By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved
One of the most amazing figures of the Civil War was Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster of the Union army and one of the critical architects of its victory. Meigs’ life is recounted by Washington Post investigative reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. in his book The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army.
Meigs was born in 1816 in Augusta, Georgia, where his father was beginning his medical career. However, because slavery literally made his mother ill, they returned to Philadelphia, where Meigs enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania (where I got my law degree) at the age of 15. He then entered West Point in 1832 and graduated high in his class and was assigned to the Corps of Engineers.
While working on improving navigation on the Mississippi River, his superior and roommate was Robert E. Lee. During the Mexican War, Meigs was assigned to build fortifications near Detroit to defend against a possible British invasion. Postwar, Meigs was assigned to Washington City. There he made his mark with the planning and construction of an aqueduct from Great Falls to finally provide a decent water supply for the capital city. His next major engineering achievement, under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, was to oversee the extension of the U.S. Capitol, which he modeled on the Roman Pantheon and the Greek Parthenon. His vision produced the Dome over the capitol and the Statue of Freedom atop it. Even as he worked tirelessly on these signature projects, he and his wife lost two of their sons to disease.
On the eve of the Civil War, Meigs was sent south to the Dry Tortugas, Florida by pro-Southern Secretary of War John Floyd, whom he detested and had criticized. This prepared him for his first wartime assignment – a secret commission by President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay (held by the Union throughout the war).
Upon his return, Lincoln insisted that Meigs, a captain just promoted to colonel, become quartermaster general, which was accomplished in June 1862. Meigs took over a department amidst the chaos of the massive increase in the size of the army and navy, incompetence, and corruption. Efficient and honest, Meigs was able to create the machinery for obtaining the vast supplies needed and at fair prices to the government. Among his many organizational accomplishments were funding the western gunboats that were critical to Union victories in the West, outfitting the fleet assembled to carry George McClellan’s expedition to the Peninsula, assembling the supply depots that served the Union so well (including that at City Point for U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign), and providing the supplies that greeted William Tecumseh Sherman’s army when it arrived in Savannah to complete its March to the Sea. Meigs’ only brush with combat came on July 12, 1864 when he organized several thousand clerks and invalids to help defend Washington City against the approaching forces of Jubal Early.
Another major project overseen by Meigs was the creation of national cemeteries for the Union dead. Embittered by Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy, Meigs decided in 1864 to create one at the home of the Lees in Arlington, Virginia, which had been seized by the Union. Meigs during and after the war oversaw the creation of the cemetery and was buried there when he died in 1891. (His tomb’s epitaph is: “Soldier, Engineer, Architect, Scientist, Patriot”.) Also buried there is his wife and his son, John, killed in an encounter in the Shenandoah Valley in October 1864. Meigs always believed that he had been executed after being captured.
Following the demobilization of most of the Union armed forces, Meigs continued as quartermaster general until his retirement in 1882. He then became architect and engineer of the Pension Building, one of his greatest achievements. Meigs followed a design from the Italian Renaissance. It used more than 15 million bricks, had an innovative air conditioning system, and is adorned with a long sculptured frieze of figures from the Civil War Union forces. It is claimed that either Army commander Sherman or his successor, Phil Sheridan, when asked to comment about “Meigs’ Old Red Barn” said that the only thing wrong with the damn building was that it was fireproof. It is now the National Building Museum (www.nbm.org) located at 401 F Street (and 5th), NW, the site of presidential inaugural balls and many exhibitions, and a must visit by any Civil War buff who goes to Washington, D.C.
The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army by Robert O’Harrow Jr.
From the publisher: General Montgomery C. Meigs, who built the Union Army, was judged by Lincoln, Seward, and Stanton to be the indispensable architect of the Union victory. Civil War historian James McPherson calls Meigs “the unsung hero of northern victory.”
Robert O’Harrow Jr. brings Meigs alive in the commanding and intensely personal Quartermaster. We get to know this major military figure that Lincoln and his Cabinet and Generals called the key to victory and learn how he fed, clothed, and armed the Union Army using his ingenuity and devotion. O’Harrow tells the full dramatic story of this fierce, strong, honest, loyal, forward-thinking, major American figure.
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