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Montgomery C. Meigs - Master of Efficiency
Gifted engineer and architect, and a master of efficiency, Union brigadier general Montgomery C. Meigs was the first Civil War officer to fully appreciate the importance of logistics in military operations. His influence was felt at every encounter with the enemy, and at every warehouse, railroad depot, and cemetery. Alternately characterized as stubborn, fame-seeking, artistic, scrupulously honest, an organizational genius, and an adept, but self-serving lobbyist, Meigs was a household name in his own time. For present-day Washingtonians, and for students of the Civil War’s Defenses of Washington, Meigs still is making his mark in the 21st century with enduring public works projects and historic structures.
Few contemporaries of Montgomery Cunningham Meigs would have described him as congenial, but none doubted his intellect or talent. Widely respected for his integrity and administrative abilities, and a valued advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, Meigs was nevertheless a lightning rod for public criticism. Due to the highly visible nature of his projects and the oversight of politicians, Meigs was sensitive to the questioning and blame that came his way as a public servant. Eventually, his unparalleled wartime service and respected post-retirement commissions would diminish his need for recognition and self-promotion.
Meigs was born in Augusta, Georgia on May 3, 1816 to the prominent Philadelphia physician and professor Charles Delucina Meigs and his wife, the former Mary Montgomery. Most of his childhood was spent in Philadelphia, and after brief study at the University of Pennsylvania, Meigs transferred to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Ranked fifth in the graduating class of 1836, Meigs joined the army engineering corps and was given public works and defensive fortification-related assignments, including a stint as assistant to then Lieutenant Robert E. Lee to improve navigation on the Mississippi River in 1837.
In 1841, Montgomery Meigs married well when he wed Louisa Rogers, daughter of Commodore John Rogers, naval hero of the Barbary war. Louisa’s social and financial connections allowed them to live in a prestigious neighborhood in Washington, DC and opened up many drawing rooms to the couple. The Meigs had four children that lived to maturity. Tragically, their son John would be killed during the war and was among the earliest to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, designated by his father as a final resting place for Union veterans.
Fifth in his West Point graduating class of 1836, Meigs joined the U.S. army engineering corps upon graduation. At the time, the United States Military Academy was the one of the few engineering schools in the country, therefore, its graduates often were awarded commissions for major civil engineering and public works projects. As a young engineer, Meigs supervised the construction of the Washington Aqueduct, which carried much of the District of Columbia’s water supply from Great Falls. The aqueduct system included the Cabin John Bridge, the longest masonry arch bridge in the world until 1903, and the Rock Creek Bridge, only the second iron arch bridge built in the United States. He also was responsible for the design and construction of the wings and the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building, which at its installation, was the largest cast iron dome in the world. Meigs also oversaw the extension of the Post Office Building, and later the planning and construction of the National Museum, today known as the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building. Among his best-known works from later in his career is the Pension Building (today the National Building Museum). It incorporated numerous engineering innovations, and at the time of its construction was the largest brick building in the country. Each of these projects was intensely scrutinized by Congress, an unwelcome overview that troubled Meigs for decades.
Meigs’ organizational and creative abilities found their best outlet during his long military career. As Quartermaster General, he fed, clothed, housed and transported more than a million men. Meigs was responsible for military transportation by rail, wagon and inland waterways, including the construction of a fleet of river ironclads. Additionally, Meigs had oversight of government land use for military purposes, and construction of all military transportation facilities, and the telegraph corps.
He was responsible for disbursing more than a billion dollars from the public treasury, displaying amazing financial acumen. Just in 1864 alone, more than 3,400 military procurement contracts passed through Meigs’s office. In outfitting soldiers and seeing to their needs, Meigs instituted public bidding and competition for contracts, military specifications, and mandated quick delivery of goods, all methods to counteract previous scandalous procurement practices. Clothing design, the purchase and feeding of horses and draft animals, internment of prisoners, burial of the dead, warehousing practices, and the design and erection of tents and structures all fell under his purview. President Abraham Lincoln referred to Meigs as “a military man who would not talk politics,” a policy that freed him from undue influence in awarding contracts. But with his vast knowledge of logistics, Meigs used this information to advise President Lincoln and influence military policy. He once provided a cost analysis of how much General George McClellan’s inactivity cost the Federal government per day.
On a micro-management level, Meigs ordered a reduction in the amount of personal luggage officers could bring with them to reduce the number of wagons needed, and instructed soldiers to carry compressed rations. Despite his vast influence on war operations, Meigs had only limited direct battle experience of his own during the Civil War, which occurred when he commanded a division of War Department employees in the defense of Washington during Jubal Early’s raid on Fort Stevens. Meigs had greater impact on assisting others in carrying out their orders, such as when he personally supervised the refitting and supplying of Sherman’s army at Savannah and in North Carolina. William Seward, Secretary of State, praised him effusively in 1867, saying, “The prevailing opinion of this country sustains a firm conviction which I entertain and on all occasions cheerfully express, that without the services of this eminent soldier, the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled.”
Meigs felt a personal responsibility for the welfare of the common soldier, while acutely vexed with the problems of procurement and discipline, coupled with criticism from Congress. “That an army is wasteful is certain, but it is more wasteful to allow a soldier to sicken and die for want of a blanket or knapsack which he has thoughtlessly thrown away in the heat of the march or the fight, than to supply on first opportunity with these articles indispensable to health and efficiency.” He responded to complaints about uniforms made with irregular materials, made up hastily from whatever fabric was available: “The troops were clothed and rescued from severe suffering and those who saw sentinels walking post about the Capitol 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.”
Rest for the Union Dead
Almost every physical aspect of military life was overseen by Meigs, from the creation of standardized warehouses and officers’ quarters, to national burial grounds. Meigs’ prototype for cemetery superintendent’s lodges was adopted nationwide; the Alexandria National Cemetery lodge built in 1887 followed this design, as did grave markers for veterans. It was Meigs who recommended converting Robert E. Lee’s captured family estate to Arlington Cemetery. His own son, John Rogers Meigs, killed at Swift Run Gap, was one of the first Union soldiers to be interred in the officers’ section there. Meigs himself would also be laid to rest at Arlington after almost 50 years of public service. The Quartermaster General was embittered by the Confederacy’s departure from the Union and the human toll taken by the war. The war divided the nation and members of his own family, including a brother who fought for the South. Meigs himself reported his “grim satisfaction” of ordering 26 Union dead from the morgue to be buried near Mrs. Lee’s rose garden at Arlington in June, 1864. Some historians believe this cemetery site selection was an act of revenge. Tasked with finding additional burial grounds, on June 15, 1864, Meigs wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “the grounds about the mansion are admirably suited to such a use.” That same day, 200 acres were allotted for that purpose, and by the end of the war, 16,000 were buried near Arlington House, 2,111 of them unknown soldiers interred in a mass grave. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 soldiers had been laid to rest in 73 national cemeteries. At first, temporary wooden grave markers were used, but by 1879 Meigs saw to it that each veteran grave would have a standardized permanent marker.
A Man of Artistry and Intellectual Curiosity
Montgomery Meigs devoted his life to the appreciation of art, architecture and scientific inquiry. He was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and also a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The engineer was an avid reader, watercolorist and student of classical architecture, and as a scientist, experimented with acoustics and wet plate photography. Meigs was also one of the first engineers to employ photography to visually record his projects, used to save money on producing laborious hand-drawn documents. Interestingly, Meigs had horrible handwriting and worse shorthand. Although he held more than a dozen patents for his inventions, (including roof trusses and a hydrant) and introduced double glazed windows, historians of technology characterize Meigs as an innovator rather than an inventor, noting that he was best at adapting technologies to make the most efficient use of resources.
Legacy of Public Works Projects
Were Montgomery Meigs to tour the present day Washington, DC area, he would be gratified to see many of his projects intact and preserved as architectural and cultural monuments. A household name during his own lifetime, Meigs’s most prickly aspects of his personality manifested themselves as he sought credit for his large scale public projects. Overbearing, egotistical and stubborn, Meigs had his name inscribed on everything connected to his work, even on the pipes of his famous aqueduct that would be buried or bricked over during construction. He was notoriously reluctant to share credit with his coworkers or subordinates, and clashed with other professionals on the jobs. Sensitive to not having a military command as did many of his West Point classmates, Meigs felt his reputation and legacy would depend upon his engineering projects.
The first of his high visibility projects (1852-1860) was his supervision of the construction of the Washington Aqueduct, which carried much of the District of Columbia’s water supply from Great Falls, Virginia. This massive undertaking included the bridge across Cabin John branch, which for 50 years was the longest masonry arch bridge in the world. Most of the circular conduit of brick and rubble masonry was underground, stretching 11 miles from Great Falls to a distributing reservoir in Georgetown, and efficiently relied upon gravity to make water traverse the 140-foot drop in elevation. Nearly all of the major facilities of the aqueduct designed by Meigs are in use today. Concurrently, Meigs worked on the constructions of wings and dome of the U.S. Capitol building (1853-1859) and the imposing Post Office Building (1855-1859).
After the war, Meigs supervised plans for the construction of a new War Department building (1866-1867), assisted architects with the development of a new roof truss system for the National Museum, now known as the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian Institution (1876),planned the extension of the Washington Aqueduct (1876) and the hall of records, later known as the Pension Building, and today known as the National Building Museum (1878).
The Pension Building was the highlight of Meigs’s post-war construction projects and remains one of the greatest architectural spaces in the country. Designed to be fireproof to protect its contents, it was the largest brick building in the country at the time of its erection. Meigs’s artistic sensibilities are combined with his regard for military operations in an exterior 1200-foot frieze of terra cotta soldiers on the march, sailors tugging oars, and horse-drawn supply wagons. Its stunning Great Hall measures 316 feet by 159 feet, and is 159 feet tall at its highest point. Among its innovations was a ventilation system incorporated into the design of offices surrounding the large public spaces of the building.
The End of his Career
By the completion of major architectural landmarks and almost universal praise for his efficiency and financial integrity in outfitting the troops and conducting the logistics of war, Montgomery Meigs was more settled in his legacy. President Lincoln had respected his training, abilities and experience, and the physical landscape of Washington, DC bore his mark. The General Order issued upon his death in 1892 declared, “The Army has rarely possessed an officer...who was entrusted by the government with a greater variety of weighty responsibilities, or who proved himself more worthy of confidence.”
Dickinson, William C., Herrin, Dean A., Kennon, Donald R. Montgomery C. Meigs and the Building of the Nation’s Capital (Perspectives on the Art and Architectural History of the United States Capital, Athens, Capital Historical Society, Ohio University Press, 2001.
Miller, David W. Second Only to Grant: Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, Shippensburg, White Mane Publishing Company, 2001
Ways, Harry C., The Washington Aqueduct 1852-1992, Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore, 1995.
The Library of Congress
The National Archives
Montgomery Cunningham Meigs, by Charles Dudley Rhodes, drawn from the biography
Offices of Facility Management website, US Office of Veterans Affairs
“Ecletic Engineer”, article by Dean A. Herrin, Ohio University website
National Building Museum website
Generals and Brevets
Military District of Washington, U.S. Army
Headstones. National Archives publications, Spring 2003. Article by Mark C. Mollan, archives technician, The National Archives)