Battle of Little Bighorn: 36 – Scandal and More Scandal

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

The first Mrs. William Belknap and the second Mrs. William Belknap had been the “vivacious, and extravagant” Tomlinson sisters. They were two Kentucky belles that William Belknap had met during the American Civil War.

Carrie Tomlinson became Belknap’s first wife, with the younger sister Amanda, known as Puss, becoming a part of the household after she was widowed. In time, Carrie became sick and died, in 1870. Amanda took over the care of her sister’s infant. Amanda, described as “the most beautiful woman I ever saw in Washington or anywhere . . . perfect,” wasted no time in becoming engaged to her brother-in-law.

However, she did not immediately become the new Mrs. Belknap. It seems a year-long shopping trip in Paris was on the agenda prior to wedding her sister’s widower. “When she returned with a high-fashion wardrobe, including forty pairs of shoes, she was ready to emerge as the most dazzling woman in Washington society.” Now this may all have been on the up-and-up–during a “depression.” But there was more.

It seems that the first Mrs. Belknap had her delicate finger in the money pie, as well. Carrie Belknap had an ‘understanding’ with the trader at Fort Sill. This trader, William Marsh, was married to a girlhood friend of the Tomlinson sisters. In this arrangement, the first Mrs. Belknap was receiving a kickback, a position and situation the second Mrs. Belknap inherited along with her sister’s husband. In the case of the second Mrs. Belknap, the trader divided the money between both Mr. and Mrs. Belknap.

Lt. Col. Custer

Whether George Armstrong Custer was aware of the depth of the situation he was making accusations about is uncertain. But eventually Mr. Marsh found it necessary to relate the situation to the House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department on February 29, 1876. This was the end of Belknap and he rushed to the White House to submit his resignation to his old friend President Grant.

President Grant, not having full knowledge yet of the situation, took it that Belknap was shielding his wife, accepted his friend’s resignation.

President Grant

The Congressional Democrats were not about to let Grant and Belknap get away with this situation so easily and continued their investigation, or “rather their efforts to embarrass the President, since they lacked the two-thirds vote necessary of impeachment.” Belknap and Grant were something like two slices of bread that the Democrats were trying to make into a sandwich but didn’t have enough meat to hold the thing together. Custer, with his complaints and accusations about the trader at Fort Abraham Lincoln, and ultimately Belknap, provided the Democrats with some very juicy meat.