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Montgomery Meigs: Civil War Quartermaster General

Updated on May 26, 2012

Montgomery Cunningham Meigs stands as one of the most integral figures of the Civil War in America, but he is little known for his accomplishments. The story of his life is a quintessentially American tale, fraught with struggle and triumph, tragedy and victory. It is the tale of an American hero, a common man who dedicated his life to the things he felt to be just and never regretted it.

Born in the South, but Not of the South

Meigs was born in Augusta, Georgia in May of 1816. The Meigs family in America had already become well-known as a military family by the time Montgomery was born. His great-grandfather, who went by the unorthodox name of Return Jonathan Meigs, served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. He gained fame when he led a successful guerrilla raid against a British outpost at Sag Harbor on Long Island. The Meigs family had moved to the southern territory when Return Meigs was appointed to a post there, and there the family remained. Only when Montgomery was born, around 40 years later, did his father decide to return north. Montgomery's mother had a strong aversion to slavery and Monty's father decided to move the family to Pennsylvania as a solution. Most of removed Meigs family, however, remained in the South; the result, a family divided between North and South. This same story was played out numerous times across the American landscape and set the stage for the tragic dramas that characterized the eruption of the Civil War.

Montgomery C. Meigs
Montgomery C. Meigs

Schooling and Engineering

Like any good child of a military family did in the early 1800's, Monty Meigs enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point. At West Point, Meigs was instilled with the credo of the Academy, "Duty, Honor, Country," and it was this crede that would be the guiding force of the rest of his life. To Meigs, the "Country" referred to could only be the Union. He had no room for or love of the slave-owning Southern states, even though his family had long called the South home.

West Point had a lasting affect on Meigs in that it introduced him to the pursuit of engineering; civil engineering to be specific. The U.S. Military Academy during the 1800's focused more on training soldiers to be able to build and establish the country than it did on training them in the arts of warfare and weaponry. They learned plenty about weapons mind you, but they learned first how to build and engineer roads and bridges in order to expand the burgeoning country. Meigs fell in love with civil engineering and the art of designing the structures of American pride.

Meigs fell in love and was married, beginning a family of his own. He remained the military man as well, and received a post in Detroit in 1841, where he was tasked with heading the reconstruction of Fort Wayne. From there, Meigs quickly amassed a reputation for being one of America's foremost engineers. He moved, along with his family, to Washington D.C. in 1852, but he did not have a specific assignment of purpose in moving there. For the budding engineer, there could not have been a better city in which to live during the 1850's, as Washington was a city under construction, with grandiose plans to boot. 

Meigs in 1882
Meigs in 1882

Building the Nations's Capital

Once established in Washington, Meigs, almost luckily, obtained the job of constructing a new water supply for the capital of America. The city under construction suffered from a severely deficient water supply system, and this deficiency contributed to high levels of disease within the city. When the most important American, President Zachary Taylor, died suddenly from what some suspected was cholera contracted from polluted water. Even the suspicion was enough to prod the Army Corps of Engineers into action, and in 1852 Meigs assumed control of Washington's water supply project. Meigs took great pride in his supervision of the Washington Aqueduct project, and his name became more well-known as a result of his involvement. He was also involved in the construction of the wings and the dome of the U.S. Captiol Building, as well as improvements to the General Post Office Building.

In 1861, after working in the nations's capital for nearly 10 years, Meigs was "banished" to the Dry Tortugas, an area about 70 miles west of the Florida Keys. He had come into conflict with the Secretary of War, John Floyd, and the resulting impasse in the capital's construction resulted in the more influential Floyd obtaining the orders for Meigs to be shipped to the Tortugas. The official story was that Fort Jefferson needed to be repaired, and that Meigs had the right skills for the job, but in reality, it was a political ploy hatched to humiliate Meigs. It might have worked on any lesser of a man, but Meigs turned his ostracism into a tropical vacation, spending days on the beach, gaining some well needed rest. A new president, President Abraham Lincoln to be exact, took it upon himself to set the record straight, and in 1861, Meigs was recalled to Washington at the behest of Lincoln.

Arlington National Cemetery and Lee's Former Home
Arlington National Cemetery and Lee's Former Home

War Engulfs the Union (and, technically, the Confederacy)

After Mongomery Meigs made his reappearance in Washington, he received a mission from the desk of Abraham Lincoln himself. He was charged, as was a Lieutenant Colonel Keyes, with leading a top-secret expedition to Fort Pickens, in Pensacola, Florida. Lincoln feared that he would lose the fort to the control of Confederate forces, and since Meigs had recently returned from a stint in the tropics, he was just the man for the job. After returning from a successful mission, Meigs was promoted to Quartermaster General for the Union Army. The Quartermaster General was responsible for overseeing the supply lines for the entire army, and ensuring that all forces were properly supplied and fed. This was no small task, especially considering that the Civil War saw the largest forces amassed in the U. S. but Meigs rose to the task superlatively.

It is the duty performed in his role as Quartermaster General for which Meigs is known to history. He believed firmly in remaining honest and he hated those who used the war as a means to charge exorbitant rates for needed items, such as horses or guns. Meigs molded the Union Army into a well oiled, well supplied machine, and the eventual triumph of the Union forces owed much to Meigs's contribution.

Another landmark for which Meigs is well known is the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington Virginia. It was Meigs who decided to commandeer the mansion of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and turn the garden into a burial ground for fallen Union soldiers. By the end of the conflict, more and more soldiers had been buried there, and the mansion was of more use as a mausoleum than it was as a house. From there, the cemetery grew even further, and today it serves a U. S. armed forces burial ground spanning over 620 acres.

His First Love

Following the war, Meigs returned to his first love: engineering and architecture. He spent time working on and supervising the construction of the War Department Building, a National Museum, and the Pension Office Building. He enjoyed his work following,but he never did forget the war. His son, John Rodgers Meigs, was killed during action and Meigs served as the honor guard at his beloved President Lincoln's funeral. As was the story of many men, Meigs served in the war with honor and distinction, but the war left an indelible mark on himself, on his family, and on his country.

Montgomery Cunningham Meigs died in early 1892, and was buried with honors in the very cemetery which he had a hand in creating, Arlington National Cemetery. It is impossible to calculate the effect of the service which Montgomery Meigs rendered to his country, but as Americans today, we would do well to remember the character and courage which Meigs demonstrated through his life.


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