Monday, November 9, 2009


William W. Belknap, of Keokuk, was the second Colonel. Heredity asserts itself in the transmission of the chivalric spirit of the father to the son as well as in the perpetuity of those other traits, mental and moral, which the psychologist and the social philosopher love to trace with such minute care. The soldier is the sire of soldiers! Some men take up the sword as naturally as others do the pen or plow. It only requires the opportunity to develop the penchant. In every lonely, wind-swept country grave-yard there are the ashes of unknown Miltons. The epics that remained unsung upon their lips would have fired men to nobler accomplishments and purer purposes, — but the circumstances that shaped their destinies cast in different moulds those who would have sung them; the philosophers and scientists who have never been developed are unnumbered; the teachers worthy to lead men and the statesmen who might have guided the ship of state in any storm and who yet died unknown, is beyond count. But that spirit, which animates the soldier — that martial valor — rises to the surface under different circumstances, more untoward conditions. When the shock of war breaks upon a nation, when a crisis in civil affairs arises which must needs be arbitrated by arms, then there comes the stern sense of duty, coupled with the grim pagentry and high glory of war which fans into flame the latent embers of chivalry that have slumbered in the breasts of men. Here heredity and intellect assert themselves. The men born to command, command; those born to obey fall into the ranks and fill a noble part not less glorious for being less conspicuous.

Admitting the truth of the premises we have established it is not surprising that William W. Belknap was one of the earliest to enter the service in the war for the Union. It is not surprising that he achieved distinction and left the service with a brilliant record as a soldier and a leader. He came of a line of soldiers. His father, William G. Belknap, was for years a distinguished officer of the regular army, entering the service in 1813, when but a boy. He was appointed a third Lieutenant by President Madison and served with marked gallantry in that last struggle with Great Britain. Later he served in the Florida and Mexican wars, participating in all the battles fought by General Taylor — serving for a time on the staff of that officer and being brevetted Brigadier-General for gallantry in the battle of Buena Vista. While still in the service in Texas in 1851 he died.

In the town of Newburgh, New York, in 1829, the subject of this sketch was born, and there he spent his boyhood. When nineteen years of age (1848) he graduated from Princeton College; and at once entering upon the study of the law with Hugh Caperton, of Georgetown, D. C., he was admitted to the bar of the District by Judge Cranch in 1851. The young attorney, with a shrewdness of intuition which stood him in good stead later in life, saw the possibilities which yet lay before the Great West. Already the avenues to success at the East were blocked by the number of worthy applicants. The West, with its untried possibilities and its wider scope for the development of talent he preferred to the East, and in July of the same year in which he was admitted to the bar we find our young attorney hanging out his shingle in Keokuk. The professional ability of young Belknap commanded the respect of the older practitioners at the bar, and shortly after his location he formed a partnership with Hon. R. P. Lowe, who became afterwards Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State and later Governor. It was not long before the talent of the young lawyer began to assert itself in the new community. While there was a vigorous energy about the frontier communities which the later generations may have missed, still there was not the competition of talent which comes with older civilization and broader means of general culture. A strong, talented man must of necessity forge to the front and take precedence; so after his marriage in 1854 to Miss Cora Le Roy, of Vincennes, Indiana, (a sister-in-law of General Hugh T. Reid, who died in 1862), General Belknap began taking the local political leadership. As a result he was elected to the Legislature from Lee County at the first session held in Des Moines, in 1857-8. Then Belknap was an enthusiastic Douglas Democrat. It was the argument of war which changed his politics and made him a Republican.

The first real evidence of military spirit which the young lawyer showed was when he entered the “City Rifles," a crack military company which he afterwards commanded, and which furnished many officers of ability and high rank to the Volunteer forces. In its ranks, or as its Captain, he attained a proficiency in aims which profited him in the most trying times. There was little to indicate that the service seen in the streets and parks of Keokuk was ever to be useful in more earnest frays; but in fact it was the basis of that broader military education finished in the field and which eventually made of the Captain of militia one of the most brilliant commanders of his day. The "City Rifles" were famous for their proficiency in drill and their perfect discipline, so that when Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood commissioned Wm. W. Belknap as Major of the 15th Iowa Infantry in November, 1861, he placed over the raw recruits a man, who, though coming from the ranks of professional civilian life, was in point of ability and courage competent to lead his men forth to battle. He became Lieutenant Colonel on the resignation of Lieutenant-Colonel Dewey, August 1, 1802. On the promotion of Col. Reid to a brigadier generalcy he became Colonel on April 22, 1863, vacating the latter position when promoted by President Lincoln July 80, 1864.

The first battle in which the 15th engaged was Shiloh. It was a bloody baptism for the new Iowa Regiment and yet it was a glorious one. It was at that fight, too, that Major Belknap was wounded and had his horse shot under him. He also on that field came under the personal observation of the great leader — General Grant, and from that time dates the intimacy which was afterwards to so closely associate these two men. At Shiloh the discipline and drill of the men came into full play and that of none in the whole vast army were better. Major Belknap had himself drilled the officers in a hall in Keokuk previous to taking the field and as a result there was a degree of perfection which would have been highly creditable to regular soldiers. The intrepidity of the commander also inspired his men.

In the report made by Colonel Hugh T. Reid of the part taken by the Regiment in the battle of Shiloh, he writes as follows:

"Major Belknap was always in the right place at the right time directing and encouraging officers and men as coolly as a veteran; he was wounded, but not disabled, and had his horse shot under him, but remained on the field performing his duty on foot."

Colonel M. M. Crocker, commanding the 3d Brigade, Sixth Division, in the battle of Corinth on October 3, 1862, says:

"This engagement lasted three-quarters of an hour; the firing was incessant, and the Regiments, especially the 15th, suffered severely. I deem it my especial duty to particularly mention Lieutenant-Colonel Belknap who commanded the 15th Iowa. This Regiment was under the hottest fire, and Colonel Belknap was everywhere along the line, mounted, with sword in hand, encouraging, by voice and gesture, his men to stand their ground.”

Colonel William Hall, commanding the 3d brigade, Fourth Division Seventeenth Corps, in the battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864, in which engagement General McPherson, the able and beloved commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was killed, speaks as follows:
"Where all officers and men did their duty I can make special mention of hut few. * * * * Colonel Belknap, commanding the I5th Iowa, displayed at all times the highest qualities of the soldier, cheering his men by his voice, and encouraging them by his personal disregard of danger."

General Giles A. Smith, commanding the Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps in the same action, says:

"Many individual acts of heroism have occurred. * * * Colonel Belknap, of the 15th Iowa Volunteers, took prisoner Colonel Lampley, of the 45th Alabama, by pulling him over the works by his coat-collar, being several times fired at by men at his side. Colonel W. W. Belknap, 15th Iowa, displayed all the qualities of an accomplished soldier."

On July 29, 1864, General Morgan L. Smith, commanding the Second Division of the Fifteenth Army Corps, addressed General Giles A. Smith, commander of the Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps, as follows:

"The General commanding thanks you for the assistance rendered him yesterday by sending to his support the 15th Iowa and 32d Ohio Regiments under the command of Colonel William W. Belknap. The General also thanks Colonel Belknap and his brave men for the efficient manner in which they performed their duty." This was the battle of Ezra Church, near Atlanta.

He not only had a minute and personal knowledge of all the details of company organization, but he knew every man by name and was more familiar with their needs than many of the company officers. As a result his men were devoted to him. A fact which strengthened the regard in which he was held, and which gave his men the utmost confidence in him, was the utter absence of personal fear on his part, and his willingness to share whatever dangers or hardships befel those he commanded. This characteristic was illustrated by a little incident which occurred while the Regiment was lying at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. A gentleman came in one day who was selling steel vests—delicately wrought shirts of mail which were bullet-proof. Major Belknap examined them approvingly, but firmly said, "I think they are good things but I could not buy one because I would not ask my men to go into a fight under any less advantageous conditions than I would. If the Government will furnish them to the soldiers I will gladly buy one."

General Belknap served in the Army of the Tennessee to the end. At the battle of Corinth he commanded his Regiment and was commended for his skill and gallantry by General Crocker in his report as Brigadier-Commander. Then-for a time he was on the staff of General McPherson, Corps Commander. He was conspicuous in the siege of Vicksburg and Atlanta, and in the latter campaign won his principal renown, being always at the front and enjoying full opportunities for all his tactical knowledge and natural bravery.

At the battle of Pittsburg Landing, Major Belknap was shot in the shoulder. In company with an officer of the Regiment he went to the landing and he found it crowded with disorganized men. Turning to his companion he said, "Don't let us go down there," and reversing his steps he rallied over a hundred men and went into the fight again. After the battle, General Grant placed him in command of the 18th Wisconsin Regiment which had lost all its field and many of its line officers.

He commanded his own Regiment in the battles of Atlanta on July 21,22 and 28, 1864, and in the bitterly contested battle of July 22 distinguished himself anew by the intrepidity of a single act. The fight had become a hand-to-hand one on the breastworks, the loss on both sides was terrible and every man fought as though the result depended upon his individual efforts. It was then that Colonel Belknap, catching the Confederate Colonel Lampley, of the 45th Alabama, dragged him over the breast-works and made him prisoner. Eight days after, Colonel Belknap was made Brigadier-General of Volunteers and placed in command of "Crocker's Iowa Brigade," composed of the 11th, 13th, l5th and 16th Iowa Regiments. General John M. Hedrick, of Ottumwa, lately deceased, succeeded to the colonelcy of the Regiment.

The march "to the sea" of that famous brigade under the command of General Belknap was a part of one of the most glorious epochs in the military history of this country. Then came the siege of Savannah and the final battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, which preceded the surrender of General Johnston's army. That Grand Review in which General Belknap participated in Washington, was a fitting climax to his brilliant military career, and there is but little to recall after that. He was assigned to the command of the Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps,was the last commander of that famous Corps at the time of its muster out, and was brevetted Major-General early in 1865.

We said the war made General Belknap a Republican. It was at the election held in the field in 1864 that he cast his first vote with that party. That vote was for Abraham Lincoln.

At the close of the war General Belknap was offered a field officer's position in the regular army, but he declined it, preferring to remain in civil life, and in 1866 he was appointed Collector of Internal Revenue for the First District of Iowa. The collections for that District aggregated millions, its work was exacting and complicated, but when, three years later, he relinquished that office and the immense accounts were settled, it was found that there was a deficiency of just four cents, and not even an enemy had the hardihood to say he had embezzled that amount. It was regarded as remarkable that the difference should be so insignificant after years of duty and when the accounts were at once so large and so complicated.

The first really important public event — or at least the one which again brought him into conspicuous public notice — in the life of General Belknap after the close of the war, occurred in 1867 at the great reunion in Chicago. General Belknap delivered the address for the Army of the Tennessee in the evening and it was such a marvelous piece of fervid oratory, so beautiful in its rhetoric and lofty in its tone of patriotism and love, that the great audience, which embraced the most distinguished men of the Nation, was fairly carried away by it.

General Belknap was offered several high positions in the Revenue Service, by President Grant, which he declined, and was appointed Secretary of War by him in 1869, and served in that capacity until March, 1876, when he resigned. The records of his administration and the verdict of subsequent events show how well the duties of his office were performed. It was during the early years of his tenure of office that the measures for the reconstruction of the South were in process of formation and operation, and the number of delicate and vital questions arising were dealt with so skillfully that few of them ever needed readjustment. On the charge that he had used his office for personal profit he was impeached by the House of Representatives during a time of great excitement and the bitterest political enmities. The Senate tried the case and acquitted General Belknap. His friends of to-day are the ones who have known him best in his private and public life and neither the clamor of envious politicians nor the inuendoes of secret enemies have ever shaken their faith in his truth, his honesty or his patriotism.

General Belknap succeeded Governor Buren R. Sherman, of Iowa, as the President of Crocker's Brigade, a society of the old members being formed almost six years ago. It is a flourishing body composed of the men — now no longer lusty with the strength of young manhood, but veterans beginning to feel the weight of years—whom the General commanded.

The General resides the greater part of the time in Washington City where he has a large law practice in addition to being Iowa's Representative in the settlement of war claims. However, he still retains a beautiful home on the bluff at Keokuk, overlooking the great river.

He married in 1869 Miss Tomlinson, daughter of Dr. John Tomlinson, of Kentucky, who died in 1870, while he was Secretary of War. His present wife was her sister, and is a lady of much culture and grace. He has two children, a son by his first wife, Hugh Reid, who occupies a position of trust in the service of the Baltimore and Ohio road, and a daughter, Alice, by his present wife.

It is a grateful task to those who knew and honored him, to sketch the life of a man who, in spite of his soldierly bravery, is too modest to do it himself. General Belknap seems to have been one of those men less moulded by circumstances than he was adapted to the condition which created those circumstances. He was never in any position which he did not fill well. In civil and military life he was true to himself and his principles — the peer of any man — the sycophant at no door. His command was not so often "go" as it was "come." And in the future he will stand out as one of the boldest and grandest figures, that strong manliness, great intelligence, and a Nation's peril combined to produce.

1st Lieut. and Quarter-Master 15th Iowa Vols.
Brevet Major and Ass't Commissary of Subsistence.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, May, l887.

The story of the Great Rebellion will be the fruitful theme of poet and philosopher down to the latest beat of recorded time. From the pen of the historian will fall great volumes of political philosophy, showing the play and clash of ideas, the friction of political opinions which resulted in the most stupendous civil war of the century. The military critic will write of tactics, of grand and minor strategy, and show how battles were fought and won. But there is a human side to this great military upheaval, and this is the side that lies nearest the hearts of the people. The flesh that was pierced and the blood that was spilled bring their harvest of sorrow. In some manner or form each family has its skeleton, whose grim and ghastly visage will not down at their bidding.

The sudden transition from peace to war will never be understood by this generation. To-day the people are prosperous and happy in civil pursuits, the country basks in the smiles of the profoundest peace. To-morrow the land is filled with armed soldiers who seem to have sprung from the ground in a night. Swords and bayonets flash back the light of the noonday sun; the air resounds with martial music and the voice of command. The very earth shakes with the tread of armed men. Companies and Regiments are organized and sent rapidly to the front. How these men bore themselves in the field is a story that should be told by every Company and Regiment.

But the interest and history of a Regiment centers largely round its Commander. Upon his intelligence depend their comfort, their lives, their good name. In William W. Belknap the 15th Iowa had a Commander endowed by nature with the rarest gifts for high command. By education, Belknap was a trained scholar; by instinct, he was a soldier. At Wagram he could easily have led the charge of Macdonald, a charge that routed a magnificent army and shattered an empire. At Waterloo he could have led the Old Guard with the same desperate valor of Cambronne. In his blood were mixed strange currents which seldom flow together.

He had in him the gentleness of a woman and the sturdy courage of the warrior. The hand that could indite the tenderest lines to the loved ones at home, could wield the sword like an Ajax. He had the voice of Stentor and the arm of Hercules. No word of bravado ever escaped him. Men who knew this polished gentleman in peace were slow to believe him what he was in war. In camp he is seen in the hospital, or in the tents with the soldiers, writing letters for those who are stricken with disease, or disabled by wounds. In discipline he was exacting to severity; delinquent officers were shown no quarter. Under his magic touch his Regiment stood like a wall of adamant at Corinth, Vicksburg and Atlanta. He knew every soldier by name, and every soldier knew him for a personal friend, and held for him an affection surpassing the love of woman. And yet this man, when the fight was on, seemed to have been created expressly by the Almighty to ride the whirlwind, and direct the storm of battle.

See him on the 22d of July at Atlanta. His camp is in the thick woods. He and three comrades are quietly eating their dinner. The pickets are driven in with a rush. The forest is in a moment filled with the smoke and blaze and roar of musketry. A great battle has begun, one that may decide the fate of Sherman's army. But there is no demoralization. That wonderful voice of magic power cleaves the air like the blast of a bugle and men are lifted by it to the highest plane of daring and duty. This brigade is on the extreme left, "in the air," unsupported, and this Regiment on the left of the Brigade. They are attacked in front, on the flank and rear. But they hesitate not a moment; they knew they were in the hand of a Master. They knew that a retreat meant the wholesale slaughter of their comrades and the possible rout of Sherman's army, and they determined to hold their position to the last man.

Here Belknap was in his glory. His alert military intelligence took in the situation at a glance. He seemed to be everywhere at the same moment, directing and encouraging the men, pausing only an instant to lift a Confederate Colonel over the breast-works With the ease with which he would land a trout from a rivulet of the Adirondacks.

For hours the battle raged, but the victory was ours. Here in this valley of death this Iowa Regiment, under the leadership of this magnificent soldier, added to the fame of the Iowa Brigade a name for dauntless heroism which the people of Iowa will never let die. The man who could produce such veterans, and inspire them with his own sublime and majestic courage, was a man of no ordinary mold. Since Thermopylae the world has seen no braver day.

This was Belknap in war. In civil life he has given the world a spectacle of moral grandeur no less deserving the admiration of mankind.

His impeachment was born in base conspiracy. Throughout the severe ordeal of a Senatorial trial, he bore himself with silent bravery. His conduct there and his manly demeanor since, captured his enemies, and fastened his friends more firmly.

A great orator has said, "the time will come when the world will pronounce Belknap a moral hero." With those who know the man and the facts, that time has already come. By his comrades, officers and men, he was loved and adored as no man was ever loved before, and they girt him about with his own bright baldric of honorable renown, crown him with the garland of laurel he has so fairly won, and commend him to those historic and immortal pages where stands the shining record of his country's glory.

The fame of Iowa in the war was surpassed by no State in the Union. Her valorous sons have filled her borders with a great wealth of widowhood and orphanage, but they have given her shield a resplendent lustre, a lustre upon which the coming generations of Iowa youth will gaze in admiration forever.


Chariton, Iowa, May, 1887.

SOURCE: History of the Fifteenth Regiment Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry, p. 18-30

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