Quartermaster Meigs was essential to winning the Civil War

Preface. This is a book review of Robert O’Harrow’s 2016 book “The Quartermaster.Montgomery C. Meigs. Lincolns general, master builder of the Union army”.

I can’t believe I never heard of him, but he is as much responsible for the North winning the Civil war as any general or President Lincoln. As chief quartermaster he kept the military clothed, fed, and sheltered despite a million difficulties that had to be overcome, including corruption, lack of horses, wagons, and other equipment. 

My main motive in reading this was to find out what fighting wars in the future will be like without fossil fuels.  Also, I worked in transportation, so the logistics of trying to supply so many hundreds of thousands of soldiers and horses across many thousands of miles is interesting as well.

I became interested in the behind-the-scenes providers of fighting wars recently when I read that the list of goods Philip Paul, comte de Ségur (1780–1873) was expected to provide to Napoleon to invade Russia. Paul was one of Napoleon’s generals and perhaps the most famous chronicler of the disastrous Russian invasion.  Here was just the Prussian contribution: 22,046 tons of rye, 264 tons of rice, two million bottles of beer,  44,092 tons of wheat, 71,650 tons of straw, 38,581 tons of hay, six million bushels of oats, 44,000 oxen, 15,000 horses, 300,600 wagons with harness and drivers, each carrying a load of 1700 pounds; and finally, hospitals provided with everything necessary for 20,000 sick.

Makes you wonder how anyone can afford to fight a war!

By the time of the Civil war, far fewer wagons and horses were needed.  The North won by moving most of the goods on railroads and ships, which are far faster and can carry the equivalent weight of thousands of horses pulling wagons.  No matter how often the rebels blew up railroad tracks and bridges, a huge crew of men with spare rails, ties, and the lumber to build bridges put it all back together again. 

At this time, locomotives and ships burned wood in their steam engines, but only a few years later they switched to coal. They had to.  Most of the forests East of the Mississippi were gone, even though there were only 30 million people.  The forests were cut down not only to power steam engines, but for cooking, heating, and building homes and other wood products.    

One of the problems that had to be overcome were the corrupt contractors, who sold sand in place of sugar, lame horses as wagon ready, and rusty muskets that the army had previously rejected as worthless.  One product embodied the fraud and corruption accompanying the army’s mobilization: shoddy, a fabric made of cuttings and other waste retrieved from the floors of clothing makers. Combined with glue, pounded and rolled, it had the appearance of sturdy cloth. Its lack of integrity became apparent only in the field, under a hot sun and exposed to drenching showers. It literally fell off the backs of soldiers.

The Quartermasters duties included: supplying horses to haul artillery, cavalry, and wagon trains, as well as the forage to feed them. It built barracks and hospitals. It furnished uniforms, socks, shoes, needles, thread, pots, canteens, and other goods to the men. The department’s men also constructed and repaired roads, bridges, railroads, and military telegraph lines. They chartered ships and steamers, providing the coal to fuel them and the docks and wharves to unload them.

The army consumed 600,000 tons or more of supplies every day, nearly all of which had to be shipped in at great expenseEvery horse needed to eat 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of corn, barley, and oats, while each soldier required just 3 pounds of food.

After a battle quartermaster men were asked to collect huge amounts of materiel left behind by both armies, including muskets, ammunition, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, clothing, and more.  But collecting the gear was hard — people came in swarms to plunder the battlegrounds. Some took guns, bayonets, and other equipment by the wagonload.

Robert O’Harrow. 2016.The Quartermaster.  Montgomery C. Meigs. Lincolns general, master builder of the Union army. Simon & Schuster.

The army quickly faced shortages. The new force needed a logistical machine that could feed and clothe and arm and move an unprecedented number of men for an unknown amount of time. To create that system, Meigs had to engage in what one historian has called the “art of defining and extending the possible” to provide “three big M’s of warfare—materiel, movement, and maintenance.

Meigs was occupied by the most basic questions. What clothing did the army have? What about boots, blankets, and tents? How would he acquire the horses and wagons needed to carry the food, guns, and ammunition? How to reconcile the need for speedy decisions against the obligation to prevent fraud and contracting abuses?

Meigs had to find horses, mules, and oxen. He sent telegrams around the country to order what the army needed, only to discover that defectors had absconded with most of the army’s stock of animals.

Meigs discovered that he had been too optimistic about his ability to muster animals to support the offensive. He had ordered 6,000 horses and mules, but they could not get to Washington. Railcars filled with supplies jammed the depots in Washington. The quartermaster also discovered an acute shortage of wagons. Some 9,000 soldiers heading to the Shenandoah Valley could not go beyond Hagerstown, Maryland, because the army did not have enough wagons to move their supplies from a train depot into the mountains.

Soldiers carried three days’ worth of rations in their haversacks. Many of them demonstrated their lack of discipline, eating provisions with abandon and thus leaving themselves nothing for after the fighting.

Contractors came from everywhere in the spring and summer of 1861, angling to sell an unprepared army everything the soldiers needed. There were contractors for bread, contractors for clothing, contractors for shoes. They provided horses, mules, forage, rail transport, steamers, coal, and construction equipment. They supplied the bullets for killing, surgical equipment to cut off mangled limbs, and ambulance wagons to take the wounded and corpses away. The men of the fast-growing army needed it all, and they needed it now, making the government an easy mark for chiselers.

They sold sand in place of sugar, lame horses as wagon ready, and rusty muskets that the army had previously rejected as worthless.  One product embodied the fraud and corruption accompanying the army’s mobilization: shoddy, a fabric made of cuttings and other waste retrieved from the floors of clothing makers. Combined with glue, pounded and rolled, it had the appearance of sturdy cloth. Its lack of integrity became apparent only in the field, under a hot sun and exposed to drenching showers. It literally fell off the backs of soldiers.

Government employees enabled the profiteering. Horse inspectors in Washington endorsed the purchase of lame animals in exchange for cash bribes.

In St. Louis, a fountain of corruption sprang forth from the army’s new Western Department headquarters. In some ways, the department epitomized the blockheadedness, waste, and abuses of those early months in the war. The department was led by Major General John Frémont, the flamboyant former presidential candidate sometimes known as the Pathfinder. Frémont was blamed for failing to give adequate support to General Nathaniel Lyon who, on a mission to clear Missouri of secessionist soldiers, was defeated at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. More than twelve hundred Federals were killed,

Lincoln was among the angry. With his encouragement, Congress enacted the False Claims Act of 1863, a landmark law that gave whistle-blowers a reward for bringing forward evidence of contracting abuses. Sometimes called “Lincoln’s Law,” it remains one of the government’s key enforcement tools against fraud today.

Much has been written about the tactics and glory of battles. But as Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach. Before a commander can even hope to attack, destroy, or simply wear down an enemy, he must first be able to deliver 3,000 calories a day to each soldier. He must keep them warm and healthy. Then he has to be able to move them from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.

 “The fighting, the direction, even the planning of the battles occupies in the whole seconds only to the hours of labor involved in the preparation & execution of marches.” Regulations mandated that the Quartermaster Department provide transportation for all men, food, weapons, and materiel, a list that grew as the war expanded. It supplied horses to haul artillery, cavalry, and wagon trains, as well as the forage to feed them. It built barracks and hospitals. It furnished uniforms, socks, shoes, needles, thread, pots, canteens, and other goods to the men. The department’s men also constructed and repaired roads, bridges, railroads, and military telegraph lines. They chartered ships and steamers, providing the coal to fuel them and the docks and wharves to unload them.

The supply system relied heavily on depots, and Meigs gave his depot officers room to run them and their field operations as they wanted, so long as they followed his rules and principles

In the first year of the war, spending shot up 18-fold to $174 million annually. It kept rising in each of the next four years. The outlays by the department now far exceeded any other category of spending in the entire federal government

Quartermaster employees needed to be entrepreneurial, dogged, and diplomatic. In every theater of war, at every supply depot and in the cramped offices they occupied in Washington, they engaged in a complex dance with clothing makers, weapons factories, railroads, providers of forage, and many others. They made up many of the steps as they went along.

New technology helped Meigs overcome certain challenges. Consider Isaac M. Singer’s sewing machine, which eventually helped the Union surmount the limitations of an industry in which seamstresses stitched most clothing by hand, or Gordon McKay’s machine for stitching soles onto boots and shoes.

Northern factories went on to produce nearly a half million pairs. The army found that they typically lasted eight times longer than handmade shoes.

Efforts to provide war necessities soon exceeded all other industrial enterprises in the nation, including as many as 130,000 civilian participants. In superintending this colossal endeavor, Meigs provided momentum to the nation’s economy for years to come.

For now, in the summer of 1861, Meigs still had to ensure that Union troops received guns to shoot and pants to wear and food to eat. And that was far from a sure thing. Though Meigs’s duties did not include buying weapons, he took it upon himself to dispatch an agent to Europe to acquire a hundred thousand muskets, twenty thousand sabers, and ten thousand revolvers and carbines.

Union troops died by friendly fire because of soldiers’ inability to identify friend or enemy. Meigs ordered the irregular clothing replaced as soon as possible with blue uniforms made under exact specifications. (His demand for uniformity and efficiency left the nation with a novel legacy that has come down to this day: small, medium, and large sizes.)

Waste compounded Meigs’s challenge. Infantry soldiers often abandoned heavy clothing on warm days. He wrote with frustration about a large, new regiment that cast aside eight hundred coats on a single march, only to find themselves freezing days later in a cold rain.

Textile mills, which simply could not keep up with the army’s extraordinary needs.

Finding enough blankets posed an even harder challenge than providing clothing. Army regulations called for each soldier to receive two blankets every five years. Gray, wool, and warm, they were substantial affairs that weighed about five pounds each. The problem was that no one manufactured enough of them.  In something of an experiment, he also turned to French contractors for entire sets of clothing and camp gear for ten thousand men—uniforms, belts, knapsacks, blankets, tents, cooking utensils, and more. He paid the same prices as the French army, about $800,000 in all.

The America-first crowd now blasted him for spending tax dollars abroad. The Board of Trade in Boston reached out to Cameron and predicted dire consequences, including widespread unemployment and nothing less than the ruin of the American economy. The complaints from the industry eventually had an effect. Congress prohibited most foreign purchases for the rest of the war.

Meigs standardized contracting practices and imposed rules for army buying that generally required advertisements in advance, sealed bids, and the award of work to the lowest bidders. The results showed. The Union army now fed, sheltered, and outfitted nearly 700,000 men. It had acquired tens of thousands of horses and mules, along with harnesses, wagons, and mountains of feed.

Unlike Cameron, Stanton prohibited visitors to his home and curbed the access of lobbyists and lawmakers in the department, who previously had wandered through the offices at will. He also limited Congress’s access to him to just one day a week. Contractors and other visitors also had a single day for lobbying and other business. Stanton reserved the rest of the week to run the war.

Meigs was asked to assess plans for gunboats that could pummel rebel forts, protect river traffic, and support infantry movements. The idea for the boats came from the recognition that the Union had to control the western rivers to prevail. The rivers ran deep into the South and offered promising alternatives to the rutted tracks that often passed for roads there. The Mississippi bisected the Confederacy and served as a highway of commerce. The Tennessee offered a direct route to the rear of the enemy.

Hundreds of vessels transported more than 100,000 men over several weeks’ time.

Department officers under Meigs eventually leased 753 steamers, almost 1,100 sailing vessels, and more than 800 barges. They bought or commissioned construction of about 300 additional vessels.

In addition to moving men, the Peninsula fleet transported more than 14,000 animals, 3,600 wagons, 700 ambulances, mountains of feed for the horses and rations for the men, pontoon bridges, telegraph gear, and vast amounts of other equipment.

While planning the offensive, McClellan told Stanton that the roads were passable in every season. As it happened, the flat, sandy pathways became quagmires in heavy rain that spring. Even lightly loaded wagons sunk down to their beds. Only mules could get them through. The department officers quickly adapted to the conditions,

The logistical demands were unprecedented. The army consumed 600,000 tons or more of supplies every day, nearly all of which had to be shipped in at great expense. McClellan made matters still more challenging by prohibiting troops from foraging in enemy fields unless they paid for whatever they took or issued receipts guaranteeing government payment later. He thought this benign approach would win over Southerners and shorten the war—a notion that Meigs condemned as silliness, or worse.  In his judgment, the Union had to use every means to support its soldiers and exhaust the rebels’ will to fight. This included using enemy land to feed the army’s great herds of horses and mules.

Meigs was concerned about keeping up with the army’s insatiable demand for horses. Union forces relied on the animals to a degree that might be hard to imagine now. It needed horses and mules to maintain its very existence. The numbers in play were remarkable. Armies with about 426,000 men would soon have nearly 114,000 horses and 88,000 mules.  That’s not counting the creatures sidelined by illness, wounds, or fatigue. Until now, Meigs had been lucky in meeting the demand. At the beginning of the war, Northern states had almost 5 million horses on hand. Enough were available even to offset the corruption among dealers who sold the government old, lame, and even blind animals. For many months, the prices remained steady, with horses delivered to Washington at the cost of about $125 each. But lately the market price had crept up close to $185, putting stress on both the Treasury and Meigs.

Thousands had been sent back to Louisville. Meigs said the circumstances showed that Rosecrans simply asked for too many to be able to inspect them. Besides, Meigs said, the horses were overworked, underfed, and abused. Why did Rosecrans take his men and their horses on long marches with no clear purpose? “Such marches destroy the horses,” he wrote. “We have over 126 regiments of cavalry, and they have killed ten times as many horses for us as for the rebels.

The provision of forage presented one of the great challenges of the war to Meigs’s department. Every horse needed to eat 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of corn, barley, and oats, while each soldier required just 3 pounds of food. All together, the animals of the Army of the Potomac needed more than four hundred tons of forage each day. Without that fuel, the army could not move. Buying that feed and moving it to the right place, in a timely way, without bankrupting the government, was a stupendous logistical problem.

At the beginning of the war, Meigs had left it to quartermaster officers at each depot and with each army to buy feed as needed. Those officers soon began competing with one another for supplies, driving up prices and further depleting a nearly empty Treasury. To contain the costs, a senior quartermaster officer launched a plan to cut corners by feeding the animals a less expensive mix of corn and oats. Contractors soon grasped that they could jack up profits by secretly bulking up the feed mix with less costly and less nutritious grains. Meigs investigated those scams, studied the market, and imposed price controls.

Delays due to winter storms, railway disruptions, and simple chaos sometimes put the animals perilously close to starvation.  They constructed temporary piers. To fashion the piers, they pulled boats and barges onto shore at high tide, covered them with planks, and then linked them together. They herded cattle over land, maintaining them in corrals and butchering them as needed. To minimize chaos, Van Vliet ordered that supplies remain aboard ships until needed. His men constructed a steam-hoist to speed the movement of food, ammunition, and other supplies onto wagons. The systems worked, but available food often could not be moved quickly enough over narrow, crowded, and mucky roads. Inevitably, many soldiers could never get enough to eat.

Lee was intent on preventing a siege of Richmond. Federal soldiers suffered thousands of casualties before McClellan decided to retreat to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, about 24 miles southeast of Richmond. In the rush back, the trains of wagons supporting each brigade were permitted to make their own way. Instead of one well-organized line, there were as many as nine, all of them vying for position. Competition to get to the head was fierce because the roads were inevitably ruined for those lagging behind. Confusion often resulted. The Quartermaster Department bore responsibility. “A struggle for the lead would naturally set in, each division wanting it and fighting for it.

They hustled all night long, going some thirty miles to Manassas Junction. On their arrival, they saw evidence of what the fight against the North really entailed. Packed warehouses, overloaded railcars, and long lines of barrels held one of the great stores of supplies brought into the field during the war. Fifty thousand pounds of bacon, a thousand barrels of salt pork, hills of flour; jellies, coffee, and tea; piles of uniforms, new boots, and rifled muskets; toothbrushes and candles. “The hungry, threadbare rebels swooped down on the mountain of supplies at Manassas like a plague of grasshoppers,” one historian of the war wrote.

After stuffing themselves and putting on needed clothing, Jackson’s men gathered what they could carry, torched the remaining supplies, and fled. The next day, the army forded the Potomac and entered Maryland. Lee ordered all commanders to reduce their supplies to the minimum. This was in part to minimize the demands on the overtaxed animals the army needed to move cannons, ordnance, and food. “All cannoneers are positively prohibited from riding on the ammunition chests or guns.”

They still did not have enough food or animals. Many residents were unwilling to accept Confederate money. Lee grew more concerned, aware that a lack of supplies could hobble his remarkable and dedicated force every bit as much as fire from the enemy. “I shall endeavor to purchase horses, clothing, shoes, and medical stores for our present use,

The shortfalls the year before had been replaced by abundance. The main challenge was moving the materiel to the men in the field. The main fear was that field generals would not use what they had to crush the enemy.

Steamboats and railway offered remarkable advantages to the North, but supplies still had to get from wharves and depots to soldiers in the field. The wagon was the way.

Meigs admired the regulation army model known as the Conestoga. It had been refined over the years on the western plains. Stout and lumbering, it had interchangeable parts that could be repaired in camp with portable forges. Each wagon had a tool box in front, a feed trough in back, and an iron “slush bucket” for grease hanging from the rear axle. Freight was protected by a canvas cover. Drawn by four to six horses, a wagon could move 2,800 pounds of supplies over good roads in good weather. A team of six mules could carry more than 3,700 pounds, plus about 270 pounds of forage.

No one had established clear guidelines for their use. The wagon trains that followed the armies reached absurd proportions, causing chaos and slowing nearly every movement. They carried every kind of comfort: stoves, kettles, pans, chairs, desks, trunks, valises, knapsacks, tents, floorboards, and any other conveniences. Loaded in this way, the wagons could go about two and a half miles per hour over good roads. They could barely move on bad ones.

In a stern letter to McClellan, on September 9, Meigs insisted on reforms. He prescribed no more than three wagons for stationary regiments to carry daily rations. Remaining wagons should be set aside for supply trains. He said that officers had to curb their appetite for comfort, including their use of the voluminous Sibley tents. Meigs felt they should make do with smaller, more portable “shelter tents.” He was motivated in part by the cost of cotton, which was rising because of the war. Soldiers dubbed the small shelter a “dog tent,” because that’s what it seemed fit for; sometimes they stuck their heads out of the tents and barked like dogs.

The name for the small shelters eventually became “pup tent.” The quartermaster pegged the ideal use of wagons at about one for every 80 men, roughly the standard adopted by Napoleon. He noted that the Army of the Potomac used about one wagon for every 34 men, an untenable arrangement. “The extra wagons, now filled with officers’ baggage, should be emptied, and the officers compelled to move without this unnecessary load,

In a related push for mobility, earlier Meigs had circulated a French proposal for the organization of a light, highly mobile “flying column” of troops that would lighten the burden on the army’s logistical system and diminish the need for wagons and animals. The paper, prepared by a contractor to the French army, prescribed columns with 2,000 infantry, 400 cavalry, two pieces of artillery, and 50 horses. Soldiers would carry eight days of their own rations, including coffee, tea, sugar, rice, seven pounds of “sea biscuits,” and “desiccated and compressed vegetables.” The paper said the soldiers would be divided into squads, the members of which would share the burden of carrying equipment, including sections of shelter tents. In theory, the flying columns created a nimbler force, at least in the short run. Wagons loaded with additional supplies could follow in the rear. “Alarm the enemy, break up his camps, and keep always advancing,” the paper said.  Squads should take along hand mills for grinding corn, with the aim of lessening the burden on the Quartermaster Department to provide flour for bread.

After experimentation and refinements, the board found the flying column system workable. At Meigs’s urging, Rufus Ingalls, chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, began adopting variations of the system in future campaigns.

Drawing on lessons learned from earlier campaigns, along with the experiments with flying columns, Ingalls and Meigs directed the long wagon trains well out of the way of the troops. Baggage and tents were not stored near the fighting. Soldiers carried only a small amount of food, and ammunition was delivered at night, mostly by wagon. Troops rarely saw the operations that sustained them. Ingalls established a temporary depot 25 miles behind Union forces, at the head of a small rail line and a road leading to Baltimore.

Several quartermaster men were asked to oversee collection of huge amounts of materiel left behind by both armies, including muskets, ammunition, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, clothing, and more.  But that collecting the gear was harder than he had expected. People came in “swarms to sweep & plunder the battlegrounds” of souvenirs. Some took guns, bayonets, and other equipment by the wagonload. One man made away with a six-pound cannon and lowered it into a well. Others took horses and mules, cutting out or burning away the US brand on the animals to obscure evidence of their thefts.  Eventually scores of looters were arrested and assigned the grim work of burying the bodies of men and horses. More than 24,000 muskets and rifles, 10,000 bayonets, 2,400 cartridge boxes, sabers, belts, and hundreds of other items were retrieved eventually and made available to the army.

By capturing half of Mississippi, Grant and Sherman blocked the supply of beef cattle to the rebels in the east and prevented Richmond from sending weapons, food, clothing, and reinforcements to the west.

The soldiers carried only what they needed for the trip and the following few days. That included forty rounds per man and two days’ cooked rations. Commissary and quartermaster men arranged to provide coffee and sugar during the journey. Planners made sure that the trains moved in the dark to conceal them from rebel spotters in distant hills.

The logistical challenges facing the quartermaster corps were nearly overwhelming. Thousands of mules died from starvation and the work of hauling in rations for 50,000 men and forage for the starving horses, many of which no longer had strength enough to pull artillery. Mule carcasses lined the rough road all the way to Bridgeport, Alabama, where the Union army had a boatyard and maintained supplies. Rebel cavalry made a devastating attack on the tenuous supply line. The attack, on October 2, destroyed more than 300dred loaded wagons. The rebels killed or captured 1,800 mules. The army, with enough ammunition for less than a day’s fighting, hung on “by the merest thread.” Meigs scrambled in his usual way. He urged Stanton to send more mules, in part to support Hooker’s arriving men. He guided pioneer troops who had put two abandoned sawmills into action, spitting out lumber for bridges, boats, and fortifications. He oversaw the inventory of equipment and metal from a large foundry and a destroyed bridge, stuff that was eventually transformed into rolling mills for rail lines.

A key to this was the construction of a steamboat that could ply the upper Tennessee River, which could not be reached easily from downstream because of thin water at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

A quartermaster man, Captain Arthur Edward, had responsibility for building the boat. Meigs arranged for delivery of specialized supplies, including boilers and engines that were floated down the Ohio River and shipped by rail to the boatyard at Bridgeport, on the upstream side of Muscle Shoals. Mechanics and carpenters hustled down from the North to help out. The quartermaster team built the steamer from a flat-bottomed scow outfitted with pontoons, a new steam engine, a rough pilothouse, and a paddle wheel. The team fashioned a cabin from a rough frame and covered it with canvas. With the boat nearly complete, Grant launched a stealthy campaign to take key points on the river. At three in the morning on October 27, 1,400 men floated silently nine miles down the Tennessee on other pontoon boats, surprising the rebels at Brown’s Ferry. The Union force dismantled those boats and used the pontoons to build a bridge.

On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac began its great Overland Campaign into the Confederacy. It would culminate nearly a year later with the fall of Richmond, but only after what Grant described “as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed.” The numbers associated with the offensive—the supplies, the men, the deaths—remain notable. The force included nearly one hundred thousand infantry, fifteen thousand cavalry, and six thousand artillery men.

They deployed 4,300 wagons to carry an immense supply of pork, crackers, coffee, salt, and sugar, along with mess kits, ammunition, and baggage. On hand to draw the wagons were 23,000 mules. More than 30,000 horses carried cavalry soldiers and pulled the artillery. Beef cattle followed on the hoof, to be butchered as needed. Grant later estimated that if put into single file and spaced properly, the train would have extended the 70 miles or so from the crossing on the Rapidan to the city of Richmond.

Ingalls adopted a strict method for using the wagons. As soon as they were emptied, they generally would be sent to the rear for resupply with identical provisions. Apart from creating a new level of efficiency, his system addressed one of the great logistical burdens of the war, the feeding of animals. Instead of having to carry tons of forage for themselves, the animals often ate when they returned to depots.

Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, whose rapid rise through the ranks was fueled by his aggression, echoed Grant’s relentlessness. With 10,000 cavalry soldiers, he carved a path toward Richmond, inviting an attack from the smaller rebel cavalry force under Jeb Stuart. They lived largely off what they found and destroyed railroads, trestle bridges, and telegraph lines along the way. At one rebel depot, Sheridan’s men dismantled or torched 100 railcars, 2 locomotives, and 1.5 million rations, including 200,000 pounds of bacon, according to Sheridan’s estimate.

Behind it all, legions of supply workers, sometimes operating in the line of fire, provided steadfast support. For the crossing of the James River, army engineers built what was one of the longest floating bridges in the history of warfare, a 2,200-foot-long structure composed of 101 wooden pontoons. It enabled the crossing of a line of 3,500 beef cattle and a wagon train 35 miles long. The quartermasters, meanwhile, had to hustle to keep pace with the destruction of horses. In the first six months of 1864, the Army of the Potomac received almost 40,000 cavalry horses, representing two complete remounts.

In less than a month, the city’s hospitals took in 18,000 new patients. Many of them died in short order, and then the corpses stacked up faster than they could be buried. A stench drifted over the city like smoke. Meigs had to provide the answer to a grim, practical question: Where would all the bodies go?

In July 1862 Congress authorized Lincoln to create national cemeteries for servicemen. As the war ground on, finding burial sites became a monumental challenge. By the spring of 1864, the pine and rosewood caskets passed through Washington in a seemingly unending flow. On May 13 a cemetery on the property of the Old Soldiers’ Home ran out of room. Nearly 6,000 soldiers had been interred there in less than three years. Another 2,000 had been buried at Harmony Cemetery and elsewhere in the vicinity of Washington. Added to that were burials of more than 4,100 deceased former slaves.

They succumbed to gunshots, cannon fire, and bayonet wounds; diseases that included dysentery, typhoid, and diphtheria; infections contracted during surgeries; and the blunt physical or emotional shock of losing a limb.

Meigs soon dug a mass grave nearby, a huge pit to hold the bones of unidentified soldiers.

In the war’s Western theater, the armies under Sherman moved steadily closer to Atlanta. Every movement depended on support from the railroad construction corps. The supply line began far back at Nashville. It extended 151 miles to Chattanooga. The railcars carried provisions, clothing, gear for the men, and forage for the animals.

The supply line later snaked its way toward Atlanta, 136 miles farther along the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The rebels attacked and destroyed sections of both lines repeatedly. They twisted the iron tracks and burned the timber cross ties.  Meigs ordered the completion of the rolling mill in Chattanooga that he and his men began working on during the siege the previous fall. The mill enabled them to straighten 50 tons of rails each day, far more quickly and at a far lower cost than manufacturing and shipping the rails from the North. The railroad workers rebuilt more than a dozen bridges that summer.

Chattahoochee River. It took the corps just four days to rebuild the 780-foot-long, 92-foot-high bridge over the river. All told, the logistical work during the campaign was among the most impressive of the war. Rail lines in the region under Union control rose to 956 miles from 123 miles a year before. The number of cars shot up to 1,500 from 350.

Sherman calculated that it would have taken almost 37,000 wagons to carry the same loads as the railroads, in the same stretch of time.

The force brought relatively few wagons. Sherman encouraged his men to forage liberally and to take or slaughter mules, horses, hogs, and other animals. The Union rules for war had changed. Gone was the sense of delicacy about civilian interests. The army cut a broad swath through the fertile state, some thirty miles on either side of its path to the sea, causing perhaps $100 million in damage, or roughly $1.5 billion now.

It fell to Meigs to ensure that the men received supplies at its terminus, even though no one in Washington knew for sure where that would be. Sherman planned to head to Savannah. Meigs reckoned it was possible Lee would pull out of Petersburg and confront Sherman’s army, forcing it toward Pensacola. To Meigs, it demonstrated like never before the viability of warfare untethered from supply lines. He was especially taken by the fact that Sherman’s men found forage for their animals rather than relying on costly deliveries from the North.

Nearly everything had to be delivered by sea, with Northern ships cycling in a constant stream along the East Coast. Grant’s siege force required a virtual armada to keep it supplied, including 190 steamers, 60 tugs, 40 sailboats, and 100 barges. Those vessels comprised a mere subset of the Quartermaster Department’s ocean fleet, which in the last year of the war included 719 vessels that cost more than $92,000 a day on average to operate. The department operated another 599 vessels for river transport.

The war ends. 600,000 men died

Next came the task of demobilization. The men of the army had to be discharged, paid, and transported home. Once again, the Quartermaster Department managed. In 40 days, some 233,000 men, 12,800 horses, and 4 million pounds of baggage traveled across the border between war and civilian life. By winter, a second wave brought the diaspora’s total to 800,000. The department’s transportation branch had never been busier. The logistics were akin to those needed for the massive offensives of the previous year—save for the absence of gunfire.

Much more still had to be done for the dead. The bones of tens of thousands of Northern men lay in forests, fields, and shallow graves on battlefields across the South. Men scoured the landscape for remains. For two weeks, they buried and reburied bodies and bones. They had no difficulty deciding where to build new cemeteries. They efficiently chose the places of the greatest carnage, and interred more than 50,000 bodies across Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland.

By late 1866, more than three dozen national military cemeteries anchored battlefields across the country. They held the remains of almost 105,000 Union soldiers—with many more to come. Meigs calculated the cost of removing and reburying the bodies at about $9.75 each.

The department held fire sales of 207,000 horses and mules, 4,400 barracks, hospitals, and other buildings and mountains of irregular or damaged clothing.

To help former slaves eke out a living and guarantee them a measure of economic freedom, he urged lawmakers to give each family five acres of land. “The emancipation of the negro slave is incomplete as long as, being without land, he is at the mercy of his former master.” His lobbying came to nothing. President Andrew Johnson showed no interest in the cause. In his frustration, Meigs predicted Southerners would resume their oppressive ways and return “like dogs to their vomit. They can not enslave but they will outrage & oppress. Their hearts are not changed.

Quartermasters were still needed after the war ended since settlers needed the protection of soldiers, and the soldiers needed supplies from the Quartermaster Department.


[my comment: I was only going to take notes on the supply chains and other aspects of supplying soldiers for battle, but Meigs was such an amazing man I found myself noting other aspects of his life as well.  Yet most of them are left out below, but this gives you some idea of how accomplished he was across many fields, plus his great skills as a leader and hard work to execute complex projects quickly and under budget with complete and utter honesty, unlike many of the scoundrels around him.]

On March 29, 1861, Army Captain Montgomery Meigs, just home from work, found a letter waiting for him. Secretary of State William Seward wanted him to go to a meeting at the White House as soon as possible. President Abraham Lincoln had a problem to solve and needed to talk to a soldier about certain military operations. It was unusual for a president to seek advice from a captain, but these were unusual times, and Meigs was an unusual man.

Meigs was an army engineer with no fighting experience, but few could match his mix of creativity and talent for organization. He had built the capital’s new aqueduct, including a bridge with the longest masonry arch in the world. He also was the man behind the US Capitol’s recent expansion and the ongoing installation of its great dome.

Philadelphia was a bustling business center quickly filling with schools, churches, and businesses. It retained the charm of a provincial city, giving way quickly to unspoiled countryside. About sixty-three thousand residents relied on wood to heat their homes. Farmers brought food to the city by wagons.

Meigs soon become a brevet second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, an elite organization that played a primary role in building the young country’s roads, canals, bridges, and harbors. Its achievements included the country’s longest highway, the Cumberland Road, west of the Ohio River.

In the summer of 1837, one of his first assignments paired him with another West Point graduate, Robert E. Lee, class of 1829. Their task was to find ways of improving navigation on the Mississippi River.

Meigs admired Lee, “then in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure. He was one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to his subordinates, admired by all women, and respected by all men.

They would remain fond of each other until a national crisis turned them into mortal enemies.


Meigs helped rebuild Fort Delaware, a massive fortification on Pea Patch Island destroyed by fire. The project posed many challenges. The island had formed from silt over the centuries, and the mud went forty feet deep in places. Meigs and other engineers created an intricate wooden grillage as a foundation, pounding more than twelve thousand wooden piles into the mud, using steam-powered pile drivers. Builders had been using such structures since the days of the Roman Empire.


President Polk underscored his support of the annexation of Texas from Mexico. The new president was prepared to go to war. For the soldiers who would put his words into action, this meant a chance to earn glory, a rise in rank, and a boost in salary, which resulted in appalling casualties, including more than 13,280 American dead.  Many of his army colleagues became famous and received promotions. Among them were Ambrose Burnside, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jackson, later known as “Stonewall.


The location of the blaze could not have been worse, the reading rooms of the Library of Congress. Just the night before, a nearby hotel had burned down. Fire in the confines of the Capitol could spell disaster. The great pile of wood, brick, and sandstone was more than the center of the government. It also anchored the young country’s outsized aspirations to greatness. The building had been under construction or renovation for a half century. Though architects and builders had done their best with the budgets they had, the place had become a grand, handsome tinderbox on a hill.

After a daylong battle, two-thirds of the fifty-five thousand books were reduced to gray ash. Lost too were maps, charts, thousand-year-old bronze medals, and more.

Investigators quickly determined the cause. On the floors below, the drafty committee rooms had large fireplaces, which lawmakers had kept stoked in a struggle against the subzero frost that had enveloped the District in those first days of winter. Sparks had ignited a wooden joist jutting into the flue of a poorly constructed chimney.

Nothing could contribute more to the health, comfort, and safety of the city and the security of the public buildings and records than an abundant supply of pure water, I respectfully recommend that you make such provisions for obtaining the same

But lawmakers simply couldn’t divine the benefit of spending millions on work so far from their home districts. But the library fire stirred them to action. They agreed to allocate $5,000, more than ever before, to support the search for a solution. 

Meigs was to conduct a survey and find “an unfailing and abundant supply of good and wholesome water” for the nation’s capital and neighboring Georgetown.

In a 1,700-year-old book Meigs found a grand Roman water system that would work well. The Potomac water would course through seven-foot-wide conduits made of bricks, dropping on average about nine-and-a-half inches each mile. The minimum cost would be just over $1.9 million.  

Meigs would be allowed to succeed only if he directed some of the work to the right people and their friends. To prevail, he would have to master the dark arts of politics and bureaucratic wrangling—while also managing men, overseeing millions in spending, and seeking solutions to mind-boggling engineering problems. Meigs’s first lessons in Washington corruption came at the Capitol, a building that epitomized the striving and contradictory character of the republic it represented. From the fields down the hill, Congress’s home appeared stately and steadfast. Prints at the time showed it as a romantic vision, cloaked in a gauzy bank of moist air. In reality, it was drafty, damp, and cramped. And that was only the start of the problems. Design flaws made it nearly impossible for lawmakers to understand one another during debates.

Work on the aqueduct languished for lack of funding, and opponents on Capitol Hill held up proposals for new infusions of cash.

Designing the Capitol

Meigs’s plans, derived in part from an earlier proposal, placed the legislative chambers in the interior of the expanded building. His changes would give lawmakers private rooms and passageways beyond the reach of the public or reporters. To link the building to the outside world, he planned to install a telegraph. His plans included monumental staircases, glazed ceiling panels, and galleries capable of seating 1,200 people. He also called for stained glass set in iron frames in the ceiling and a lobby in the House wing that featured Corinthian columns. Much of what he proposed was modelled on Renaissance painting, architecture, and ambitions. Because he had never traveled abroad, nearly all his ideas came from books.  Meigs soon took aim at the building’s engineering problems, including the atrocious acoustics and a substandard heating system.

The physics of sound had long confounded scientists and builders. Certain churches, theaters, and concert halls over the centuries had just the right angles and proportions to enable speakers to hear one another at great distances, often with amazing clarity. In the best spaces, such as Milan’s La Scala opera house, singers and actors could easily cast their voices to the back seats. Obtaining such effects took ingenuity or plain luck. In the legislative chambers in Washington, the result was a fog of sounds. That was a significant defect in a building where talk and debate were the reasons for being. The three men visited concert halls, theaters, churches, and a prison. They spoke from different parts of every room, taking note of the duration, volume, and direction of the echoes. They made drawings showing the general form of the spaces.

In his plans for moving the chambers to the center of the building, he also eliminated windows. Behind this unorthodox idea was a double agenda. Solid walls would eliminate exterior sounds and drafts, which he assumed blocked voices from reaching distant points in the room. Without windows, he also would have to create an unprecedented, steam-powered fan system for pumping air through the legislative chambers.

Cast iron and new building methods might be the hallmarks of the industrial revolution, but the homely red baked brick provided its foundation. England had used billions of bricks in the first half of the century. Almost every project Meigs supervised relied on bricks, including the Capitol’s inner walls and the aqueduct’s culverts and tunnels.

Most Americans took pride in their bland tastes. To them, stark interiors and whitewashed walls reflected what Meigs called a “republican simplicity.” In contrast, Meigs wanted to emulate the complex designs, vibrant colors, and richness that characterized much Renaissance art.

Meigs’s desire to make the Capitol a palace of art. Meigs went on to commission oil paintings, elaborate ironwork, and columns adorned with carvings of native plants and vegetables. He secured permission from the Capitol gardener to gather sticks, leaves, and flowers as models for metal ornaments to decorate doors of the House chamber. In fulfilling the captain’s artistic vision, a foundry at the Capitol also produced decorative cherubs, grapevines, lizards, beetles, and flies. When he learned that two Ojibwa leaders were in town to settle a treaty with the federal government, he called on a decorative stonecutter to make likenesses of them. The busts remain among the finest nineteenth-century depictions of Native Americans.

The construction demands posed by the dome were unprecedented. Almost nine million pounds of iron components had to be lifted one by one and bolted into place by men who had never worked at such heights. There was little room for error.

How would the tower stay upright during the strain of lifting? For the answer, Meigs turned to the techniques of ship rigging. Stays like those used on the mast of a schooner would hold the derrick in place. But under the pressures exerted here, hemp ropes like those used on ships would shred.


Militaristic rhetoric grew more extreme by the week. On May 8 the District was jolted when a Southern-born representative shot dead an Irish waiter at the Willard Hotel, an anchor of political and social life in the city. The shooting had no direct connection to slavery, but Northerners saw it as a symbol of Southern aggression and intolerance.  Meigs was appalled, writing, “This is one example of the evil of carrying weapons.

On May 22 Brooks walked up to Sumner at his Senate desk, where he was preparing mail.

Brooks began pounding Sumner with a gold-headed cane made of gutta-percha, a hard, rubbery substance. Brooks chose the cane because he thought it would deliver maximum pain without actually killing. The first blow stunned and blinded Sumner. Others came quickly.

When others in the Senate moved to help Sumner, Keitt held them off. The attack stunned the nation. Northerners saw it as an effort to silence “an eloquent and erudite” spokesman for freedom. In the South, editorialists applauded the episode, with some deriding Sumner as “an inanimate lump of incarnate cowardice.” Brooks was lauded as a hero and given canes to replace the one he had broken during the attack. Radicals in the South would do almost anything now to protect slavery, the institution that anchored their society.

Democrats selected James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a bland 65-year-old bachelor. He had served so long and often as a lawmaker and diplomat that he was nicknamed Old Public Functionary. The fledgling Republican Party went with John Frémont, the politically connected but inexperienced “Pathfinder,” who had earned renown for his exploration of the West. The American Party, which promoted nativism, chose former president Millard Fillmore of New York as a compromise candidate. The South generally lined up behind Buchanan. In the North, it was not clear who the electorate would support. Many Northern regular voters were energized, even radicalized, by events in Kansas. Voters pored over newspaper accounts of the campaign and turned out everywhere for raucous political rallies, concerts, and picnics. They were treated to a remarkable array of stump speakers, including Greeley, Seward, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Abraham Lincoln gave close to ninety speeches.

On March 4, 1857, one of the most hapless men in American history was inaugurated president of the United States, President James Buchanan.

Meigs’s new boss, Secretary of War John B. Floyd, was a former governor of Virginia. He came into office with the apparent conviction that it was his right to provide patronage to his friends. He also thought that slave ownership was the natural right of Southerners. The Buchanan administration was filled with Southerners, who jammed the parties and seemed at times to be celebrating their standing in the capital. Floyd took advantage of the power that flowed from the South’s dominance. Soon after taking control of the War Department, he began turning his authority on Meigs. In one move, he urged the captain to begin applying a political litmus test to his workforce. He wanted to purge followers of the Know-Nothing movement, who objected to Irish, Germans, and Catholic immigrants. More to the point, they also opposed slavery, which offended Floyd.

Meigs and other sensible folk—including Abraham Lincoln, then a lawyer in private practice in Springfield, Illinois—thought the group’s members were nearly unhinged.

More pressing now was another of Floyd’s demands. He wanted Meigs to award every contract automatically to the lowest bidder. At first blush, this seemed reasonable. Competition helped keep prices low for taxpayers. But Meigs knew that something else was afoot. Experience taught him that certain companies engaged in a type of legal extortion. They lowballed their original bids and then, when the work was too far along to stop, demanded more money. Floyd’s games and machinations rarely ceased.

Administration leaks suggested that Meigs was about to be fired soon wafted through the capital. Floyd then added to the pressure, ordering Meigs to provide advance notice of any impending purchases worth $2,000 or more. In late August Floyd redoubled his effort to purge the workforce of political undesirables.

Opinions about the new chamber varied. Some praised the circulation system. Others grumbled that the temperature was too high or low. An article in the Boston Post said that the acoustics could not have been worse. One unsigned piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer predicted that the hall “is, I fear, to prove an entire failure. I have not met the first man yet who speaks of it favorably.

Meigs had a hard time accepting that his younger brother tolerated slavery and considered secession a legitimate possibility. He decided that Henry had sold out, trading his family’s veneration for the country for “the almighty dollars which he has invested in Columbus Mills.”  


The federal Pension Bureau needed a new building, and Congress took the unusual step of naming Meigs to build it.  Meigs once calculated that the space holds 4 million cubic feet of air. The volume of air inside was key to his goal of air-conditioning the place.  He came up with an innovative scheme involving vents in the walls that allowed fresh air in, and hot air to rise up and escape. His theory about the space turned out to be true, as the courtyard served as a natural chimney.  By 1985, the great brick pile was so admired that it was transformed into the home of the National Building Museum.

Miscellaneous politics in the war

McClellan blames his endless retreats on the Quartermaster (not true of course) but an example of the nasty politics Meigs had to deal with (dozens more examples left out)

Luck seemed to be on the Union’s side. On September 13 a Union corporal near Frederick, Maryland, saw an envelope on the ground that contained Lee’s plans for the campaign, Special Order 191, wrapped around three cigars. It was the greatest intelligence coup of the war, a single document spelling out the positions of Lee’s divided forces. But McClellan hesitated under the impression that enemy forces outweighed his own. The delay gave Lee time to gather his troops near Antietam Creek, not far from the town of Sharpsburg. McClellan massed his men there as well. On September 16 he took still more time to examine Lee’s lines and put his units into what he considered proper positions.

He ordered a retreat back across the Potomac. No one on the Union side moved to stop him. McClellan claimed later that he had planned on resuming the fight but felt compelled to bury the dead. He also said his men needed rest and that he saw “long columns of dust” to the south that he said proved rebels were arriving to reinforce Lee. “This army is not now in condition to undertake another campaign nor to bring on another battle”.  He directed Halleck to order McClellan to cross the Potomac, fight the enemy, or drive him south before the roads became impassable in fall rains. And now McClellan turned to an old excuse, contending the Quartermaster Department had let him down. The army could not move because it had not received enough horses, clothing, or other supplies. McClellan said he had done what he could with what he had been given.

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One Response to Quartermaster Meigs was essential to winning the Civil War

  1. NJF says:

    Nuclear bombs, bioengineered viruses (which may be neurological agents that cause schizophrenic-type behavior), and horseback raiders. The future will be a place stranger than fiction.