The Revenge of Montgomery C. Meigs

Robert E. Lee escaped paying for treason, until he met Meigs.

Few things confer such satisfaction as really screwing the enemy. So Brigadier Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs must have died a very satisfied man, after turning Robert E. Lee’s cherished hilltop estate into what one historian termed “a boneyard.” Meigs, whose parents lived in Chester Heights, was the Union Army’s quartermaster general in the Civil War. That’s the person responsible for keeping the troops supplied, while providing transportation and other behind-the-lines services, including burial of the dead.

In that role, Meigs implemented 1862 legislation establishing 13 national military cemeteries. When plots filled up around Washington, Meigs’ staff recommended Lee’s property. He loved the idea and had interments “immediately commenced.” 

When he discovered that the first graves had been dug far from the mansion, Meigs got more specific. “Orders were reissued to the effect that bodies ought to encircle the mansion, coming as close as possible to the Doric portico itself,” wrote historian Simon Schama. “And this time, Meigs went to Arlington Heights and made sure the shovels struck. That Lee soil was purified with the bones of the blessed dead.” 

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By war’s end, 16,000 bodies had been buried at what is now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

B orn in Augusta, Ga., Meigs was the son of nationally known obstetrician Charles Meigs. Dr. Meigs had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and taught at Jefferson Medical College, moving south in 1812 to open a medical practice. Back in Georgia, Dr. Meigs suffered from “bilious” fevers, which he blamed on the climate and his wife, Mary Montgomery Meigs, who hated slavery. “In deference to his wife’s strong opinions,” wrote Schama, “the obstetrician and his wife moved their family back north to Philadelphia, where Monty was raised in a learned but rambunctious house on Chestnut Street.”

One of 10 children, Meigs was a large, clumsy, inquisitive boy who was stubborn, “tyrannical to his brothers,” and interested in all things mechanical. He wasn’t a particularly focused student, and his parents finally settled on the idea of military school to convert his fidgety energy into something useful. In 1836, Meigs graduated from West Point as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery. But he spent most of his service with the Corps of Engineers. “It was West Pointers who constructed America physically and materially in this period,” wrote Schama. “Jefferson’s dream of a westerly stretching empire of liberty was a real possibility—through the pioneering of survey maps, the building of roads, bridges and canals, the dredging of harbors, and the protection of ports from natural as well as foreign threats.”

Meigs’ early assignments were purely military. He helped rebuild Fort Mifflin, which had been virtually abandoned after construction of Fort Delaware in the 1820s. In 1842, the Corps sent Meigs to Detroit, where he bought several farms, then supervised construction of an earthen fort that was named Fort Wayne.

In 1837, Meigs was assigned to St. Louis to make recommendations for navigational improvements along the Mississippi. Lee was his commanding officer. 

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Both lieutenants, the two explored the river in a dugout canoe while taking soundings that they turned into maps. Lee’s formal report called for a diagonal dam upstream, which would push some of the silt away from the city. “They shared log cabins, talked with the Chippewa, made do in reeking rooms in St. Louis, where moldy whitewash hung in limp strips from the wall, defeating the cologne that the elegant Lee had brought in his traveling bag,” wrote Schama. “Though the intense, inexhaustible Meigs made Lee uneasy, a fellowship was born.”

The two went different ways in the 1840s. During the Mexican War, Lee made a name for himself in combat; Meigs was the man who got things built. In 1853, Meigs began what he later called his favorite project: the Washington Aqueduct. Since
1859, it has supplied the nation’s capital with freshwater via a 12-mile pipe from  the Great Falls of the Potomac to a reservoir in Maryland. Writing in his diary, Meigs believed the aqueduct “would connect my name imperishably with a work greater in its beneficial results than all the military glory of the Mexican War.” 

Completion was marked with the inaugural gush of a fountain at a Capitol Hill ceremony. Sen. Jefferson Davis was there to shake Meigs’ hand.

Simultaneously, Meigs supervised the expansion of the U.S. Capitol. This included the cast-iron dome, for which he designed a scaffold that rose from the center of the rotunda. A steam engine on the roof provided power to lift 20,000 pounds of material. To fuel the engine, Meigs used wood from the old dome.

Capitol construction was still underway in late 1860, when Meigs paid a brief visit to his brother, Henry, who managed a cotton mill in Columbus, Ga. After listening to Henry rant that the fields would be “reddened with blood” if Lincoln were elected, the engineer recalled their mother’s horror over slavery. “Quite suddenly,” wrote Schama, “the identity of his friends and his enemies became distinct in Montgomery’s mind.” 

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Meigs had just spent the past 25 years literally building the United States. So, when the war came, his attitude toward those trying to bring it down was
predictable: Lee, Davis and the rest were all traitors deserving the constitutional remedy for anyone convicted of “levying war” against his own country. “His soul seems on fire with indignation at the treason of those wicked men who have laid the deep plot to overthrow our government,” wrote Meigs’ wife, Louisa, to a friend. “He looks so dreadfully stern when he talks of the rebellion that I do not like to look at him.”

When it became plain that Fort Sumter couldn’t be saved, the Lincoln Administration turned to Meigs to help save others. Assigned to reinforce Fort Pickens, Fla., Meigs commandeered a civilian ship to keep the mission secret from Washington spies, garrisoned it with a thousand men, and blockaded the harbor. The Confederates immediately opened fire, but to no lasting effect. Fort Pickens remained in Union hands for the rest of the war.

Meigs was promptly promoted to brigadier general and quartermaster general, replacing Joseph Johnston, who’d joined the Confederate Army. The appointment was opposed by Simon Cameron, secre-tary of war, who dismissed Meigs as a nobody who played with fountains. But Lincoln insisted.

Neither side was ready for war. More particularly, neither was ready to supply armies in the field. Until this moment, the quartermaster department had had to supply an army of only 20,000. By 1863, Meigs would be providing for 600,000. Fortunately, he was able to comprehend both the big picture and the small details. Anticipating the armies’ long marches, Meigs figured that each soldier would need four pairs of shoes per year, and specified that they be hand sewn, rather than factory made with wooden pegs. The success of his department can be measured by the fact that, unlike the Confederate Army, which suffered chronic shortages, Union troops were generally well clothed and equipped. 

The government seized Arlington early in the war. It could do no less. The property sat on a hill overlooking the capital, and such a position could not fall into enemy hands. Lee was in Richmond, but his wife, Mary, lingered. In late April 1861, she was still sitting for hours in an arbor south of the mansion. “I never saw the country more beautiful, perfectly radiant,” she wrote to her husband.

Mary Lee finally left in mid-May. Union troops arrived May 24 in swarms so thick that James Parks, a Lee slave left to guard the property, thought they looked “like bees a-coming.”

The war was hard on Arlington. Soldiers cut down trees to build cabins and took souvenirs. A freedman’s town was established, along with a cavalry station. But there was nothing that couldn’t be undone. Meigs intended otherwise.

After Arlington was designated a national cemetery in May 1864, the first soldier buried was William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, a 21-year-old farmer who died of peritonitis without ever having fought. He was laid in the estate’s northeast corner, in an existing burial ground near the freedman’s town.

This incensed Meigs. “It was my intention to have begun the interments nearer the mansion,” he fumed. “But opposition from officers stationed at Arlington—some of whom did not like to have the dead buried near them—caused the interments to be begun elsewhere.”

Meigs evicted the officers and assigned a loyal subordinate to oversee operations. He then went about encircling Mary Lee’s garden—where she’d liked to read in warm weather, surrounded by honeysuckle—with the graves of prominent Union officers. The first, Capt. Albert H. Packard, had been shot in the head at the Battle of the Second Wilderness.

It still wasn’t enough. Meigs sent work crews to scour battlefields near Washing-ton for unburied remains. They brought back the bones of 2,111 men—all  unidentified. Meigs chose a particularly  scenic corner of the estate called the Grove,  burying the bones there in a brick-lined pit measuring 20 feet wide and  20 feet deep. Skulls went in one compartment, legs in another, ribs in another. Once closed, it was topped with a granite Civil War Unknowns Monument, inscribed and dedicated to the “noble army of martyrs,” and mounted with four cannon.

Mary wrote to a friend, without irony, that the graves “are planted up to the very door without any regard to common decency. If justice and law are not utterly extinct in the U.S., I will have it back.” 

After Lee’s death, she petitioned Congress, but her proposal was bitterly denounced in the Senate by members who referred to Arlington as the home of “the honored dead.” 

Meigs stayed on as quartermaster general until 1882. In that time, he oversaw the construction of the 5,000-seat amphitheater and a massive arch at the cemetery entrance. The cannon have since been removed from the Unknowns monument, but it and the bones remain.

Some things, Meigs knew full well, couldn’t be undone.

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