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Afghan war planners operate in shadow of Civil War quartermaster
Courtesy of The Associated Press
18 February 2002

The military planners supplying America's Afghan war with troops and arms probably haven't spared a thought for the Civil War career of Montgomery C. Meigs. But they are operating in his shadow.

As the Union Army's Quartermaster General, dispatching men and equipment to the scattered battlefields of the war, Meigs was one of the few Union generals who proved his competence from beginning to end.

Some said the war could not have been won without him.

His intensity was fueled by a growing hatred of the Confederacy, an emotion that led him to place Arlington National Cemetery on the Virginia estate of the South's leading general, Robert E. Lee.

Meigs saw to the army's equipment and supplies as the force expanded from about 16,000 men to more than 700,000 in the first year alone. His office moved and housed the troops and supplied the guns and gear
needed for battlefield success, all the while swatting at dishonest contractors and purveyors of shoddy goods.

Streams of uniforms, knapsacks, blankets, tents, rifles, cannon, ammunition, horses, wagons, tents, pontoon bridges, food and gear of every description flowed to the fighting armies. Railroads, ocean ships,
river boats and horse-drawn wagons got it where it was needed.

Altogether, Meigs signed contracts worth $1.5 billion -- an immense sum in the 1860s.

"Perhaps in the history of the world there was never so large an amount of money disbursed upon the order of a single man," said Secretary of State William Seward.

"Without the services of this eminent soldier, the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled."

Over a long career as a military engineer Meigs had already built the stone aqueduct that provided Washington with pure water and supervised construction of the Capitol's cast-iron dome. He had served with leaders
on both sides of the national conflict, a roster including Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis who had been U.S. Secretary of War.

"The country is in a flame," Meigs told his diary in May 1861 in the opening days of the war.

In something of a flame himself, the 44-year-old captain planned and helped execute a secret expedition which successfully relieved Fort Pickens in Florida, keeping it in Union hands.

Impressed, Lincoln put him to work organizing the efficient supply and logistics system a vastly increased army would need.

But Meigs had diplomatic talents as well.

In 1862, when General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, became ill and petulantly refused to tell the White House his plans for engaging the enemy, a despairing Lincoln turned to Meigs.

Meigs advised Lincoln to consult directly with McClellan's division commanders, a move which promptly brought the jealous and ego-driven general back to health and back to duty.

Author Joseph E. Stevens, writing in the April issue of "American History" magazine, said the incident led Lincoln to make Meigs one of his principal military advisers.

Meigs' "tough-minded optimism -- his understanding of the north's overwhelming superiority in manpower and resources -- helped dispel the gloom that often afflicted the president," Stevens wrote.

As the war dragged on Meigs became increasingly bitter against the Confederate leaders he blamed for dividing the nation and plunging it into war. When an opportunity for revenge arose he took it.

By June 1864, the long list of war dead had created the need for a National Cemetery. Meigs found the land for it at the Arlington, Virginia, estate and mansion of his Confederate nemesis, Robert E. Lee.

The general ordered 26 of the Union dead taken from an Army morgue and buried at Lee's doorstep in what became Arlington National Cemetery. Stevens writes that Meigs looked on with "grim satisfaction" as they were buried on Lee's land. Meigs himself would be interred there in a grave near that of his son, killed in action by Confederate soldiers.

Resuming his engineering career years after the war, Meigs built the enormous red-brick Pension Building, now the National Building Museum. He turned its artistic embellishments into a tribute to Union veterans and
his own wartime service.

Meigs banded the building with a 1,200-foot frieze along which terra-cotta soldiers march, sailors tug at their oars, and horse-drawn supply wagons lumber toward the front.

Looking up at the long band of soldiers one thing is clear. The former Quartermaster General made sure they were all well armed and equipped.

Posted: 19 February 2002