By Alec Israeli ’21
This post is part one in a two-part series. Here in Part One, I discuss the nature of historical evidence as presented in the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton and the rise and fall of the career of one of its signers, William W. Belknap. Both were from the Princeton Class of 1848.
In his treatise on historical method The Historian’s Craft, Marc Bloch proposes that there are “[…] two chief categories into which the innumerable varieties of documents at the disposal of the historian are divided. The evidence of the first group is intentional; that of the second is not.” For the sake of demonstration, such a binary is useful; in unclear cases, it might be that the category may shift depending on what aspect of evidence the historian seeks. However, there may be some forms of evidence which elude both categories, evidence which is layered within itself, evidence whose creator’s intention may be difficult to ascertain.
Such may apply to the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton, Princeton Class of 1848. It contains the signatures of Stratton’s classmates, mostly from 1847. The book may have served as a sort of memento of Stratton’s time at Princeton, thus placing it within Bloch’s first group of unintentional evidence; it is hard to imagine Stratton collected the signatures to provide a list of his classmates for us to look at in a manuscript library. That said, the deliberation of collecting signatures does point to some intention to catalogue; to commemorate; to create, if not “evidence” in a strict definition, at least a record. The nature of the evidence provided by the book is complicated further by pencil annotations (mostly dated 1877) and news clippings added next to many of the names. These additions state what a given signer did after graduation, up to the point of the annotation. The annotations, in a sense, are an intentional creation of a historical chronology, situating alumni in their time up to 1877, and providing dates and event markers to do so. And yet the question remains as to the intended audience of the annotations. For the annotator’s own benefit? For their children’s? For Princeton’s? For posterity’s?
It is nearly impossible to make that judgement today. But the temporal layers of the autographs and the annotations, their gradation between keepsake and deliberate record, and both the connections they point towards and the gaps they leave provide rich material for an investigator today. Bound within the autograph book are myriad narratives to be woven, all leading back to Nassau Hall. One in particular is a tale of Gilded Age hubris, political intrigue, and misuses of power, a testament to the prominence— though not always a prominence to be admired— of Princeton alumni in public office.
The annotations and clippings in the book suggest that many of its signers would go on to fight and die in the coming Civil War, for both Union and Confederacy. Indeed, Edward Wall (Class of 1848, and a signer of the book) would later recount that the war “made havoc” of his class, and that many “entered the opposing armies, and a number lost their lives by wounds or sickness.” Military service was kinder to others; Wall further noted the rise of classmate William W. Belknap— yet another signer of Stratton’s book— through the ranks to a position in the cabinet of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. Belknap had entered the military as a major, moving then to colonel to brigadier general to major general and finally to Secretary of War.
On this last detail, the annotator of Stratton’s book seems to have been mistaken, as the note on Belknap’s signature states, “Appointed Sec. of Navy by Gen. Grant Nov 1869.” The mistake was oddly repeated: beside the signature is a later news clipping from 1926 marking the 50th anniversary of the resignation of “Secretary of the Navy Belknap”. In fact, it was George M. Robeson (Class of 1847, and another Princeton alum of the 1840s who likely crossed paths with Stratton, Wall, and Belknap) who served as Secretary of the Navy when Belknap was Secretary of War. Robeson came under congressional investigation for bribery in 1876, in one of the many scandals that plagued the Grant administration. He was never impeached and he kept his position, but Belknap, that other Princetonian in Grant’s cabinet, was not so lucky. Belknap was involved in his own lucrative pay-off scheme, and it cost him his office— as the annotator wrote in Stratton’s book, Belknap “Subsequently came to grief; fearfully + awfully.”
Belknap’s corruption scandal centered on Fort Sill, an Army post in Oklahoma Territory. At the time, a number of such posts dotted the West; U.S. efforts to colonize this vast expanse were in full swing, and this meant sustained conflict with many of the indigenous peoples living there. Belknap, for one, chauvinistically defended America’s actions, and he expressed a belief that Princeton’s expansion was tied to that of US dominion. In a speech he gave for the Whig and Cliosophic Societies in June 1871, as he reflected on the “center” of the U.S. “empire” moving “rapidly and surely” westward and the creation of new states from the “wilderness”, he proclaimed that Princeton, “reaching out its arms beyond the narrow sphere which apparently bounds its work, and moulding its purposes to the demands of the age and necessities of the Nation, should so fulfill its labors and extend its efficiency […]”. The same speech is filled with a language of post-bellum renewal, an optimism regarding a government “stronger than ever, richer than ever.” If the conquest of the West was proof of this on a federal scale, so too was it on the scale of Belknap’s office, especially as he financially (and illegally) benefitted from new powers over Western forts given to him by Congress.
In 1870, the year after Belknap’s ascension to Secretary of War, Congress passed a law giving this office sole jurisdiction over the appointment of merchant suppliers for Army forts. Owning a post tradership became a coveted, profitable political appointment, as it essentially meant a monopoly over all goods sold at a given fort. The opportunity for quid pro quo patronage in such a position was apparent. Following a visit to her friend Caleb P. Marsh, Belknap’s wife, Carita, promised Marsh a post tradership appointment from the Secretary of War (according to Marsh, as a show of gratitude for the “kindness” he and his wife showed Clarita when she was sick during her visit). Carita suggested to Belknap that he should appoint Marsh to the post at Fort Sill, and following Marsh’s application he did so. However, another person, John S. Evans, simultaneously sought reappointment to the Fort Sill post. Marsh worked out an arrangement with Evans whereby Evans kept the post, but sent $12,000 of the yearly profits to Marsh. Marsh then in turn sent half of this money each year to Carita.
When Carita died later in 1870, Marsh continued the payments at the suggestion of Carita’s sister, Amanda, for the supposed benefit of Carita and William W. Belknap’s young child now in Amanda’s care. However, Marsh sent the money directly to William, purportedly to then be given to Amanda, who assured Marsh the money would still get to her. Amanda married William in 1873. The child soon died too, but the payments to William continued. By 1876, Marsh had given over around $20,000 in total to William, though, according to Marsh, William did not necessarily know the corrupt source of the money. The progression of these payments was described as such by Marsh during his questioning in Congress, where he was called on February 29, 1876 to testify before the House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department during an investigation into post traderships.
The story of Secretary of War Belknap does not end here. Look forward to part two to learn about the results of Marsh’s testimony and how Charles P. Stratton’s autograph book serves as a coincidental (or perhaps not so coincidental) historical tie between multiple actors in the ensuing events.
Autograph Book Collection (AC040)
The Congressional Record (Bound Edition). (Esp. Vol. 4, Parts 2 and 7)
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104).
Wall, Edward. Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914.
For further reading:
Bloch, Marc. The Historians Craft. Introduction by Joseph R. Strayer. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.
Cooper, Edward S., William Worth Belknap: An American Disgrace. Madison [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981.
Purcell, L. E. “The Fall of an Iowa Hero.” The Palimpsest 57 (1976), 130-145.
Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction. 1st paperback edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Alec Israeli is a history major in the Princeton University Class of 2021. Aside from working at Mudd Library over the summer, his extracurricular activities include being an editor and writer for Princeton Progressive Magazine and a pianist for the Jazz Vocal Collective.