UPCOMING PROGRAMS 2019
|Jun 6||Bill Molson||"Florida's Impact on the Civil War"|
"Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs"
presented by Bill Cookman, President CWRT/GK
It has often been said that logistics are the sinews of war. The skills and intelligence of the most skilled and energetic commander are useless if his (or her) soldiers are not fed, clothed, and equipped for the battlefield. When the Civil War Round Table of Greater Kingston met on the evening of April 4, 2019, it was to hear a presentation by longtime member Bill Cookman on the role that logistics played in the Union victory over the Confederacy. In particular, Bill focused on U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. In an entertaining and highly informative talk, Bill explained how it was that Meigs was able to ensure that Union armies were kept supplied with everything they needed to maintain themselves in the field, from uniforms and ammunition to hardtack, wagons, and shovels. Before beginning, Bill expressed his thanks to Lloyd Therien for his assistance with the power-point slide presentation of his talk.Editor: Tom Brzezicki
Montgomery Cunningham Meigs was born in Augusta, Georgia on May 3, 1816. Despite his birthplace, Meigs was a Northerner, his family being from Philadelphia. That Meigs was born in Augusta was due to his father, a doctor, having set up a practice there temporarily. Meigs was one of ten children. As a boy, he was inquisitive by nature and fascinated by all things mechanical. He grew into a strapping 6'2" young man with, as Bill described, a supremely self-confident air that sometimes came across to others as aloofness.
In 1832, young Meigs enrolled at West Point and graduated four years later, ranking fifth in a class of forty-nine. After a short stint in the artillery, Meigs was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers as a second-lieutenant. He was then posted to St. Louis, Missouri where he was assigned to various civil engineering projects. These included improving the navigability of the upper Mississippi River and construction of harbour facilities at St. Louis. Meigs worked with another engineering officer, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, whom Meigs came to look upon as something of a mentor. As Bill explained, this friendship with Lee combined with Meigs' southern birth were to come back to haunt him during the Civil War.
After his assignment at St. Louis was completed, Meigs was transferred east where other engineering projects awaited him. These included, as outlined by Bill, surveying work on the Delaware River, and construction and improvements to fortifications along the Great Lakes, including Forts Niagara and Ontario, as well as Fort Montgomery on Lake Champlain. Meigs also started a family, marrying Louise Rodgers in 1841 and having seven children though tragically only five would live to adulthood.
Meigs was also stationed in Washington, D.C., where he performed administrative duties and attended to work on the Capitol building and the construction of an aqueduct to bring clean water to the city. This project had particular meaning for Meigs as two of his children died from drinking contaminated water while the family was living in Washington. Bill pointed out the way in which Meigs' healthy ego manifested itself in his engineering work. One of Bill's slides showed a part of the Washington aqueduct--which, Bill noted, is still in use today--where the name "MC MEIGS" is inscribed on the steps leading into the vault.
Meigs also designed and built bridges and other pieces of infrastructure in the Washington area too numerous to be described here. According to Bill, Meigs was such an accomplished engineer that, even had his career ended before the Civil War, he would still have earned a place in American history. The only setback Meigs experienced during these years was a run-in with Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, in 1860. Floyd became angry with Meigs when he dared to disagree with him over the matter of contract procurements. Meigs was punished by being sent to oversee the construction of defensive works in the Dry Tortugas of Florida. This exile lasted only a few months, however, and as soon as Floyd resigned in December of 1860, Meigs was recalled to Washington where he resumed his previous work.
Meigs had been promoted to captain of engineers in 1853 and with the coming of war in April of 1861, was appointed brigadier general. When the Quartermaster General of the Army, General Joe Johnston, resigned to join the Confederacy, Meigs was immediately chosen to replace him. By now, Meigs had established a reputation for diligence and honesty with a demonstrated ability to get things done. Much of Bill's presentation illustrated how Meigs was the ideal man for the job he now held and how his organizational and management skills were the foundation of his success in reforming the Quartermaster General Department and bringing it into the modern age.
First of all, Meigs was scrupulously careful with the taxpayers' money. The Army Quartermaster Department was traditionally prone to graft and corruption. Bill provided an example of how a regimental quartermaster might buy horses for $75 each but invoice the government for $110 while pocketing the difference for himself. In February of 1862, Meigs issued a memorandum making it clear throughout the army that such abuses would no longer be tolerated. This policy was strongly supported by Edwin Stanton at the War Department, and he and Meigs formed a good working relationship. In time, Bill said, the two men largely eliminated fraud and sleazy business practices by instituting a system of competitive bidding for contracts to supply the army.
Another key to Meigs' success was his use of to-do lists and checklists. Bill explained that Meigs' systematic use of checklists helped identify the steps in supply procurement and ensured they were carried out consistently. New tasks and problems were also identified as they arose and attended to promptly.
During the latter half of 1861, Meigs was occupied in getting a handle on the over 100,000 civilians under his command and establishing the system of warehouses and depots for gathering supplies and equipment and arranging for their transport and distribution to the Union armies in the field. In matters relating to artillery and firearms, Meigs worked with the Ordnance Department.
Meigs' baptism of fire as Quartermaster General came in the spring of 1862. The Army of the Potomac was now under the command of General George McClellan who, at the end of March, began a land and sea operation to capture the Confederate capitol known as the Peninsula Campaign.
Bill detailed the supply needs of McClellan's army for its advance on Richmond: rations, uniforms, weapons and other equipment for 120,000 men; 3,600 supply wagons and 700 ambulances plus forage for the 14,000 horses and mules to pull them; pontoon bridges and other special equipment; plus artillery and ammunition. Then there were the vessels needed to land the army and its supplies on the Peninsula: 1,100 sailing ships; 753 steamships, and 800 barges, plus the 300 new transport vessels that Meigs ordered built. In addition, the troops in the field would need 360,000 lbs of rations per day and the army's animals a further 400 tons of feed and forage per day.
As we know, McClellan did not capture Richmond and, following the Seven Days' Battles, the Army of the Potomac withdrew and was eventually evacuated from the Peninsula. McClellan claimed that he was outnumbered by Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and had not been fully supported by the authorities in Washington. But Meigs always maintained it was McClellan's own failings as a general that were the reason for this Union defeat.
Later in 1862 following the Antietam campaign, McClellan again complained that his military operations had been hampered by supply shortages. Bill described how General-in-Chief Henry Halleck investigated McClellan's statement and determined that any failure to destroy Lee's army was the fault of McClellan, not Meigs. McClellan was soon relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced by General Ambrose E. Burnside.
In mid-December 1862, Burnside decided to attack the Army of Northern Virginia where Lee had entrenched it at Fredericksburg south of the Rappahannock River. To cross the Rappahannock and attack the Confederate positions, Burnside needed pontoon bridges. Apparently, there was some miscommunication between Burnside, General Halleck, and General Meigs which resulted in the pontoon bridges being delivered two weeks later than expected. The delay gave the Confederates more time to strengthen their position and the Battle of Fredericksburg ended up a bloody Union fiasco.
During his presentation, Bill emphasized Meigs' forward thinking and willingness to exploit new technology, for example, the new ironclad warships. Meigs also realized the important role that railroads could play in keeping the Union armies supplied. He appointed General Herman Haupt, West Point graduate and former railroad engineer and executive, to oversee the operation Northern railroad system and its engines and rolling stock. This was one area where the Union far outstripped the Confederacy. Meigs was also in favour of recruiting free blacks and former slaves for the corps of U.S. Colored Troops. In the course of the war, Meigs also reorganized the Quartermaster Department into nine divisions, a system that Bill said is still used in the U.S. Army today. As well, Meigs pioneered efficiency methods such as "quick [i.e., just-in-time] delivery" and prepared cost analyses for President Lincoln to show exactly how and where the public funds were being spent.
By the end of 1862, Meigs' reputation was known even to the enemy. Bill quoted from a jocular telegraph message that Jeb Stuart sent to Meigs in December: "General Meigs will in the future please furnish better mules; those you have furnished recently are very inferior." Stuart was, of course, referring to mules he had captured during his raids behind Union lines.
Bill went on to describe further developments that Meigs carried out in the Quartermaster Department as the war dragged on into 1863. Chief of these was the establishment of a Cavalry Bureau for the purpose of inspecting horses before they were purchased for the army. This helped ensure that public funds were spent wisely and the Union cavalry were well mounted.
The year 1863 brought the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and Meigs did all he could to back up the Union commanders in the Eastern and Western theatres. When news was telegraphed to Washington on July 1st that General Meade was engaged with Confederate forces at Gettysburg, Meigs responded by ordering General Haupt to have his trains give priority to keeping Meade supplied. Hearing of the repulse of Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle, Meigs expected Meade to begin a vigorous pursuit of the battered Army of Northern Virginia. Accordingly, he ordered 5,000 horses to be dispatched to Meade to replace the casualties his cavalry and artillery had suffered. If Meade failed to follow up his victory at Gettysburg--and he did--no one could say it was the fault of Montgomery C. Meigs. Meigs' eye towards avoiding needless waste was illustrated by his sending two officers and a team of men to search the Gettysburg battlefield, scrounging every piece of equipment and military article that could be saved and recycled.
Meanwhile at Vicksburg, once Grant had transferred his army to the east bank of the Mississippi River, he carried out the last stages of his campaign without the use of supply wagons by having his fast moving troop columns live off the land. Thus, Grant was able to defeat the defending Confederate forces and bottle them up behind siege lines at Vicksburg, after which it was only a matter of time before they were starved into submission. Bill noted that Meigs appreciated Grant's willingness and ability to win victories without complaints about not being adequately supplied in the field.
Meigs could not always resolve every supply problem and he later admitted he didn't anticipate the logistical problems that General Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland would face after they were defeated at Chickamauga in September 1863 and then besieged in Chattanooga. On the other hand, Bill pointed out that some of Rosecrans' demands, such as the immediate delivery of 8,000 horses, would have been impossible to carry out under the best of circumstances.
The apex of Meigs' career as Quartermaster General came during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Meigs spent the winter of 1863-'64 ordering the construction of hundreds of new locomotives and rolling stock as well as the organization of thousands of supply wagons and tens of thousands of horses and mules to support Grant's coming advance on Richmond. There were also hundreds of steamships and supply vessels required.
Once the Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at Petersburg, Meigs made frequent trips to Grant's headquarters at City Point. Here he oversaw the delivery of thousands of tons of supplies and equipment by sea and rail, laying twenty-one miles of track to connect City Point with the Union siege lines. So frequently did the trains run (logging 2,300,000 miles in total) that they had their own regular timetable. There was also the small army of blacksmiths, carpenters, and other specialists to supervise.
In the Western Theatre, Meigs supported General Sherman's campaign to capture Atlanta by laying miles of new railroads, constructing bridges, and clearing tunnels. After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman cut his supply lines and had his army forage from the countryside during the famous March to the Sea. Knowing that Sherman's troops would need refitting once they reached the sea, Bill said that Meigs had a fleet of supply ships waiting for them at Port Royal and fully stocked warehouses at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Meigs also traveled to Savannah to meet with Sherman to discuss logistical arrangements for the advance north through the Carolinas.
Like Sherman, Meigs had little sympathy for Confederates. "No compromise or soft measures with traitors and murderers of loyal people and institutions," he declared. It was Meigs' idea to expropriate the house and grounds of Robert E. Lee's home at Arlington and turn it into a cemetery for the Union war dead, one of them being his own son, Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, killed in action in October 1864. It was therefore ironic, as Bill observed, that during the war Meigs was often accused of being a Southern sympathizer. The reason for this was his Georgia birthplace, his prewar friendship with Robert E. Lee, and the fact that in the mid-1850s Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had sponsored Meigs to work on the Washington aqueduct and other projects.
Although Meigs excelled at his administrative duties, like any man in uniform he hankered for action on the battlefield and, before the war ended, he finally had his chance. Bill described how Meigs had his brief moment of glory during Jubal Early's raid on Washington in the summer of 1864. In that desperate hour, about 2,000 men of the Quartermaster Department were mustered into a brigade and sent to join General Lew Wallace's army where they saw action on July 9th at the Battle of Monocacy.
Although the Civil War ended in 1865, Bill was correct in stating that Meigs never really retired. His postwar duties consisted of ending army contracts and returning railroads and other assets to private hands. He also remained as Quartermaster General until 1882. When he finally left that post, Sherman spoke on behalf of the U.S. Army: "We all feel like orphans ..." After his army career, Meigs designed prominent buildings in Washington, such as the present day National Building Museum. He also remained active in scientific circles, becoming a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institute. When he died of pneumonia in January 1892, his obituary in the Scientific American mourned him as, "Perhaps the foremost scientific soldier in the United States."
Our "time of asking" is at an end with this meeting. Your generosity has amassed CDN$440 from our April 4th meeting with one half of those present contributing. I know a number were planning to contribute at this meeting. Please consider supporting the work being done on our behalf to preserve and interpret our Civil War battlefields. This year`s target is the restoration work at five sites:
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