Montgomery Meigs’s vital influence on the Civil War — and Washington

On Dec. 21, 1864, as William Tecumseh Sherman’s army came to the end of its devastating March to the Sea, his soldiers found a gift awaiting them in Savannah, Ga.

A new wardrobe.

(Illustration by Nancy Harris Rouemy/Go for It Design Ltd.) - This story was featured in The Washington Post Magazine’s Civil War issue.

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A flotilla of transport ships in the harbor was crammed with comforts for the more than 62,000 weary men: tens of thousands of sturdy boots and shoes, fresh shirts, socks, underwear and trousers. There were greatcoats and blankets, camp kettles and pans, axes and spades, and even needles and thread.

So complete was the Union stockpile — at a time when many hungry Confederate soldiers went barefoot and wore rags — it might as well have been heralded by a choir of Northern angels.

One Washington man deserved the lion’s share of credit, a little-known organizational genius named Montgomery Cunningham Meigs.

At the war’s outset three years earlier, chaos and corruption dominated the mobilization of the Northern army. Speculators sold the government lame horses and leaky boats. Textile makers peddled material for uniforms called “shoddy,” redefining the meaning “poorly made.” It literally fell off soldiers in the field.

A professional soldier in the Army Corps of Engineers, Meigs had been named quartermaster general and given responsibility for outfitting the Union Army, which would grow in one year from 17,000 to more than 500,000.

He worked tirelessly to fight fraud and spend taxpayer money wisely. He loathed slavery and saw something almost biblical in the unfolding struggle. “God for our sins leads us to [victory] through seas of blood,” he once wrote to his son, John.

During the war, Meigs was so highly regarded that almost anyone who mattered listened to him. Upon receiving one report from Meigs, whose script was notoriously illegible, an admiring Sherman said: “The handwriting of this report is that of General Meigs, and I therefore approve of it, but I cannot read it.”

But these days, remarkably, few can recall his name, let alone the details of his greatness.

Meigs may be the most important bureaucrat in American history, a desk jockey who built the war machine that crushed the Confederacy. He also left behind another legacy — of technical ingenuity, humanity, love of art and belief in Washington, D.C., as a world power — before the first shot of the Civil War was ever fired.

***

Monty Meigs was a big man who could not stand still. He stood almost 6-foot-2 and wore a thick beard. A tinkerer, he conducted his own scientific experiments, invented mechanical devices and painted watercolors. He demanded excellence from subordinates and expected everyone to abide by the same ethical standards he lived by. Browbeating was a way of life.

In something of an irony, he came into the world as a Southerner. His father, Charles, had earned a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, married and moved to Augusta, Ga., with his wife, Mary, in 1815. They had high hopes that Georgia would be a fine place for his medical career and their family. Instead, soon after Meigs was born, in May 1816, Mary realized that she could no longer stomach the slavery around her.

The family moved back north, to Philadelphia. Monty Meigs romped along the Delaware River with pals. He attracted much affection, but he demanded much of other people. Even his loving mom described him as “high-tempered, unyielding, tyrannical.” And that was when he was just 6 years old.

Meigs wanted to serve the nation and build things. A natural destination for him was West Point,the country’s first engineering school, where he was admitted in 1832. Among other things, he learned the rudiments of architecture, studied mineralogy and mastered the basics of drawing and painting — all of which would serve him later.

In 1836, he graduated fifth in his class, part of an elite group of aspiring scientists and engineers. He happened to be one of the school’s best artists. But he also earned a reputation as a challenging young man, racking up scores of demerits for cutting against the grain.

Meigs later railed against the demerit system in characteristic fashion, writing that it hindered “enterprising” men in favor of “the stolid, the namby pamby, the men having no distinguishing traits or character.”

***

The two men paddled across the Mississippi in a dugout canoe, scanning the densely wooded shoreline north of St. Louis. It was the summer of 1837, some years after Lewis and Clark had made maps of the same spot. Meigs and a fellow Army Corps of Engineers officer were there to help improve navigation of the river.

It was a prime assignment, and it gave Meigs, just 21, a chance to get to know one of the rising stars of the U.S. military, a serious but gracious lieutenant named Robert E. Lee. Lee had been at the top of West Point several years earlier. Under his guidance, Meigs carried the compass and made paintings and maps of the landscape. The two shared a rough-hewn cabin on the shore. Lee found Meigs’s extraordinary energy curious. But they became comrades who, according to writer Simon Schama, “shot wild turkey from horseback, Missouri-fashion, and caught whiskery catfish.”

Meigs would recall his time with Lee as a notable point in his early career, and Lee as “the model of a soldier and the beau ideal of a Christian man.”

Lee was “one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to all his subordinates, admired by all women, and respected by all men.”

But Meigs’s admiration would soon turn to bitter hatred.

***

In 1852, Montgomery Meigs, his wife, Louisa, and their young family moved to the District, a city they would call home for the rest of their lives. They found a booming place filled with great aspirations — and a lot of muck. The city’s population had soared in a half-century from 3,000 to 58,000. It had grand buildings, including the Capitol and White House. But some of the roads were occupied by pigs, cows and chickens, and some were rutted with wheel tracks or filled with mud.

The city’s iffy water supply arrived from springs and creeks through leaky cast-iron pipes. Foul water sometimes infected people with typhoid fever and killed them. Or the water ran short, leaving firefighters in the lurch, as the city’s wooden buildings burned to the ground.

Then as now, the nation’s lawmakers didn’t show much interest in spending money on the District, a political limbo. But they had a change of heart after the Library of Congress room caught fire on Christmas Eve 1851 and almost sent the Capitol’s old wooden dome up in smoke. The next year, Congress allocated $5,000 to explore new sources of water. It was a pittance, compared with the magnitude of the project. But the money held a far greater significance for Washington. It had triggered the arrival of Meigs, who was asked to conduct the survey.

Meigs saw a chance to make a name for himself, something he could not do during the recent war with Mexico, when he was assigned to build a fort on the other side of the country. He also wanted to help the poor, who suffered most from the fires and diseases.

He got to work on his first day in town, and three months later he submitted a 55-page report that dazzled lawmakers with its depth and clarity. It seems that Lt. Meigs had undertaken a crash course in water systems in New York, Boston, Paris and ancient Rome. Of the three options presented, Meigs wanted Congress to embrace the most ambitious, which involved construction of a massive aqueduct that he promised would carry water for hundreds of years.

The lawmakers agreed. A few months later, on a bright October day in 1853, Meigs rode to Great Falls and broke ground in a ceremonial beginning. “Thus quietly and unostentatiously was commenced this great work — which is destined I trust for the next thousand years to pour its healthful waters in to the capital of our union,” Meigs wrote in his journal that night.

***

The pitch for the aqueduct had been so successful that Meigs’s boss and soon-to-be friend and mentor — Secretary of War Jefferson Davis — added on still more work. Davis made him responsible for other major projects, including the expansion of the Capitol, the Post Office building and improvements to Fort Madison in Annapolis.

When Meigs wasn’t overseeing the manufacture of bricks for the aqueduct, the digging of tunnels or the construction of bridges, he was revising budgets or redrafting plans to enlarge the House and Senate. One of his favorite tasks was the building of a new dome on the Capitol, where he had his office.

Designed by architect Thomas U. Walter, who drew inspiration from cathedrals in Europe, the dome looked gorgeous on paper. But the construction challenges were daunting. Meigs urged that it be built with cast iron. By using modern materials and methods, he aimed to save money and cut construction time.

Meigs, the Capitol project’s superintendent, interpreted his mandate from Congress and Davis broadly, giving himself wide latitude to do pretty much whatever he wanted. That included taking charge of the building’s decoration. Seeing a chance for “the advancement of art in this country,” Meigs persuaded Congress to allow him to spend a near fortune on the projects. He commissioned tiles, stained glass and murals, statues and bronze doors. He had door handles cast in the form of black snakes his men found while working on the aqueduct, and railings made with images of leaping stags.

In an inspired move, he hired Constantino Brumidi, an Italian artist who had immigrated to America and would spent the last quarter-century of his life working on the Capitol. Working for as little as $8 a day, Brumidi filled the canopy under the dome with a painted swirl of mythic figures.

Meigs also commissioned the Capitol’s crowning motif, the Statue of Freedom. But before it could be placed atop the dome, Meigs had to solve a vexing engineering problem: How to put the new cast-iron dome itself on the old building?

He designed a tower that rose 100 feet through the center of the Capitol Rotunda. He added a derrick made of massive timbers that stretched 160 feet across and had the whole thing anchored fast with custom-made wire rope. The derrick, powered by a steam engine on the roof of the Capitol, could lift as much as 20,000 pounds of stone, iron or other material. To save money and get rid of debris, Meigs burned the wood from the old dome to fire the steam engine.

“It is a beautiful machine,” Meigs wrote proudly in his journal the day the system was tested in December 1855.

***

The senators patted one another on the back and talked at each other as though they were all hard of hearing. It was Jan. 4, 1859, and everyone was in high spirits as they crowded into their new Capitol chambers. The walls of the corridor glowed with bright Renaissance colors and gilding. Outside, down the hill in the direction of the White House, sat a new fountain. The day before, Meigs had opened the valves on the unfinished aqueduct that allowed the Potomac’s water to flow into the city. Now, the water was spraying 60 feet into the air for any lawmaker to see.

The blustery Meigs seemed almost humbled by his own achievements, particularly the aqueduct. In a letter to his father, he wrote: “I wish you could see my jet d’eau in the Capitol Park. I look upon it with constant pleasure for it seems to spring rejoicing in the air & proclaiming its arrival for free use of the sick & well, rich & poor, gentle & simple, old & young for generation after generation which will have come to rise up & call me blessed.”

The aqueduct turned out to be one of the great engineering feats of the day. The system relied on gravity to carry the water more than 12 miles from Great Falls into the District. The water coursed through a 9-foot-wide conduit made of millions of bricks, over precisely designed culverts and through bridges that together descended an average 9.5 inches each mile.

At its peak, the project employed more than 50 engineers, surveyors and inspectors; 700 tradesmen; 1,100 laborers; and 60 cooks and waiters.

Simply getting the water to its destination wasn’t enough for Meigs, according to Harry C. Ways, former chief of the water system and author of “The Washington Aqueduct 1852-1992.” One valley proved to be an irresistible temptation for something more.

Instead of an attractive, utilitarian bridge, Meigs oversaw the design of the longest stone arch in world history at the time. The 220-foot granite arch remains as impressive as when it was first used during the war and called Union Arch Bridge. It is now better known as a landmark on MacArthur Boulevard called the Cabin John Bridge.

As a hedge against anyone forgetting who was responsible for the work, Meigs, now a captain, left his mark throughout the system. He had his name carved into the side of Cabin John Bridge. Plaques and inscriptions on the bridges and along the conduits still bear the words “Capt. M.C. Meigs, Chief Engineer.”

Even the risers on each of the 39 steps descending into an aqueduct vault in Georgetown are made up of cast-iron letters: MC MEIGS.

Perhaps he can be forgiven for his egotism. Long after his role was forgotten, the aqueduct he built still carries nearly 100 million gallons of water each day for use in the District and Northern Virginia.

***

Meigs’s irritability, along with his high regard for his own principles, made him a natural foe of many people in Washington who preferred to operate in a loose, genial atmosphere in which favors and cash could flow freely. He was engaged in one feud after another, over everything from corruption to artistic taste. One of Meigs’s most determined antagonists was one of his bosses, Secretary of War John B. Floyd.

Floyd was a political hack from Virginia who succeeded Davis. When Floyd took office in 1857, he began tossing off patronage as though he owned the government. Meigs routinely declined Floyd’s requests, delayed or complained to Congress. He even appealed to President Buchanan. “I feel as though I was a plug which filthy rats & mice were gnawing at all the time in order to increase the flow from the Treasury — Contractors architects & Secretaries all against me,” Meigs wrote in a letter.

On Sept. 18, 1860, Floyd had had enough. He ordered Meigs to turn over all his plans, accounting and other documents. Then he dispatched Meigs to the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida, assigned to improve Fort Jefferson. The message of the move could not have been clearer: Meigs had been banished. It appeared that an extraordinary, productive career in public service had come to an end.

But it wasn’t over yet. On the way down to his new assignment, Meigs turned his energy and creativity to another kind of endeavor: helping to save the Union.

“I believe that the temper of the South is excited, is dangerous,” Meigs wrote on Nov. 10, 1860. “... A wise discretion and preparation on the part of the authorities, I think, would prevent any such general outbreak as would require the active use of military force.”

This letter, to Lt. Gen.Winfield Scott, the head of the Army, went outside Meigs’s chain of command. But he felt compelled. On his way south, he had decided to take stock of the mood of the people. In Lynchburg, Va.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Columbus, Ga.; and Montgomery, Ala., he snooped around and took notes. His analysis was grim, according to writer Sherrod E. East and his essay “The Banishment of Captain Meigs.”

The South seemed ready to break away, he wrote. The North could take steps to prepare. But Scott and others had to move fast and reinforce with loyal men Fort Jefferson, Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, Fla., and other fortifications in the South, or risk losing them outright.

In the coming months, he wrote numerous letters to military leaders and fellow officers, seeking help and offering advice. Meigs also ruminated about the institution that he believed threatened the nation’s existence. “Is all this to end in order that slavery not freedom may have greater sway?” Meigs wrote.

“My heart grows sick as I think of this prospect, and yet I believe that even in the greatest political trouble there is peace & happiness for those & those only who each hour & minute endeavor to do their duty & I hope to be able to do mine.”

As Meigs renewed himself, Floyd went up in flames. Allegations of mismanagement and corruption dogged him. On Dec. 29, he resigned, claiming indignation over the federal government’s efforts to reinforce Fort Sumter.

Meigs was recalled to Washington, with acclaim. Said Francis Preston Blair, a politician and journalist for whom Blair House (where White House visitors sometimes stay) was named: “They sent Meigs to gather a thistle, but thank God, he has plucked a laurel.”

***

On the day before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Meigs was back at work on the aqueduct and Capitol. But his mind was on bigger things. He was bracing for war and was worried about Lincoln. “I have not yet seen him. I hope the prints do him injustice,” Meigs, a Democrat, wrote to his brother that evening, March 3, 1861. “He certainly does not seem to come much to the level of the great mission.”

Meigs squeezed in near the platform the next day and watched as the Republican president-elect took his spot at the front of the crowd. Meigs listened carefully as Lincoln framed his intent.

“No time was wasted in generalities or platitudes but he grappled at once with his subject & no one could doubt that he meant what he said,” Meigs wrote in a letter that day. “... Each sentence fell like a sledgehammer driving in the nails which maintain states.”

The speech left Meigs more devoted than ever to saving the Union and punishing those who pushed for its demise. In a letter to her mother that spring, his wife, Louisa, wrote: “His soul seems on fire with indignation at the treason of those wicked men who have laid the deep plot to overthrow our government and destroy the most noble fabric of freedom the world has ever seen.”

***

Three weeks after Lincoln’s speech, Meigs found himself at the White House, standing before the president he had doubted.

Secretary of State William Seward wanted Meigs to discuss the situation at Forts Sumter and Pickens. Seward thought Lincoln needed to “talk with some man who would speak of what he knew,” not of politics but of war, Meigs wrote in his journal.

Lincoln chatted easily with Meigs, who told him that plenty of men could be found to attempt a rescue of Fort Sumter, despite what his superiors in the Army might say.

What about Fort Pickens?

Meigs was blunt, something Lincoln relished.

“Certainly,” Meigs told him, “if the Navy would do its duty and had not lost it already.”

Would Meigs, in a secret mission, take command of the fortress and keep them safe? Lincoln asked.

“I told him I was only a captain and could not command majors who were there,” Meigs wrote in his journal. “He must take an officer of higher rank.”

Seward cut through the problem, saying that Meigs needed to be promoted. Meigs pointed out that could not be done because there were no vacancies in the Army just then.

Seward reminded him that the president, as commander in chief, could make it happen without too much fuss.

In April, Meigs and the new team embarked on their mission to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay. He was given $10,000 in “secret service money” and sent to New York, where the expedition’s ships, loaded with horses and supplies, awaited him. They sailed by Cape Hatteras, N.C., in a gale, picked up hundreds of men and cannons in the Florida Keys and, on April 16, arrived off Fort Pickens.

While Meigs made his way, the siege of Fort Sumter in South Carolina began and ended. On April 13, after surviving a 34-hour bombardment from secessionist forces, Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered. The Civil War had begun.

Fort Pickens, thoroughly reinforced by Meigs and his colleagues, remained in Union hands for the rest of the war.

***

On Jan. 10, 1862, Lincoln walked into Quartermaster General Meigs’s office and sat down on a chair in front of an open fire. He was clearly distressed.

Gen. George McClellan, head of the Army of the Potomac, had been indisposed, possibly with typhoid fever. Apart from his illness, he seemed little inclined to go on the offensive against the rebel South.

Lincoln wanted the Army to engage the enemy. And he was worried about money. The military was in the midst of its greatest expansion ever, and he did not know how the government was going to pay for it.

Lincoln barely knew Meigs, a mere captain before the war, when he had vaulted him far above his rank seven months before. But in a letter to Gen. Winfield Scott urging for the promotion, Lincoln expressed unalloyed admiration for him.

“I have come to know [Meigs] quite well for a short acquaintance, and so far as I am capable of judging I do not know one who combines the qualities of masculine intellect, learning and experience of the right sort, and physical power of labor and endurance so well as he.”

Now, Lincoln was looking for advice, according to a Meigs report.

“The people are impatient,” he told Meigs. “[Treasury Secretary Salmon] Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”

Meigs disliked McClellan intensely, believing he would rather train his massive army than fight. Meigs urged the president to move forward and seek guidance from a war council about how to do it.

“Perhaps you may select the responsible commander for such an event,” he told Lincoln.

The next day, after hearing word of the council, McClellan roused himself and agreed to meet with the president and his counselors.

Despite his lack of battlefield experience, Meigs became one of Lincoln’s trusted wartime advisers. “Meigs was quite willing to offer advice, and the president seemed to be always anxious for it,” according to historian Carmen Brissette Grayson.

Meigs had his own troubles, though. Some contractors, railroads and speculators continued to take advantage of the military’s rapid growth. But even as he wrestled with corruption and the natural friction that accompanied wartime logistics, Meigs remained determined to crush the South and end slavery.

“God does not intend to give us peace again until we expiate our crimes,” he wrote to his father, “[until] the last shackle is stricken from the wrist of the black man.”

Meigs knew Lee was a great leader and his army formidable. “The rebels are a gallant people & will make a desperate resistance,” he wrote to Seward in 1863, “but it is exhaustion of men and money that finally terminates all modern wars.”

The vast, efficient logistical system that Meigs created supported that aim like no other in history. William Dickinson, co-editor of a collection of essays about Meigs, said that Meigs’s appointment as quartermaster general “signaled the beginning of a new style of modern business management in government that would profoundly influence the course of the Civil War.”

Meigs and his many assistants, working with private contractors, the nation’s railroads, ship builders and others, routinely came up with innovative solutions to the logistical problems the war posed. His men bought or built almost 600 boats and ships. They made, and then laid, hundreds of miles of railroad track and ran 50 different lines. At the end of the war they owned (and sold) more than 200,000 horses and mules. They built hospitals for the wounded and then buried the dead.

The refit of Sherman’s army at Savannah in 1864 was regarded by Meigs as one of his finest moments during the war and “perhaps the greatest of all the accomplishments of the quartermaster fleet,” according to historian Russell Weigley’s book, “Quartermaster General of the Union Army.”

Meigs left a more tangible legacy that same year, when the cemeteries in Washington seemed close to being full. Meigs, asked to find new burial sites, pointed out a beautiful place across the Potomac, on a high hill in Arlington. It was the family grounds of the wife of his former friend and colleague, Robert E. Lee.

It is known now as Arlington National Cemetery.

Still bitter that Lee had chosen to leave the Union Army and lead the Confederate forces, Meigs even ordered the rose garden near the house lined with graves. Twenty-sixheadstones stand there today, a grim reminder of Meigs’s wrath.

***

Sixteen years after the end of the war, Meigs, still serving as quartermaster general, was given another chance to distinguish himself.

In 1881, Congress directed him to build a new home for the Pension Bureau, the agency responsible for assisting disabled veterans and the families of those who had died. Under Meigs’s plan, it would be fireproof and so well lighted that it would not have a single dark corner or corridor. He wanted ventilation that would create a healthful environment for the clerks. It also would be inspired by Renaissance architecture.

The result was big, brash and controversial, an expensive structure made with more than 15 million red bricks that mixed the classical with the modern. At the time, some critics derided the building as an aesthetic catastrophe, calling it Meigs’s “Old Red Barn.” Sherman is said to have cracked that the building was fine but for one thing: “It’s too bad the damn thing is fireproof.”

Some people now consider it among the most beautiful, venerable buildings in Washington. It’s the National Building Museum. Meigs, who so wanted to be remembered, would be proud.

Robert O’Harrow Jr. is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at oharrowr@washpost.com.

 
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