On Dec. 21, 1864, as William Tecumseh Sherman’s army came to the end of its devastating March to the Sea, his soldiers found a gift awaiting them in Savannah, Ga.
A new wardrobe.
A flotilla of transport ships in the harbor was crammed with comforts for the more than 62,000 weary men: tens of thousands of sturdy boots and shoes, fresh shirts, socks, underwear and trousers. There were greatcoats and blankets, camp kettles and pans, axes and spades, and even needles and thread.
So complete was the Union stockpile — at a time when many hungry Confederate soldiers went barefoot and wore rags — it might as well have been heralded by a choir of Northern angels.
One Washington man deserved the lion’s share of credit, a little-known organizational genius named Montgomery Cunningham Meigs.
At the war’s outset three years earlier, chaos and corruption dominated the mobilization of the Northern army. Speculators sold the government lame horses and leaky boats. Textile makers peddled material for uniforms called “shoddy,” redefining the meaning “poorly made.” It literally fell off soldiers in the field.
A professional soldier in the Army Corps of Engineers, Meigs had been named quartermaster general and given responsibility for outfitting the Union Army, which would grow in one year from 17,000 to more than 500,000.
He worked tirelessly to fight fraud and spend taxpayer money wisely. He loathed slavery and saw something almost biblical in the unfolding struggle. “God for our sins leads us to [victory] through seas of blood,” he once wrote to his son, John.
During the war, Meigs was so highly regarded that almost anyone who mattered listened to him. Upon receiving one report from Meigs, whose script was notoriously illegible, an admiring Sherman said: “The handwriting of this report is that of General Meigs, and I therefore approve of it, but I cannot read it.”
But these days, remarkably, few can recall his name, let alone the details of his greatness.
Meigs may be the most important bureaucrat in American history, a desk jockey who built the war machine that crushed the Confederacy. He also left behind another legacy — of technical ingenuity, humanity, love of art and belief in Washington, D.C., as a world power — before the first shot of the Civil War was ever fired.
Monty Meigs was a big man who could not stand still. He stood almost 6-foot-2 and wore a thick beard. A tinkerer, he conducted his own scientific experiments, invented mechanical devices and painted watercolors. He demanded excellence from subordinates and expected everyone to abide by the same ethical standards he lived by. Browbeating was a way of life.
In something of an irony, he came into the world as a Southerner. His father, Charles, had earned a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, married and moved to Augusta, Ga., with his wife, Mary, in 1815. They had high hopes that Georgia would be a fine place for his medical career and their family. Instead, soon after Meigs was born, in May 1816, Mary realized that she could no longer stomach the slavery around her.
The family moved back north, to Philadelphia. Monty Meigs romped along the Delaware River with pals. He attracted much affection, but he demanded much of other people. Even his loving mom described him as “high-tempered, unyielding, tyrannical.” And that was when he was just 6 years old.
Meigs wanted to serve the nation and build things. A natural destination for him was West Point,the country’s first engineering school, where he was admitted in 1832. Among other things, he learned the rudiments of architecture, studied mineralogy and mastered the basics of drawing and painting — all of which would serve him later.
In 1836, he graduated fifth in his class, part of an elite group of aspiring scientists and engineers. He happened to be one of the school’s best artists. But he also earned a reputation as a challenging young man, racking up scores of demerits for cutting against the grain.
Meigs later railed against the demerit system in characteristic fashion, writing that it hindered “enterprising” men in favor of “the stolid, the namby pamby, the men having no distinguishing traits or character.”
The two men paddled across the Mississippi in a dugout canoe, scanning the densely wooded shoreline north of St. Louis. It was the summer of 1837, some years after Lewis and Clark had made maps of the same spot. Meigs and a fellow Army Corps of Engineers officer were there to help improve navigation of the river.