier general and was commanding the Fourth Division of the Seventeenth Corps, working closely with General William Tecumseh Sherman.

At war’s end, Belknap headed home to Iowa, where he served as the state’s collector of internal revenue (1865-1869). President Ulysses S. Grant tapped Belknap to become his secretary of war in 1869. Belknap took over the war portfolio from William Tecumseh Sherman, who had been acting informally as secretary of the War Department. Seven years later, Belknap resigned his post amidst accusations of corruption. Though the House of Representatives voted articles of impeachment against him, he was tried and acquitted by the Senate. William Worth Belknap died in 1890.