The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army, by Robert O’Harrow Jr., Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016, $28
For much of the American Civil War the Union Army was well supplied but poorly commanded. Many were to fault for the latter problem. The former success was due mainly to one man—Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, logistical mastermind and subject of this engaging biography.
Meigs vaulted onto the national stage thanks to an early and ironic benefactor, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. At the outset of the war Meigs’ management skills prompted newly elected President Abraham Lincoln to assign him a critical mission: the resupply of Florida’s Fort Pickens, which the Corps of Engineers officer accomplished with rapid efficiency. He was soon destined for greater things as appointed quartermaster general of the Union Army.
Meigs soon found himself personally responsible for the largest single outlay in the federal budget. While other generals fought the enemy on the field, the quartermaster general waged war against hunger, supply shortages and rampant corruption. Meigs coordinated the massive task of purchasing and distribution, forever seeking efficiencies in the market and counseling restraint in the field. Unsurprising for a man constantly assessing the cost of war, he advocated having armies on the march live off the land and was especially delighted when Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman began making the South—and not him—pay for the war.
If logistics intrinsically calls for a behind-the-scenes look, O’Harrow brings such potentially lackluster content to life. While Meigs made his principal accomplishments from behind a desk, he did witness combat on occasion, observing the 1863 Battle of Chattanooga in person (an earned privilege, as he did much to supply the city) and commanding field units resisting Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s 1864 attack on Washington.
Finally, Lincoln’s oft-overlooked quartermaster general sought to ensure Americans would not overlook the sacrifices of others by serving as a principal architect of Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery. Meigs, who had met Confederate General Robert E. Lee before the war, insisted war dead of both sides be buried on the acres immediately surrounding the former Custis-Lee Mansion. Profoundly conscious of the material cost of war, he made certain his foe would never forget its human toll.