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The Story of Montgomery Cunningham Meigs

From the Quartermaster Review, May-June 1950

The President of the United States and the Quartermaster General of the Army faced each other in the latter’s office.  In one corner of the room, into which the Quartermaster General had moved only that morning, a few logs smoldered in the fireplace, fighting a losing battle with the raw January air. People scurried up and down Seventeenth Street with their coat collars turned up and their heads hunched down, and, altogether, it was as miserable a day as Washington had known that winter.

Somehow the gray gloom of the day seemed to find itself penetrating the hearts of the two men as they sat in the disordered office.

‘’General,’’ the President said wearily, ‘’what shall I do!”

The time was 1862, and the principals in this small footnote to history were Abraham Lincoln and Brevet Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs.  It was, perhaps, one of the darkest moments of the entire Civil War.

For months the Union situation had been deteriorating, and the Administration was being criticized regularly. The Secretary of the Treasury was spending his last few dollars, and the immediate prospects of raising more were bleak.  To add the final black touch, General McClellan, himself barely convalescent from typhoid fever, remained curiously reluctant to order the Army of the Potomac into action.

The Quartermaster General realized that the President was a dangerously discouraged man. He realized, too, that if he made the wrong kind of reply, or if he indicated, by so much as the slight shading of a phrase, that he shared the fears of his Commander-in-Chief, the results would be catastrophic.  He also remembered the long autumn months when the Quartermaster Department had laboriously built up the supplies and equipment of McClellan’s troops, and when he thought of this latter he could not suppress a twinge of impatience at the latter’s inaction.

Now General Meigs was a professional soldier of more than twenty-five years’ service, and he knew but one prescription for despondency: action. In a few vigorous sentences he recommended that President Lincoln call an immediate conference of the high command and order the Army to advance at once.

This advice had a galvanic effect upon the discouraged President, and the story of what happened during the two years which followed that black moment in the office of the Quartermaster General is well known to us all.  Less well known, however, is the man whose words buoyed up the Commander-in-Chief at a time when the Union cause hung precariously in the balance.

In all the colorful history of the Quartermaster Corps there never has been a Quartermaster General more colorful and dynamic than Montgomery Cunningham Meigs. He held the post for twenty-one years-a near record in itself-and when he retired, in 1882, he reminded the Corps that “its worth and its success have been the study and the admiration of military nations.” The documentary record fully substantiates this claim.

Montgomery Meigs was born at Augusta, Georgia, on May 3, 1816, the son of Dr. Charles Dulcena Meigs and Mary Montgomery Meigs.  He inherited the blood of Revolutionary War officers from both sides of the family and, if there is anything to the theories of heredity, it was, perhaps, a foregone conclusion that he would quit the University of Pennsylvania and enter the United States Military Academy in 1832.   Four years later, when he graduated fifth in his class, he was recommended for a commission in any branch of the service.

Meigs’ first tour of duty was as a second lieutenant in the 1st Field Artillery, but two years later he was appointed first lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers-the branch in which he served until he became Quartermaster General of the Army in 1861.  All told, his military service covered a span of forty-nine years and seven months, and when he died, in January 1892, the War Department published an extraordinary General Order stating that “the Army has rarely possessed an officer who combined within himself so many valuable attainments and who was entrusted by the Government with a greater variety of weighty responsibilities, or who has proved himself more worthy of confidence.”

This isn’t the place for a detailed biography of General Meigs.  Some day historians may accomplish the necessary research and publish the life story of the man who, no less than Grant and Sherman, deserves a place among the truly great American soldiers. There are, however, certain highlights in his career, and certain puligent excerpts from his official writings, which should be known to all officers of the Quartermaster Corps, because they epitomize the highest traditions of the Corps itself.

When the War Department said that Meigs was a man “of strict probity and sense of right” it was telling only part of the story. There was no place in that bald, official prose for either anecdote or illustration.  There was no mention, for instance, of the time when Meigs, as a Captain of Engineers, defied a powerful lobby and the Secretary of War, and finally carried his case directly to the White House.

Back in the eighteen fifties the Corps of Engineers, just as today, was engaged in an extensive program of civil works.  Among these projects was the construction of an aqueduct for the city of Washington under the supervision of Captain Meigs.

The technical problems of this project were enormous, but even greater were the problems created by a group of contractors who were anxious to cut in on the civil works program. This group had unsuccessfully sought legislation to prevent any Army officer from having anything to do with any construction other than strictly military on the theory that, with the Army out of the picture, it would be simple to take over.

As soon as James Buchanan was inaugurated, and John B. Floyd was sworn in as Secretary of War, the thwarted lobbyists turned their pressure on the War Department. One of their objectives was to discredit the Engineers.  The exact position of Secretary Floyd is a trifle obscure but he does not appear to have been entirely unsympathetic to the cause of the lobbyists.

On June 4, 1857, the Secretary ordered Captain Meigs to furnish excessively detailed data regarding the aqueduct project, to which the latter replied that compliance would require a vast amount of paperwork, the hiring of more clerical help, and ‘the diversion of the Engineers from the duties of construction.”  The Secretary, however, was adamant.

At the same time, the contractors’ lobby was bringing pressure to bear on Captain Meigs, both directly and indirectly, one of the group even approaching old Dr. Meigs in Philadelphia to ask him to use his influence on his son.  Captain Meigs indignantly reported the whole matter to President Buchanan.

“I fear no investigation,” he told the President. “Every action of my life during its four best years, devoted to the public service in an honorable employment, has been dictated by the desire to leave unblemished fame (sic) as the only heritage my children can look forward to.”

This action, as anybody could have told him, was bound to result in fireworks, because captains do not bypass the Secretary of War with impunity.  Two weeks later Captain Meigs was relieved as officer-in-charge and reduced to the status of a mere disbursing officer.

But Meigs didn’t take this lying down.  Instead, he displayed some of the dogged tenacity which later was to characterize his operations as Quartermaster General.

Citing certain Articles of War and Public Laws to support his arguments, he again appealed to the President, charging that the action of the Secretary of War ‘tends to discredit me as an officer, because the duty of paying out money on the order of another is not the fit office and duty of an Engineer officer.”

President Buchanan, unmoved by these representations, directed Meigs to keep his communications “in the regular and appropriate channel,” while the Secretary of War issued an order exiling the troublesome captain to Dry Tortugas, Florida, ostensibly to supervise the construction of Fort Jefferson.  Captain Meigs glumly packed his bags and left for his new station, but not until he had stated in his final report that ‘work on the aqueduct, and the expenditures thereon, are going on in defiance of the law of Congress.”

That might have been the end of Montgomery Meigs’ military career, and he might have retired as an obscure officer, but for the coincidence of powerful forces.   Abraham Lincoln was elected, South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Secession, Secretary Floyd resigned to join the Confederacy, Fort Sumter was fired upon, and war suddenly became imminent.

Almost immediately after Floyd resigned, Meigs was restored to his old assignment on the aqueduct project and, two months later, when the siege of Fort Sumter underlined the grave danger to all federal fortifications in the South, Captain Meigs found himself involved in an extraordinary plan to relieve the garrison of Fort Pickens, at Pensacola.

Extraordinary is scarcely an adequate word to describe this operation.   Just how extraordinary it was can be appreciated when it is noted that the principal-if not the only-planners were President Lincoln, Captain Meigs, Secretary of State Seward, and a Naval lieutenant, and that neither the Secretaries of War or Navy knew anything about it! Captain Meigs it seems, was destined to operate outside of the regular channels.

Nevertheless, this unorthodox project paid off.  Meigs became a full colonel on May 14, 1861, and-twenty-four hours later-was nominated as Quartermaster General of the Army, with the rank of Brevet Brigadier General.

There probably was no direct connection between the sudden elevation and Meigs’ letter to the Secretary of State a month earlier, but you cannot escape the feeling that these two facts somehow were related.  After all, Meigs was a 45-year-old captain with no immediate prospects of going much higher before retirement.   Certainly this must have colored his thoughts when on April 7 he wrote to Seward that you will find the Army and Navy clogged at the head with men, excellent patriotic men, men who were soldiers and sailors forty years ago, but who now merely keep active men out of the places in which they could serve the country.

“If you call out volunteers you have no general to command.  The general born, not made, is yet to be found who is to govern the great army which is to save the country, if saved it can be.”

Later on in this same letter he remarked, not without a trace of bitterness, that “we go to serve country, and our country should not neglect us leave us to be strangled in tape, however red.” 

Whatever the reasons, it is to the everlasting credit of President Lincoln that he chose Montgomery Meigs as his Quartermaster General.  In this exacting and difficult assignment, Meigs was denied the opportunity of directing troops in tactical operations, but his contribution to the ultimate Union victory was tremendous.   Logistical support, always a vital ingredient of successful campaigns, never was more important than it was during the four years of war that followed, and without it Grant and Sherman would have been impotent.  Meigs himself succinctly expressed this thought in his annual report to the Secretary of War in 1862.

“Upon the faithful and able performance of the duties of Quartermaster,” he wrote, “an army depends for its ability to move.  The least neglect or want of capacity on his part may foil the best concerted measures and make the best planned campaign impracticable.”

In addition to his normal supply mission, the Quartermaster General was responsible for transportation by rail, wagon, and inland waterway.  In connection with the latter, the Corps constructed and equipped a fleet of river “iron-clads” which it eventually turned over to the Navy.  When one considers the rather rudimentary road and rail networks of the eighteen-sixties, it is nothing short of miraculous that General Meigs achieved what he did.

Throughout the war the supplies were kept moving to the troops, and it was General Meigs’ proud boast that on only two occasions did any Union army suffer from want.   There was a temporary break after Chickamauga when General Rosecrans’ forces were obliged to put up with short rations, and when many horses and mules perished from want of forage.  Then there were serious problems after the capture of Savannah, when the Quartermaster river fleet was unable to get supplies to Sherman’s army.

“I am happy,” Meigs was fond of saying in later years, “that I was able on these two only occasions of want to be with the troops.”

What the general did not say, however, was that the war became a very personal matter to him after his son, Captain John R. Meigs, was killed at Harrisonburg, Virginia, in October 1864, less than two years after his graduation from West Point.

But, even without that added incentive, General Meigs never would have been content to be a desk soldier.  Although he was forced to spend much of the war in Washington directing the far-flung operations of the Corps, his active spirit sent him into the field time and again.  In 1864 he personally assumed command of Grant’s supply base at Fredericksburg and Belle Plain.  In July of that same year he organized and commanded a hastily formed division of War Department clerks which manned the defenses of Washington against Early’s raid, and he probably would have taken this odd outfit across the Potomac into active combat had he not been ordered to confine his operations to the District of Columbia.

Then, in January 1865, he was on hand to direct personally the refitting and supplying of Sherman’s army at Savannah and, when Sherman’s supply lines became blocked the following spring, Meigs again was on hand to save the situation, thus furnishing the vital logistical support which led to the successful campaign in South Carolina.

During the absences of the Quartermaster General, his Office continued to function efficiently under the direction of a group of senior officers who had been developed by Meigs.  The love and loyalty which these men gave their chief was little short of idolatry. They knew that the Quartermaster General was behind them all the way, and not a few of them were indebted to him for the stars or eagles which they wore.

Time after time, General Meigs reminded the Secretary of War that Quartermaster officers were being passed over in favor of the promotion of other officers holding more spectacular assignments in tactical units.

“I trust,” be told the Secretary in 1861, “that some mode may be devised by which those officers who, from a feeling of devotion and patriotism, have continued to discharge its (the Quartermaster Corps’) most laborious and important duties may receive such increase in rank and emolument as will place them more nearly on a level with their late companions who have accepted promotion and been transferred to positions of higher rank, but whose duties are less laborious and difficult.”

He brought up the subject again a year later, complaining bitterly that “some of those officers who have had most responsible stations and most laborious duties are still in the rank of captains, while their companions, who have served no longer and not more faithfully or more usefully in the war, have received promotion.”

The long delayed promotions began to come through late in 1864 and, in his report for that year, Meigs was able to express his gratitude “for the recognition of the service and success of the department under my control, thus given to its officers.”

With such support it was no wonder that the morale of the Corps was as high as that of any branch of the service throughout the war.

Outstanding though his accomplishments were, the Quartermaster General grappled with many tough problems throughout the war years. Not the least of these was waste and poor supply discipline.

“In battle,” Meigs reported sadly on one occasion, “the losses of our equipment have been very large. Knapsacks are piled, blankets, overcoats and outer clothing are thrown off, and whether victorious or defeated, the regiments seem seldom to recover the property thus laid aside.”

Such improvidence was disheartening to the Quartermaster Corps, which had had such tremendous problems of procurement and distribution. Nevertheless, General Meigs tried to be philosophical about it all and, at the same time, to placate Congress, which had to appropriate increasingly large sums of money.

“That an army is wasteful is certain,” General Meigs reported in 1864, “but it is more wasteful to allow a soldier to sicken and die for want of the blanket or knapsack which he has thoughtlessly thrown away in the heat of the march or the fight than to supply him on the first opportunity with these articles indispensable to health and efficiency.”

Hand in hand with these problems went the problem of maintenance factors which sooner or later plagues every Quartermaster, and which was just as much of a headache in 1860 as it was in 1944.

On several occasions during the war General Meigs found it necessary to remind the Secretary of War that, although overcoats and blankets were supposed last much longer than other articles of clothing, the destruction, loss, and waste of these articles has been extraordinary, and the department has found it difficult to keep up the supply, which has been beyond all allowances fixed by regulations from the experience of the Regular Army in time of peace.”

It also became incumbent upon the Quartermaster General to explain the variegated appearance of some Union troops who had been outfitted in uniforms hastily made up from whatever fabric was then available.  General Meigs freely admitted the inferiority of some of the uniforms procured at the outset of the war but he argued that, despite these makeshift issues, “the troops were clothed and rescued from severe suffering, and those who saw sentinels walking post about the capital of the United States in freezing weather in their drawers, without trousers or overcoats, will not blame the Department for its efforts to clothe them, even in materials not quite so durable as Army blue kersey.”

There were problems within the Office of the Quartermaster General as well as in the field. Recruitment of civilian personnel seemed always to lag behind demand. Soon after he took over his duties as Quartermaster General, Meigs remarked that an army of 500,000 men was being supplied by the office “which has scarcely adequate in its force and accommodations to the supply of the old army of less than 20,000.”

Nevertheless the work somehow got done, the troops got their supplies, and the war eventually ended in victory. General Meigs summed it all up in his farewell message to the Corps when he stepped down in 1882. 

“The Corps,” he said on that occasion, “has seen great changes since I entered it. It has been expanded till, leavened by the knowledge and spirit and integrity of the small body of officers who composed it early in 1861, it showed itself competent to take care of the supplies and transportation of a great army during four years of most active warfare.  It moved vast bodies of soldiers over long routes; it collected a fleet of over 1,000 sail of transport vessels upon the great rivers and upon the coast; it constructed and equipped a squadron of river iron-clads which bore an important part in the operations in the West, and after having proved its practical power and usefulness, was accepted by the Navy to which such vessels properly belonged; it supplied the army while organizing, and while actively campaigning over long routes of communication by wagon, by rail, by river, and by sea, exposed to hostile attacks and frequently broken up by the enemy; and, having brought to the camps a great army, it, at the close of hostilities, returned to their homes a million and a quarter of men.

“It is now reduced to the proportions of a peace establishment, containing only sixty-four officers of the staff and about two hundred acting assistant quartermasters who hold their commissions in the line.

“During this time the Corps has applied to the needs of the Army over $1,956,616,000 and has used this vast sum-nearly two thousand millions-with less loss and waste from accident and from fraud than has ever before attended the expenditure of such a treasure.”

Retirement for Meigs did not mean idleness. During the decade after he left active service he returned occasionally to his first love engineering. He supervised the development of plans for the National Museum and Pension Office buildings in Washington, and it must have been particularly gratifying to him that when Congress authorized the construction of the latter building, it specifically directed that General Meigs be in charge. He could not have helped but recall, at that time, his stormy tour of duty with the aqueduct project back in 1860, and this extraordinary action of Congress must have seemed like a final vindication.

However, no vindication was needed. General Meigs had proved himself worthy of the utmost confidence and trust time and time again.

Perhaps the greatest-if unintentional complement ever paid to General Meigs came from the blunt and impatient General Sherman, who put this unorthodox endorsement upon an illegible handwritten report which he had received from the Quartermaster General; during the war:

‘The handwriting of this report is that of General Meigs, and I therefore approve of it, but I cannot read it.”

(From the Archives of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, Virginia)

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