During the first year of the Civil War, Montgomery Meigs was a important military adviser for President Lincoln when there were few experienced army officers in Washington he could talk to with confidence. The first critical period in their relationship was in the days leading up the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April. The day after an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the situation at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens, Captain Meigs was summoned to a meeting with President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward to discuss a relief expedition for Fort Pickens in Florida. Meigs wrote in his diary on March 29, 1861
The President talked freely with me. I told him that men enough could be found to volunteer to endeavor to relieve Fort Sumter, but that persons of higher position and rank than myself thought it not to be attempted, that this was not the place to make the war, etc. He asked me whether Fort Pickens could be held. I told him certainly if the Navy had done its duty and not lost it already. The President asked whether I could not go down there again and take a general command of these three great fortresses [Pickens at the western end of Santa Rosa Island, off Pensacola; Taylor at Key West; and Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas] and keep them safe. I told him I was only a captain and could not command majors who were there. He must take an officer of higher rank. Mr. Seward broke out with ‘I can understand too how that is, Captain Meigs, you have got to be promoted.’ I said, ‘That cannot be done; I am a captain and there is no vacancy.’ But Mr. Seward told the President that if he wished to have this thing done the proper way was to put it into my charge and it would be done, that I would give him an estimate of the means by 4 P.M. of the next day. He [Seward] complimented me much. Said that when Pitt wished to take Quebec he did not send for an old general but he sent for a young man whom he had noticed in the society of London, named [James] Wolfe, and told him that he had selected him to take Quebec, to ask for the necessary means and do it and it was done. Would the President do this now? He [Lincoln] replied that he would consider on it and would let me know in a day or two.”1
This request was relatively straight-forward, but Meigs was drawn into plans hatched by Seward and Navy Captain David Dixon Porter which involved diverting ships from the resupply of Fort Sumter to the resupply of Fort Pickens, which Seward deemed more important. “Our plan was to get a good-sized steamer and six or seven companies of soldiers, and to carry the latter, with a number of large guns and a quantity of munitions of war, to Fort Pickens, land them on the outside of the fort under the guns of a ship of war, and the fort would soon be made impregnable ? that was all,” wrote Porter. “I repeated this to Mr. Seward, and said to him, ‘Give me command of the Powhatan, now lying at New York ready for sea, and I will guarantee that everything shall be done without a mistake.'” To accomplish their mission required subterfuge because Porter did not trust the Confederate sympathies of some employees of the Navy Department . Indeed, neither Porter nor Seward took Navy Secretary Gideon Welles into their confidence either:
Mr. Seward listened attentively, and, when I had finished what I had to say, he invited Captain Meigs ? who had come in the mean time – and myself to accompany him to the President.
When we arrived at the White House, Mr. Lincoln – who seemed to be aware of our errand ? opened the conversation.
‘Tell me,’ said he, ‘how can prevent Fort Pickens falling into the hands of the rebels, for if Slemmer is not at once relieved there will be no holding it. Pensacola would be a very important place for the Southerners, and if they once get possession of Pickens, and fortify it, we have no navy to take it from them.’
‘Mr. President,’ said I, ‘there is a queer state of things existing in the Navy Department at this time. Mr. Welles is surrounded by officers and clerks, some of whom are disloyal at heart, and if the orders for this expedition should emanate from the Secretary of the Navy, and pass through all the department red tape, the news would be at once flashed over the wires, and Fort Pickens would be lost for ever. But if you will issue all the orders from the Executive Mansion, and let me proceed to New York with them, I will guarantee their prompt execution to the letter.’2
The plan involved diverting the U.S.S. Powhatan, which had been designated for the relief of Fort Sumter, to head instead to Florida for the relief of Fort Pickens. When Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles discovered this deception and reported it to the President, both were upset, but Meigs emerged from that difficult position relatively unscathed. The President protected him from the wrath of Secretary Welles – who when he discovered what plans had been hatched, confronted President Lincoln at the White House:
He was alone in his office and, raising his head from the table at which he was writing, inquired, ‘What have I done wrong?’ I informed him I had received with surprise the package containing his instructions respecting the Navy and the Navy Department, and I desired some explanation. I then called his attention particularly to the foregoing document, which I read to him. This letter was in the handwriting of Captain Meigs of the army, then Quartermaster-General; the post-script in that of David D. Porter, since made Vice-Admiral. The President expressed as much surprise as I felt, that he had sent me such a document. He said Mr. Seward, that he had sent me such a document. He said Mr. Seward, with two or three young men, had been there through the day on a subject which he (Seward) had in hand, and which he had been some time maturing; that it was Seward’s specialty, to which he, the President, had yielded, but as it involved considerable details, he had left Mr. Seward to prepare the necessary papers. These papers he had signed, many of them without reading,- for he had not time, and if he could not trust the Secretary of State, he knew not whom he could trust. I asked who were associated with Mr. Seward. ‘No one,’ said the President, ‘but these young men were here as clerks to write down his plans and orders.’ Most of the work was done, he said, in the other room. I then asked if he knew the young men. He said one was Captain Meigs, another was a naval officer named Porter.3
Montgomery Meigs eagerly sought promotion in these early days of the Lincoln Administration . He irritated Secretary of War Simon Cameron in his pushiness. Journalist Henry Villard later wrote in his Memoirs: “In the critical, anxious days in April, the President was persuaded to promote two subordinate officers in the regular army at once to high rank. The alleged object was to give them, as being specially zealous in their loyalty, the necessary authority to insure the protection of the Government from the traitorous designs for its overthrow then being prosecuted at the capital. The fortunate men were Major [Irvin] McDowell, and Captain Meigs of the engineer corps, both of whom received the rank of brigadier-general. Their promotions over the heads of nearly all the regular army officers naturally created much jealousy and dissatisfaction, especially among those who had outranked them, but to whose credit be it said that no resignations resulted from this abnormal action.”4
Mr. Lincoln consulted on the potential appointment of Meigs as quartermaster general with General in Chief Winfield Scott: “Doubtless you begin to understand how disagreeable it is to me to do a thing arbitrarily, when it is unsatisfactory to others associated with me. I very much wish to appoint Col. Meigs Quarter-Master General; and yet Gen. Cameron does not quite consent. I have come to know Col. Meigs quite well for a short acquaintance, and, so far as I am capable of judging I do not know one who combines the qualities of masculine intellect, learning and experience of the right sort, and physical power of labor and endurance so well as he.”5 On June 5, Scott replied to President Lincoln:
Nothing can be more kind than your courtesy to me in a matter so exclusively within your own competency as the appointment of a quarter Master general. Colo. Meigs has, doubtless, high genius, science, vigor & administrative capacities – every qualification for the office in question – save special experience in that department of the public Service, & this, certainly he would rapidly acquire. Indeed I know of no one possessed of so many positive advantages, or to whom so little can be objected, & if he can win the cordial support of the principal assistants in the Department, that little would be nil in a month. It costs me nothing, therefore, cordially to support your preference; for, in truth, I have not, from the beginning, had any candidate to present for the office….6
Villard credited Meigs appointment to the influence of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, but the truth was that Meigs had cultivated relationships with President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward as well. As a headquarters general, Meigs had unusual access to the President – on both a military and social basis. When General John C. Frémont caused political problems by issuing his own emancipation proclamation in September 1861, Meigs was sent with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair to Missouri to deal with the problem. Montgomery Blair wired President Lincoln: “Appoint Meigs by telegraph things are deplorable and action must be decisive & prompt to save the state.”7 On a lighter note, when Hermann the magician performed at the White House on November 24, 1861, General Meigs was one of the few military officers present.
More important, Mr. Lincoln came to rely on Meigs’ judgement. President Lincoln’s frustration with inactivity of the Union Army boiled over in Meig’s office in the Winder Building on January 10, 1862. In was a tough period. At the same time Mr. Lincoln was preparing to replace Secretary of War Simon Cameron with Edwin M. Stanton and typhoid fever had rendered Union commander George B. McClellan bedridden and virtually incommunicado. “General what shall I do? The people are impatient; Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?” Mr. Lincoln asked Meigs.8 As a result of the meeting, President Lincoln called a Council of War two nights later with Generals Irvin McDowell and William Franklin, Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Chase and Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott. News of that meeting pulled McClellan off his sick bed and back to military command.
Two months later another crisis struck when the ironclad Merrimack, rechristened the Virginia by Confederates, started sinking Union ships at Hampton Roads. Meigs was part of the White House conference that handled the crisis and he assisted Navy Captain John Dahlgren in preparing Washington for attack. Meigs was not always cool under pressure, however. Nearly two years after the incident occurred, John Hay recalled in his diary: “The Prest tells a queer story of Meigs. When McClellan lay at Harrison’s land, Meigs came one night to the President & waked him up at Soldiers’ Home to urge upon him the immediate flight of the Army from that point — the men to get away on transports and the horses to be killed as the [army?] cd not be saved. ‘Thus often,’ says the President, ‘I who am not a specially brave man have had to sustain the sinking courage of these professional fighters in critical times.'”9
Over the remainder of the Civil War, Meigs’ honesty served him well in his position which required superintending the purchase and distribution of millions of dollars in supplies. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote that “when he gets clean through there won’t be a stain on him.”10 Meigs was one of the few generals present at the Petersen House when President Lincoln died. He remained in his post as Quartermaster General until 1882.
- Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 98 (from Montgomery C. Meigs, “General M. C. Meigs on the Conduct of the Civil War,” American Historical Review, January 1921, p. 299).
- David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, .
- Gideon Welles, The Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 16-18.
- Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 179.
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.(Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Winfield Scott, June 5, 1861).
- David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 630 (Letter from Winfield Scott, June 5, 1861).
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Montgomery Blair to Abraham Lincoln, September 14, 1861).
- “General M. C. Meigs on the Conduct of the Civil War”, American Historical Review, Volume XXVI, 1921, p. 292-293.
- Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 191 (April 28, 1864).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 57.