Montgomery Meigs

Montgomery Meigs is, arguably, the most under-appreciated general in the Union army.  West Point, Class of 1836, and 44 years old when the Civil War erupted, Meigs had spent his pre-war career in the engineers, working on several projects in Washington, including the dome and wings of the Capitol and the Potomac Aqueduct, which brought fresh water into the city.  With the rapid expansion of the army following the attack on Fort Sumter, Meigs received a promotion from captain to colonel on May 14, 1861, but President Lincoln had bigger plans for Meigs.  Seeking to promote Meigs to command the Quartermaster Department, Lincoln ran into opposition from Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who supported Col. Charles Thomas based on military custom and seniority.  Asking Lieut. Gen. Winfield Scott to use his influence to win over Cameron, Lincoln wrote, “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 [Meigs].”  Lincoln then assured Scott, “I have nothing personal in this, having never seen or heard of Col. Meigs, until about the end of last March.”  Impressed that Lincoln had asked for his help, Scott, who admired Meigs’ “high genius, science, vigor & administrative capacities,” quickly convinced Cameron to withdraw his objection.  However, when the Senate dated Meigs’ promotion to June 10, 1861, Lincoln again intervened, and succeeded in having the appointment back-dated to May 15, 1861.  “One wonders,” a Lincoln historian asked, “whether the misdating of Meigs’ appointment in the list of promotions sent to the Senate…was entirely inadvertent.”

Gen Mont Meigs USA

Montgomery Meigs              Library of Congress

At the outbreak of the war the Quartermaster Department consisted of just 37 officers, including the Quartermaster General and seven military storekeepers.  Several officers quickly departed for duty with the South, but those who remained had vast experience.  Still, these men were scattered across the country and months passed before they reached Washington.  Four months into the war, and with the officers struggling to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding army, Congress raised the authorized strength of the department from 37 to 64.  In time, Meigs hired hundreds of clerks, to include employing women for the first time in an attempt to meet the constant need for additional staff.

Meigs’ senior staff in Washington consisted of several reliable veterans, including Col. Charles Thomas, with nearly 44 years of service, Ebenezer Sibley, with 38 years of service and Daniel Rucker, with 23 years of service.  The chief quartermaster with the Army of the Potomac was Rufus Ingalls, with 17 years of service.

Several biographers, including the well-respected Russell Weigley, have given anyone interested in Meigs a starting point for further study.  Each of these authors, however, paints with a rather broad brush.  President Lincoln recognized Meigs’ genius after only one interview.  A transcript of the interview would be an amazing and revealing discovery.  As such a discovery is unlikely, we are left with the near Herculean task of sifting through the thousands of letters, telegrams and other communications held in the Quartermaster Department Record Group at the National Archives.  Only by reading these documents can one develop a genuine appreciation for the many trials Meigs faced every day, the scope of the challenges he overcame and the many personalities he dealt with.   I have merely skimmed the surface of the many thousands of documents held at the archives, and a dedicated biographer might never see their study into print if they tried to examine the entire collection in detail.  Still, some effort needs to be made, and those who make the attempt will, I am certain, be rewarded.

For fiscal years 1862-1864, Meigs oversaw the expenditure of more than 400 million dollars, or nearly 8.2 billion in 2017 dollars.  Captains and majors routinely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, while more senior officers spent millions.  Some of these men had their head turned and fell victim to either their own greed or the enticements offered by dishonest contractors.  Others, who remained honest in the face of temptation, found themselves fighting to save their careers and reputations in the face of fraudulent allegations leveled by disgruntled subordinates or spurned contractors.

The sheer scope of the logistical needs managed by Meigs is indeed enlightening and also rather staggering.  Every day Meigs dealt with the procurement of clothing, blankets, tents, food, construction lumber, cord wood, ice, coal, fresh water, horses and mules, as well as grain and forage for the animals, barracks for the men, shelters, stables and corrals for the animals and medicines for men and animals, to name just a few of his responsibilities.  He needed to procure a ready and reliable supply of transport, to include trains, wagons, ambulances, and water craft of all types, to include both river and ocean going vessels.  He needed facilities to store everything, especially perishable items like food and forage, repair facilities for equipment and hospitals for men, as well as for horses and mules.  And, he and his subordinates needed the ability to look into the future, to determine when and where to erect temporary depots as the armies moved, as well as when to dismantle these depots when no longer needed.   Every day he communicated with officers and civilians around the country, managing money and contracts as well as his subordinates, and insuring that an adequate supply of materiel reached every military unit when and where those supplies were needed.

At every turn, Meigs kept his eye on the public’s money.  In December 1862, he reviewed an offer to supply 5000 cords of wood, at $8.40 per cord, to provide for the heating and cooking needs of the men assigned to the Department of Washington.  Terming the price as “very high,” Meigs tabulated the fuel required by the department per day to “be about 284 cords which would require [the] constant use of 300 teams.  At the rate offered here the cost of supplying wood to the army about Washington will reach from 3 to $400,000 by the close of the season,” he concluded.  He thought a more economical solution was to have the men cut their own wood, and General Henry Halleck agreed, telling department commander Samuel Heintzelman “to make details for cutting wood so far as the duties of the command will permit,” with any deficiencies to be provided by the quartermaster.  Heintzelman grudgingly agreed to assign one company per regiment for wood-cutting details.

Providing laborers and teamsters to the army also fell under Meigs’ purview.  Soldiers were always a ready labor force, but they resisted the efforts of their superiors to employ them as such because they made less money than civilian laborers, including contrabands.  The government maintained several large facilities providing shelter and care for escaped slaves, including locations around Washington, Fort Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula, and at New Bern, North Carolina.  These facilities provided a ready pool of laborers, and when shortages in the labor force arose, as occurred during the Gettysburg Campaign, Meigs chartered private vessels to transport laborers to Washington from the other locations.  To meet critical shortfalls, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had agreed to authorize “impressing these idle Negroes.”  In late June 1863, Meigs believed that just such a need had arrived, but Stanton disagreed.  Six days later, however, and with the battle underway at Gettysburg, Stanton relented and approved the impressment of “as many able-bodied colored laborers not exceeding 1000, as can be found among the colored refugees in the vicinity of Fort Monroe and Norfolk.”  Seeking to ease the fears of the families who had only recently escaped bondage, the officers sent to recruit able-bodied males were to remind the men they would “be paid wages and rationed and will be well treated.”

Meigs almost certainly longed to be in the field rather than behind a desk, and he succeeded in escaping his office on several occasions, including a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to help untangle the supply problems crippling the Army of the Cumberland in late-1863, as well as a brief field command the following summer, during the emergency created by General Jubal Early’s attack on Washington.  Regardless of whether he was in the field or behind his desk, Meigs seldom hesitated to offer unsolicited advice to field commanders.

The procurement of horses and mules, as well as the forage and grain necessary to feed them, remained a near daily nightmare for Meigs.  In December 1862, men and animals were starving, as Meigs and his subordinates struggled to supply the battered Army of the Potomac.  “It will be difficult to accumulate forage for so many animals,” Meigs told Rufus Ingalls.  “Hay is rising in price and growing scarce.  Cannot detachments forage the country between the Potomac and Rappahannock south east of Aquia?  Much fodder must be there.”  A few days later he issued his own general order governing the care of horses and mules, and he closed the order, as he did many times during the war, by urging his men to “save the country as much as possible of this enormous waste of its military resources and of its treasure.”

Shortly after Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, Meigs told Ingalls, “In 1860 the five counties of the Peninsula between the Potomac and the Rappahannock and east of Aquia contained 15,318 white persons and 19,073 black.  Thus more than half of the population is now free and loyal and waits only the protecting presence of our troops to so declare itself.  There must be on the 800 square miles of this pretty good soil much corn, forage, wheat, cattle and [in] the hands of the whites many arms and horses.  All of them are now available for rebellion, horses, conscripts, recruits, supplies and produce… Is it not worthwhile,” Meigs asked Ingalls, “to secure these supplies for ourselves, to disarm the disloyal to reestablish the authority of the US in this province of five counties…[all] while relieving the Treasury of a part of the burden of feeding our army and its horses and mules [and] to deprive the rebels of resources waiting for the call?”  The Union cavalry responded by conducting a series of raids through King George and the other counties of the Northern Neck to procure needed supplies and to aid the escape of the local slave population.

Then, with Meigs struggling to supply horses to the Army of the Potomac, General William Rosecrans, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, sent in a requisition for 8,000 horses to mount several infantry regiments.  One of Meigs’ subordinates responded by telling Rosecrans, “It will take some time to get 8000 horses unless you can seize them in the field… Why do you not send your infantry in wagons for forced marches to intercept cavalry?”

Meigs must have cringed every time he received a new demand from Rosecrans, especially as the general had no qualms about going to Stanton or Lincoln if he thought he was being ignored or short-changed by Meigs.  When Rosecrans complained to Stanton in April, Meigs told Halleck, “All requisitions for horses for Gen. Rosecrans made known to this office have been ordered… The demands are very large & at the same time there is a great demand for horses from Gen. Hooker & for Gen. Heintzelman… The waste & destruction are so large that it is difficult to keep up the supply.”

On the same day, Meigs asked Rosecrans to provide “some trusty officer of cavalry to aid in the inspection of horses and mules to your army, who will not be accessible to temptation… There must be some officers, good judges of horses, honest men, with professional pride enough to do this duty well, and yet suffering from wounds or disability who would gladly undertake the duty, and if no disabled officer can be found, there is no duty to which you could assign such an officer in which he could render greater aid to the efficiency of your operations.”  Then, as a reflection of his own frustration, Meigs told the general, “Inspection by faithful cavalry officers is the only remedy I can devise unless General [Ambrose] Burnside will under martial law hang one or two bogus and bribing contractors.  That would improve the stock I think.”  Rosecrans ignored Meigs’ advice but persisted with his demands, prompting Meigs to remind him, we have “supplied your army since November with 14063 horses and 11842 mules.”

Meigs also asked his own procurement officers to explain what each had done to meet ‘Old Rosey’s’ demands.  When the general persisted, as Meigs must have known he would, Meigs told him, “The large number of animals you have sent back to Louisville to be recruited, over 9000, shows that you have more horses than your troops have been able to take care of.  You say there has been great [mortality] for want of long forage… Is not every additional horse another subject for starvation? How do the Rebels without water transportation in a country destitute in a great measure of hay… support the enormous mounted force which you” believe they possess?  Fed up and on a bit of a role, Meigs continued, “You report… that you have received since 1 December 18,450 horses and 14,607 mules, 33,007 animals, nearly 7000 animals per month.  Is this not a large supply? These animals cost by the time they reached you nearly four million dollars.  You had on hand 23 March… 43,023 animals in all… about one animal for every two men in your army.  You have broken down and sent off as unserviceable, in addition to this, over 9000 and report that one fourth or more of the horses on hand are worn out.  Now all this…shows that the horses are not properly treated.  They are either overworked or underfed or neglected and abused…With great deference to your experience, would not the less costly mode of defending your communications from the Rebel cavalry be to give them some occupation in protecting their own?  One thousand cavalry behind an army will give full occupation to ten thousand in pursuit.”  Seeking to keep his anger in check, Meigs continued, “I doubt the wisdom of building up such masses [of horses as you ask for] which crumble under their own weight…Look at the Army of the Potomac, a solid inactive mass of men and animals for the last five months; how it has taxed the country to supply it.  It has drawn nothing from the country it occupies except wood.”  Exasperated, Meigs concluded, “the complaints which you make of a deficient supply of horses have lately occupied much of my thoughts and time, and I have put on paper the consideration to which they have led me…Whatever can be done will be done; but it is not possible to pick up 10,000 horses in a [morning]… We have 120 regiments of cavalry and they have killed ten times as many horses for us as for the Rebels.”

In his response to Rosecrans, Meigs had referenced the panic in West Virginia and Pennsylvania caused by a recent Southern cavalry raid, and “the destruction of nine bridges on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, one of which cost $800,000.”  Still fuming, the old engineer drew up his own plans and suggestions for block houses to be erected near bridges and along railroads, including the addition of three feet of earth laid over the flat-roofed structures.  “The roof will be less tight against rain,” Meigs admitted, “but will be proof against field artillery shells and fire.”  Meigs then submitted the same plans to John Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, telling him, “Permit me to advise you… that the cost of a single bridge burned by the Rebels lately would more than pay your company for putting a block house at each and every important and exposed bridge on this line.”

When the capital fell under threat of a Southern cavalry raid in May 1863, Meigs drew up his own plans for the defense of the several depots and storage facilities around the city, and across the Potomac at Alexandria.  “You have been verbally instructed,” Meigs told one local commander, “to provide for barricades in the streets leading to the Alexandria Depot…so as to make it possible in case of necessity to keep out all improper persons, even a party of the Rebel cavalry dashing by surprise through our lines in hopes of applying the torch.”  Meigs then diagramed how and where the barricades should be constructed, explaining, “The material should be timber, rough from the woods, the gates hung on straps of iron of sufficient strength and secured by heavy wooden bars.  The barricades should not be less than nine feet high and the timbers should be sunk 3 feet into the ground.  A banquette [a raised platform for the defenders to stand on] for musketry with loop holes should be provided.  The location of the barricades will depend upon the construction of the house and the plan of approach.  They should generally be placed a few feet in advance of the street corner, so as to protect the men on duty against a raking fire down a parallel street.  Gates wide enough for any vehicle [should] be made in each barricade and in the more frequented streets there may be narrow passages for foot men near the walls.  These should not be made in streets not constantly frequented. By a sufficient number of these barricades the range of store houses along the wharves and the block of commissary stores can be isolated and a sudden dash prevented from doing injury.”

In the midst of the raid scare, Rosecrans continued to hound Meigs for more horses.  Meigs responded by warning, the nation’s supply of horses “is being seriously diminished by the war demands, and greater care of the horses… and careful treatment and restoration of those worn down by neglect, ill treatment or hard service is indispensable to enable us to keep up our cavalry force.”  Meigs had already developed a sense of how General George Stoneman’s recent raid had crippled his cavalry.  Likewise, Meigs regretted “the loss of Col. [Abel] Streight’s party… The loss of 1800 horses is a misfortune.  Pity [our soldiers] did not slaughter them… [the Rebels] should not be allowed to capture ours alive,” Meigs groused.

With the exception of ‘Old Rosey’s’ plan to mount 8,000 infantrymen at one time, Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, matched his fellow army commander requisition for requisition and felt Meigs’ ire just as keenly.  “The Secretary of War spoke to me this morning of your want of horses.  I am using every exertion to procure them and after a check due to a sudden increase in prices and the large demand for Gen. Rosecrans…they are beginning to come in rapidly, Meigs assured Hooker.  Meigs then suggested, “No horses of any kind should be left in possession of residents in the rebel country.  A horse is as much contraband of war as a barrel of gunpowder and being used for a guerrilla or a spy or a messenger more injurious to us.  Even in the plough they relieve the men from digging for a living and leave them free to plot mischief.”  Then, aware of rumors of Southern cavalry gathering in Culpeper County, Meigs offered, “[You] have 31,000 horses and 22,000 mules under your command.  These cannot all be needed to feed the body of the army while resting in camp.  Could not a body of infantry be mounted on some thousands of these with cavalry and move rapidly to cut off the forces supposed to be collecting at Gordonsville or Culpeper?  Such expeditions would alarm & disturb and, it seems to me, compel the enemy to concentrate in your front or scatter his troops in force to counteract them.  If he has now a large force at Culpeper or Gordonsville would not such an expedition cut-off & capture whatever is there?”

But Meigs also began to question published reports from Stoneman, who claimed to have returned with most of his horses, leg weary but otherwise healthy.  When Meigs read accounts from Col. Judson Kilpatrick, claiming to have captured hundreds of horses during his raids around the Northern Neck, he became suspicious.  “I…[learn] that you wish 300 cavalry horses sent immediately to Col. [Kilpatrick] now at Gloucester,” Meigs told the commander at Fort Monroe.  “[Kilpatrick] belongs to Gen. Hooker’s army, and he should send his requisitions through the chief quartermaster of that army, upon whose request this Department is exerting itself to provide 4000 cavalry horses to replace the waste of the last few weeks…I have been informed,” Meigs continued, “that Col. [Kilpatrick] had captured a large number of horses and mules on his way to Gloucester…Since then I have read an account in the newspapers of a most successful raid…in which this same command had captured a large number of horses, 200 I think and 100 mules and some cattle… Have the captured horses been…properly accounted for,” Meigs asked.  “There has been a great deception upon the public in the published accounts of these expeditions or the regiments in question should be well supplied with horses… It will not be possible,” Meigs concluded, “to send 300 horses to Fort Monroe until some of the urgent requisitions now on file can be filled.  Col. [Kilpatrick] should supply himself from the Rebels.”

In the midst of his daily trials, Meigs often found himself in the role of a morale officer or a chaplain seeking to bolster the flagging spirits of his overworked assistants.  At the end of May, Meigs told a subordinate in Syracuse, New York, “…I fear that you have greater difficulty in purchasing horses than you probably expected but still you get some and will be more successful as you continue longer in the business.  The very report of your difficulties is important to the Department which has, by some generals and others … been blamed for not purchasing more rapidly.  Men who have never bought three horses in their lives think that all the Department has to do is to send an officer to a country town and purchase a thousand horses in a day.  They are like the town lady who could not understand why the Irish tenants starved; ‘Could they not have eaten bread & cheese?’”

But the claims emanating from Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps still rankled, and Meigs told the young captain, “Gen. Stoneman’s cavalry, notwithstanding the fine statements of our own special correspondents, is in a sad state.  They call for six thousand horses.  Compare this with newspaper accounts…Even Col. Kilpatrick, who was reported to have [marched] into Gloucester with a train of Negroes with led horses & mules, calls for 300 cavalry horses immediately… he must wait until Gen. Hooker is supplied, unless he can capture them from the rebels.”  Meigs closed by urging the officer to “Persevere and send us the best you can find.”

In the midst of the fighting at Gettysburg, seen by Meigs as “the apparent crisis of the war,” the quartermaster took time to encourage an officer in New Orleans who had recently tangled with a Navy surgeon.  “Do not let these things worry you,” Meigs offered.  “Abuse is the necessary companion of high station and responsibility; and all public officers here have had enough experience to be able to appreciate it at its just value.”

But for all of his talents, Meigs remained wedded to some ideas from an era quickly fading away.  In June 1863, Meigs learned that Col. Richard Rush’s 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, or Rush’s Lancers, had exchanged their Napoleonic era lances for carbines.  “I was sorry to hear…that Rush’s 6th Pennsylvania Lancers had laid aside the lance,” he told an officer.  “I do not believe that any two rebel regiments either foot or mounted in an open field would resist or await the charge of the 6th Pennsylvania armed with the lance.  Nearly all the wounded and killed, of the late cavalry fights, have been at close quarters, and are pistol or sabre wounds.  Our cavalry have learned confidence, and charge home.  It is, I think, important to increase that confidence and also to give the moral advantage over the rebels of some protection.  All nations but ourselves have cuirassiers [cavalrymen wearing heavy metal breast-plates].  A regiment of lancers, with the protection of the bullet-proof steel vest would have great advantage,” he argued.  Meigs had earlier served on a board to test so-called bullet-proof vests and he had been impressed.  “I believe that a regiment of …lancers…with heavy horses, heavy cavalry, armed with this breast plate would render most important service, and might save the day in a pitched battle.”

The government never re-issued lances, but few, if any American soldiers enter combat today without the protection of a modern ballistic vest.  Change often happens quickly but is usually accepted reluctantly. Meigs served at a time of great change.  He could be stubborn and crusty, but his sagacity helped to successfully lead the Union through the trials and strife of the Civil War.  When he died in 1892, the government announced his death by stating: “The Army has rarely possessed an officer…who was entrusted by the government with a greater variety of weighty responsibilities, or proved himself more worthy of confidence.”



Documents from the National Archives

Roy Basler, Editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Francis Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army

Erna Risch, Quartermaster Support of the Army, 1775-1939

Ezra Warner, Generals in Blue

Russell Weigley, Quartermaster General of the Union Army


5 thoughts on “Montgomery Meigs

  1. Very interesting summary of the massive and incredibly important war service performed by Meigs. As always, thanks for extending my education!


  2. Bob: You’ve produced a masterful appreciation of Meigs. It’s all the more impressive for the deep dive into the source material from which you quote. Readers may wish to visit the Old Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), in Washington, DC, designed by Meigs. It’s various Roman-style friezes of U.S.forces during the war (such as artillery, cavalry, infantry, quartermasters, navy) are wonderful to behold.


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