Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The first question for anyone planning to visit Washington, DC is: “What should we see?” To answer this question, you will need an exceptional guide, and that guide will need a treasure trove of stories about Washington to convey the capital’s unique significance to America and the world. (Excellent guides, private car, and customized tours can be found at: executivetoursdc.com.)

Everybody knows that Washington (legally, the District of Columbia—hence the “DC”) is the capital of the United States of America. Since 1800, when Congress moved to the partially completed capital on the Potomac, across the river from George Washington’s Virginia plantation, Washington, DC has served as the nerve center of the federal government. Virtually every building, monument, and area within the capital (and in its environs) has, at some time in the past 224 years, played a significant role in American history. There is in fact so much to see in Washington that even well-informed DC residents need a guide to understand and appreciate their native city.
In honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial (not, as it sounds, its 600th but rather its 150th) anniversary, I would like to highlight Washington’s importance in that conflict by outlining some highlights from the miraculous career of the Union’s Quartermaster General, MONTGOMERY CUNNINGHAM MEIGS.

Eighty years earlier, Gen. George Washington reported seeing blood in the snow where his shoeless troops had passed. Many of his men, the General lamented to the Continental Congress, had to go shirtless and coatless in the cold. Not so during the Civil War. With Meigs at the helm, the Union lads had stuff aplenty. No soldier lacked for powder, or clothes, or food, or tents, or transport. The Army was sadly lacking in qualified Generals—but it had plenty of stuff.

Marvelous Meigs, who spent the earlier part of his career in the Army Corps of Engineers, was also responsible for fixing navigation on the Mississippi (a project he worked on under fellow West Pointer Robert E. Lee) and building the DC Aqueduct to bring water to the City. This last entailed building a single-span bridge (the Union Arch Bridge, designed by Alfred Rives), which for 50 years held the record as the longest single-span masonry arch in the world.

Clever Meigs installed the iron dome (the one you see behind anchor people on TV) that completed the U.S. Capitol and gives it its iconic shape. When the air inside the Capitol turned out to be fetid (and smelly from the necessaries being too close at hand), he designed and built aeration towers still in use today.

Patriot Meigs bore a personal grudge against Robert Lee, whom he considered had betrayed his West Point oath to protect the Union. After the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), it was Meigs who personally saw to it that the Union dead were dug up and replanted in Mrs. Lee's rose garden—thereby establishing our national military burial ground on the ground of the Lee’s Arlington plantation. Fittingly, the gates to Arlington Cemetery today bear an inscription chosen by, who else?—Montgomery Meigs.

Surprising Meigs, who spent most of the war moving around troops and materiel, even had his brief moment of glory in the field. Late in the war, Lee realized that the bulk of Grant’s army was in Virginia, leaving the capital virtually undefended. He sent a Confederate force led by Jubal Early across the Potomac to circle around and march on Washington from the north.

On an insufferably hot July 9th, at Monacacy Junction, MD not far from Washington, Early’s forces met with unexpectedly strong resistance from a small, brave Union garrison. These citizen soldiers fought all day under the blazing sun. By evening, the Rebs had won but were so exhausted that Early decided to rest for a day before advancing on Washington. That decision—plus the fine wine cellar the troops discovered in the Blair mansion in Silver Spring just outside the City—bought Grant just enough time to shift seasoned troops back to the capital.

Early’s troops could be seen advancing on Ft. Stephens on the District’s NW boundary at noon on July 12, 1864, precisely when, five miles to the south, Grant’s troops were disembarking at the city’s harbor. Until Grant's troops arrived to save the day (which they did), responsibility for holding Fort Stephens fell to the unseasoned home forces. And who was the General in charge of Ft. Stephens? Just take a guess. (President & Mrs. Lincoln actually came out to see the fighting, but that is a story for another time.)
By War’s end, Meigs had lost his beloved President (he was one of the few officials admitted to Peterson’s Rooming House during Lincoln’s last hours) and his only son, but iron Meigs was far from defeated.

He continued on as Quartermaster General for another two decades. He built (but did not design) the charming brick Arts & Industries Building, next to the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. Most remarkably, he designed and built the huge Pension Building, now the National Building Museum—a handsome brick phenomenon (he was economy-minded) encircled by an intriguing and remarkably detailed terracotta frieze by the Czech-American sculptor Caspar Buberl. 

Designed to honor all four branches of military service, the frieze consists of four identical sets of panels (cavalry, infantry, navy, quartermaster corps), which were reshuffled and recombined for economy’s sake to create new combinations all around the building. In line with his abolitionist sentiments, Meigs insisted that the soldier driving the supply wagon be a freed man o f color, and in line with his engineering prowess, the boasts the largest indoor Corinthian columns in the world.

Critics called it "Meigs's brick yard,” and on seeing it,  William Tecumseh Sherman remarked: "Too bad it's fireproof." Yet for the quarter century f ollowing its completion (1885-1909), the Pension Building’s airy main hall (ventilated at the top—another Meigs invention) hosted every Presidential inaugural ball.

At his death, General Meigs was buried in Arlington Cemetery. In the shadow of his large white sarcophagus lies a surprisingly small bronze slab marking the grave of his heroic son, lying dead in the mud amid hoof-prints from the Confederate ambush that had killed him. So ends our tribute to the great but largely unsung U.S. patriot,  engineer, inventor, architect, and indispensable hero of the Civil War  Genl. Montgomery C. Meigs.

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