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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement: Montgomery C. Meigs

Beginning with this post, I will outline key figures from my work-in-progress, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.” The book will be a scholarly examination of 28 unelected leaders within the field of American public administration.

The first exemplar is Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

An old saying suggests that an army travels on its stomach. For all the supposed glories of battle, troops cannot fight if they lack the essentials. Plentiful food, clean water, operable equipment, dependable ammunition, and comfortable uniforms assist armies in winning battlefield victories. Despite the importance of supplies and materiel, however, the soldiers who supply these indispensable items seldom merit serious attention in the annals of war.

Montgomery Cunningham Meigs was one such soldier. As quartermaster general of the Union army during the American Civil War, he was a crucial contributor to the northern war effort. Secretary of State William H. Seward highlighted Meigs’s accomplishments in May 1867 when he wrote that “without the services of this eminent soldier, the National Cause must either have been lost or deeply imperiled.” Meigs was not a fighting man, but he was a public servant who served with distinction, if not with fame and glory.

He was born to an illustrious family in Augusta, Georgia, on May 3, 1816. His father, Charles D. Meigs, was a prominent obstetrician, eventually serving as a professor of obstetrics at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Meigs’s grandfather, Josiah, graduated from Yale University and served as president of the University of Georgia from 1801 until 1810.

Charles Meigs moved his family from Georgia to Pennsylvania in 1817 to establish a medical practice. As a well-regarded professional, Dr. Meigs enjoyed enormous prestige in the insular world of Philadelphia elites. He strongly supported the Democratic Party.

Dr. Meigs taught his son, Montgomery, to revere education as well as public service. The young man entered the Franklin Institute, a prestigious preparatory school, where he learned French, German, and Latin. He excelled at his studies. At age 15, Montgomery Meigs enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. His family had a connection with the United States Military Academy at West Point, which had the only accomplished engineering school in the United States. Owing to his interest in engineering, Meigs pushed for admission to West Point, which he earned in 1832.

His classroom excellence continued at West Point. Meigs especially enjoyed his first classmen’s engineering course under the direction of Dennis Hart Mahan, a legendary military theorist and engineer. The school taught him a strict moral code that would govern Meigs’s conduct for the rest of his life. After four years of study, Meigs graduated fifth in a class of 49 students in 1836. He was among the top three students in French and mathematics, but he also demonstrated an aptitude in history.

Following graduation, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the First U.S. Artillery. He transferred to the engineering division in July 1837. There he served under First Lieutenant Robert E. Lee on an engineering project to improve the Mississippi River at St. Louis as well as a project in Des Moines, Iowa. Meigs later assisted in preparing Fort Mifflin and constructing Fort Delaware on the Delaware River as well as Fort Wayne on the Detroit River. He spent the year 1849 in the office of the Engineer Corps in Washington, DC.

Meigs’s career throughout the 1830s and 1840s consisted of the typical construction and repair work performed by army engineers. These thankless tasks were necessary to ensure the smooth operation of what later generations would call infrastructure and public works projects, but they attracted little attention. While other career soldiers fought in the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, Meigs labored miles away on construction projects in Detroit. If he had hoped to earn a name in history, he missed out on battlefield glory.

His chance to earn the approbation of his peers came in November 1852, when he was dispatched to design and construct an aqueduct to supply Washington, DC, and Georgetown with before it reached the Great Falls of the Potomac River. Meigs was enthusiastic about “the great work,” believing that he had found a claim to fame. He viewed the aqueduct as crucial to the growth of Washington, DC, because “for the next thousand years” it would “pour healthful waters into the Capital of our Union.” Meigs had but one wish. “May I live to complete it and thus connect my name imperishably with a work greater in its beneficial results than all the military glory of the Mexican War.” He labored on the project until 1860.

Meigs was a busy man during the 1850s. He supervised construction of the wings and the dome of the United States Capitol building from 1853 until 1859. He also oversaw the expansion of the General Post Office Building. Meigs’s excellent work attracted the notice of President Franklin Pierce and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

The upward trajectory of his career took a detour in 1860 as Meigs quarreled with Secretary of War John B. Floyd over procurement contracts. As punishment, Floyd saw to it that Meigs was sent to Fort Jefferson in the Florida Keys, the proverbial hinterlands. Despite the ignominious banishment, Meigs used his time wisely. During the fall of 1860s, southern political and military leaders were threatening secession if Abraham Lincoln were elected president. A few days after Lincoln’s victory, Meigs forwarded a confidential note to Winfield Scott, commanding general of the United States Army, commenting on the critical situation in the Florida military forts owned by the federal government.

After Secretary Floyd resigned from the cabinet to support the nascent Confederate cause, the army called Meigs back to Washington to resume his work on the aqueduct. He did not stay in that position for long. The new president and his secretary of state, William H. Seward, directed Meigs and Lt. Colonel Erasmus D. Keyes, along with Lieutenant David D. Porter of the United States Navy, to embark on a secret expedition to Pensacola, Florida, to assess the situation and draw up plans to relieve Fort Pickens, should such action become necessary. Neither the secretary of the navy nor the secretary of war knew of the expedition until later.

While Meigs was at Fort Pickens, the rebels in Charleston Harbor fired on Fort Sumter, which became the opening salvo of a civil war. Although a staunch Unionist, Meigs was saddened by the events of the day. “The opening of a civil war is not a thing lightly to be seen,” he wrote in his journal on April 20, 1861, “and though I saw my duty plainly in reinforcing this beleaguered fortress and rescuing my countrymen shut up there from the hands and power of rebels and traitors I could not think I saw the opening of the fire without regret."

With hostilities underway, the Lincoln administration scrambled to assemble an army. Meigs had impressed many administration officials, and they seriously considered elevating him to a field command. Meigs preferred an appointment to the vacant post of quartermaster general of the army, and he made his preferences known. Secretary of State Seward and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair supported his candidacy.

Hesitant to accept Meigs owing to the man’s reputation as a stickler for detail, Secretary of War Simon Cameron initially balked at the assignment. Meigs as quartermaster general might interfere with Cameron’s prerogatives in procuring goods for the War Department. President Lincoln asked the commanding general of the Army, Winfield Scott, to smooth the way for Meigs’s promotion. In the interim, Meigs served as an infantry colonel.

Scott’s intervention worked. When he stepped into his new post on June 13, 1861, Meigs was well qualified for the task ahead. As an engineer, he appreciated the complexities of supply logistics and understood the challenges in supplying an army during wartime. Meigs also had studied French tactics and appreciated the challenges in equipping a modern army that needed to move quickly. In his view, an army that could mobilize and deliver materiel when and where it was needed was an army that enjoyed a distinct advantage.

Meigs stepped into a department rife with problems. Understaffed and saddled with debt, the quartermaster department as a model of inefficiency. Favoritism, corruption, and inattentiveness ensured that procurements were delayed or shortchanged. Anxious to correct the deficiencies, Congress sought to curb abuses with restrictive legislation, which Meigs found too draconian. He believed that the department could be reformed under existing laws if penalties for fraud were increased. After Edwin Stanton replaced Cameron in January 1862, Meigs had a free hand to alter departmental procedures.

Under a new law effective on June 2, 1862, all contracts had to be in writing, witnessed by a magistrate, and sent to the Department of the Interior for review and approval. Although the law was designed to standardize procurement contracts, Meigs feared that the added layer of bureaucracy would reduce efficiencies. Fortunately, Secretary Stanton permitted relaxation of the new rules owing to wartime exigencies.

Turning around such a problem-plagued department required a deft touch. Fortunately, Meigs was savvy enough to walk a fine line. On one hand, he created a supply chain that allowed his department to move goods efficiently to soldiers and battlefields that needed them the most. On the other hand, he strove to placate field commanders who protected their turf and resented interference with their initiatives.

Aside from his sensitivity to commanders’ egos and political sensibilities, Meigs insisted on the most exacting standards for the men serving under his command. Nothing would be wasted, if possible, and every penny would be accounted for in the ledgers. He believed that officials in the quartermaster department must not be ostentatious but should be quietly competent. According to one historian, “this philosophy enabled Meigs to survive the first year of the war in spite of the incompetent Cameron and his greedy appointees, bungling state and local defense committees, and corrupt military headquarters.”

During the first year of the war, the quartermaster department struggled to meet the needs of soldiers, especially the need for clothing, blankets, tents, and shoes. The demand far outweighed the supply. Some reports noted that soldiers marching around the capital city “were in their drawers.” Although the description probably was exaggerated, it illustrated the depth of problems that Meigs faced early in his tenure. Forced to rely on foreign suppliers, many of whom charged premium prices, the new quartermaster general searched for a means of ramping up domestic production and supply.

By 1862, noticeable improvements had occurred. Meigs and his men never stopped searching for efficient and affordable suppliers. With the Quartermaster Department Reorganization of 1864, Meigs brought the department under control and established a centralized, tightly controlled system of procurement and inspection.

He was always on the lookout for profiteers, even when they were efficient. Railroad and shipping companies were especially amenable to rapacious middlemen and hangers on desperate to turn a profit from government spending on the war. Meigs was just as anxious to rein in any profligate agents who sought to enrich their friends and relatives.

Part of the story of the American Civil War was the story of the Southern Confederacy exhausting its supplies while Union forces enjoyed greater quantities and quality of supplies as the war progressed. Meigs was largely responsible for the Union's efficiency. He anticipated the need for a large cadre of weapons. During the first year of fighting, he convinced Secretary of War Cameron to purchase huge quantities of small arms as well as field guns. Meigs also ordered the manufacture of ammunition, cartridges, caissons, and ordnance well in advance of their necessity. He also urged factory owners to retrofit their facilities to produce war goods. Some northern political and military leaders underestimated the duration and severity of the war, which led them to remain unprepared for far longer than they should have been. Meigs did not suffer from such myopia. He claimed no prescience, but he thought it better to be prepared than found wanting.

Owing mostly to Meigs’s understanding of supply and logistics as well as his indefatigable energy, he kept supplies moving through all manner of hardship. The quartermaster department operated out of 16 major depots, which held the supplies that the Union accumulated throughout the war years. Meigs established a network of manufacturers and middlemen that he linked with army officers who distributed the goods to armies in the field. He possessed an uncanny knack for getting the right materiel to the right places at the right time.

Although he was not a Radical Republican, Meigs argued that employing Black people to support the army and to fight as soldiers would quell the rebellion quickly. He believed that the Union was not employing all available resources until it recognized the contributions that Black folks could make to the war effort. In 1863, the Union established units comprised of Black troops.

Meigs suffered a personal loss when his son, Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, chief engineer of the Army of the Valley of the Shenandoah and an aide to General Philip Sheridan, was killed by guerillas during fighting at Swift Run Gap in Virginia on October 3, 1864. For the rest of his life, Meigs remained bitter at the southerners responsible for his son’s death, including his brother, who served as a Confederate quartermaster captain. Meigs was convinced that his son had been deliberately murdered following his capture.

Meigs suffered a professional loss six months after his son died. He was on hand the night that President Lincoln was assassinated. Around 10:00 p.m. on April 14, 1865, Meigs was in Washington, DC, when he learned that Secretary of State Seward had been attacked by a man wielding a knife. He hurried to Seward’s house, and there he learned that Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theatre. Rushing to the scene, Meigs arrived at the Petersen House, where Lincoln had been taken following the shooting. He stood outside the door all night as he and other administration officials waited to see what would happen. After Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, Meigs moved to the parlor and sat with the body. Five days later, he joined the funeral procession.

Meigs's career continued long after the war, and he was involved in many other projects, including the development of Arlington National Cemetery as a resting place for the country’s war dead, and construction of the Old Pension Building in Washington, DC. His greatest contribution, however, involved his service to the Union army during the Civil War. It would be an exaggeration to say that Montgomery C. Meigs won the war for his country, but he certainly contributed tremendously to the Union cause.

He died on January 2, 1892, at age 75.

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