tv Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs CSPAN August 12, 2017 6:00pm-6:56pm EDT
war conference. wednesday features lincoln scholar. on friday, we conclude the conference with tj stiles. next weekwar special beginning at 8:00 eastern on c-span 3. next, robert o hero discusses his book on montgomery meigs. he was responsible for supplying union armies in the field and developed washington, d.c.'s, infrastructure and build or expanded national buildings and sites such as the u.s. capitol dome and arlington national cemetery. this is just over 50 minutes. is --ning us tonight
robert is a reporter with the investigative unit of the washington post who is focused on privacy, national security, federal contracting. he has won multiple journalism awards. the 2013 sigma delta chi award. a regional emmy. he previously won the top prize for investigative reporters and editors for exposing fraud, waste, and abuse in homeland security contracting. he has been a pulitzer prize finalist twice. finalisten a four-time for business writing. he is the author of "no place to
hide." michelle is a civil war and reconstruction specialist at the library of congress. history atd a ba in berkeley. severalhe author of articles and books on topics related to the civil war. at the library assistant at the historical society of washington, d.c., an assistant presenter. scholarlyember of our lecture. i would like to call out to connections between this place. quartermaster montgomery meigs department was responsible for caring for the war dead.
remarkable that in choosing to live here, lincoln was putting himself face-to-face with the human cost of war every day. seeing the capitol dome provided lincoln with the inspiration and a constant reminder of what was at stake. construction of the dome was halted at the onset of the civil war. if people see the capital going on, it is a sign we intend the union to go on. please join me in welcoming robert and michelle. [applause] michelle: thank you for having us here tonight. the first question for those folks who have not picked up the book, how did you get involved with this project?
how did you come across montgomery meigs? that is it is a story true. i was walking with my family and if any of you are locals, it is a beautiful spot and normally, we went down across the canal and applicant -- and up the canal. i am a robert frost fan. you have to do verge now and then. uphill and find out where this goes. it was a path through the woods. it was a little two-lane road. i highly recommend it. there was a railing part way down in the middle of the woods. why is there a railing in the middle of the woods? there was a granite memorial
down below my feet. meigs.ial to captain in a war?a general st some reason, this one uck. i have never once lost interest in what i found. michelle: one thing i wanted to start with because you are researching montgomery meigs, who notoriously had bad handwriting. [laughter] how did you overcome his handwriting? robert: the handwriting was an enormous challenge. it literally is so bad that the library of congress helpfully told us at the beginning of this paper, beware going further.
you probably will not be able to read all that you encounter. it is amazing. when sherman and meigs had grown to know each other, there was a story and it is so good. an order that is written in his script and he says, these orders from general , and therefore, i approve of them but i cannot read them. [laughter] instead of dodging your question, i will try to answer it. story is in ay haphazard event. the more you pull back the onion yer, theyer's, -- la
more contradictory it becomes. using ast reevaluation many disparate sources as i could stumble across. though clinton used to say, even a blind hog will find an acorn now and then. i felt like i was a blind hog. , i got tons of full-blown from google books and found my way there. documents.urce -- official records saved me hague, heohn transcribed his journals. triangulated as many source documents and the
gift that never stopped giving 's handwriting was illegible to begin with. he was an efficiency guy. meigs he became a devo to a of the idea -- devotee to the idea that he could use time more efficiently. he adopted a form of writing called pittman shorthand and he sealed the fate of his journals, 1500 -- 2000 pages of journals and nobody could read them. not only was it pittman himself,, he taught and then he used an idiosyncratic version of the
shorthand. about -- the anniversary of the capitol dome being completed, congress paid a guide who was a shorthand specialist to transcribe all of his journals. and sottee came together i got a stack of his journals transcribed and i went a step -- if anybodyd wants them, i have searchable all ofs from meigs for the 1850's and part of 1860. that is how i got around the letters i could not read. i am an old newspaper hack and you learn time waits for no one. i did the best i could with the
materials i could access. michelle: what kind of man is meigs and what drove him? found, one of the things that made me very happy because stories follow a similar pattern. fascinated that meigs life story follows a traditional art. he was really immature. he was really an immature genius when he came to washington in 1852. he was not as disciplined as he should have been. he was scattered, super creative. one of the things about him, he was open to growing and he grew
in many ways, including on his views on slavery, which were very ambivalent because his boss and his good friend geoff davis was a slave owner. -- he did not grasp the enormity of slavery until later. he did grow. meigs was aframing of windows, , he would stop. he would become mesmerized by the balance and the proportions and the utility of the things he saw. he was really moved by architecture.
i suspect he was moved by colors. he was almost excessive about renaissance art. he only saw it in books. the patterns with the suggestions of colors and the books he bought sort of inflamed him. impassioned about engineering -- did you guys know users the first industrial of photography in the world? ied in hisvar interests. i wanted to use a quote michelle helped me track down. his wife wrote to her mother early in the war and she uses this phrase, it is as though his soul is on fire with
indignation. in general.on fire at the same time, he was highly self regarding. he was irritable, cranky, demanding. he could be a bore. -- so so south of zest self obsessed. he was also incredibly loyal. he was very engaging. they had something called a saturday club, top scientists, engineers, painters and they would get together and drink and do a show and tell of stuff. apparently, he had a lot of faithful friends. the combination of someone who harkens back to the past for his architecture but is
so interested in technology, and he is an engineer but he is an artist and he is inducted into the national academy of sciences, too. he is a renaissance man in so many ways. aspect.there is another he was devoted to innovation. i think he stands as one of the great technology innovators in the 19th century. taking other people's very good ideas, which stand on their own, and realizing there are other ways of using them so you create something new. he did that over and over again. it is a remarkable synthetic ability. michelle: we are here in washington and her audience will appreciate -- our audience will appreciate this. can you describe the impacts that meigs had on the
environment in washington dc -- in washington, d.c.? living a career as a journeyman engineer in the army and heading probably toward being more forgotten to a career that would have integrity. it would not have been memorable. he was summoned to washington because the water was really bad and there was not enough of it and the capital had almost burned down when the library of congress caught fire. our american history went up in flames -- some of it. he came to washington and they said, find a source of water. he did a three month survey and
his report was so concise and brilliant and both practical and sweeping. look it up because it is a cool document. washington will become one of the great -- the center of one of the great empires in world history. he also predicted the other great world empire was going to be russia. he felt washington needed a water system that would allow ,he city to live healthy lives allow people to realize their james. it was so well done that the incoming secretary at war who became his very close to friend , theain political patron political knife fighter who protected meigs gave him the job to expand the capital building. manifest destiny was bringing in lawmakers. that guy gave meigs the two
greatest construction plums in america at the time. he had his fingerprints on the capitol dome. he helped design and. -- he helped design it. he built the water system. there is water all the way up the macarthur boulevard and the canals. brick water houses as well as one of the great monuments in this area, formerly known as union bridge. it is a stunning -- i do not know what you would call it. a proto-modernist piece of art. he insisted that it be kept spare. no extra embellishments.
it was the longest masonry bridge and world history until then. davis who was geoff went on to become the president of the confederacy. michelle: we know he was very influenced by davis. or how that relationship did his feelings about davis and robert e. lee, how did those things change? robert: meigs came out of west point. west point was the main engineering school in the country. his first assignment in the army corps of engineers was with robert e. lee and they went to the mississippi and they were trying to find ways to improve navigation. it is an interesting thing because he did admire lee. lee was stiffnecked and a very
proper guy. he is a guy's guy. women love him and men love them. -- love him. they socialized and they were fond of one another and he was much closer to davis and his wife. when the war came, meigs was pretty clear about what he wanted. he never reconciled with them. he felt his patriotism, i think was on in order that was very different than what we might be able to experience now. it was a face and in the democracy -- and a democracy that was fledgling. meigs had the insight, the great
possibility of creating freedom for people and the idea that there were people turning back on it instead of resolving the problems offended him in a passionate way. michelle: his soul was on fire with indignation. most people know meigs as the quartermaster general. maybe you can -- what kind of job was that? what was the quartermaster responsible for? talk -- when i talked earlier about him growing, after i got three years into the project, i realized meigs could not have done what he did during the war if he had not done what he did in the 1850's. he had to follow the money and
he did down to the penny. he had to organize labor. he had millions and millions of bricks and he tracked them and he tracked how much it cost to lay each brick. the detail he brought to bear. while he was doing that, by the way, he is decorating the capital and he is hiring artists. and fending off american artists. back then, they were talking about making america great again. he would go through the capital and see their work. he would without a park at knife and show -- pocket knife and show how -- show the artist how it.anted millions,s spending he was a captain, right?
this,he is doing all of adopting photography and doing politics and covering his tush , that guyical attacks artistme to watch an paint the first fresco in the united states. he would go there day after day to watch this guy work in real time. there are some art historians who make the case, and i believe 'sey are correct, that meigs isrnal of the artist working
the first document in real time of a fresco being made in world history. this is the kind of guy he was. he grew into himself. war, in the spring and summer of 1861, it baffles me that we survive. ,he army went from -- let's say 16,000 of a standing army and a small quartermaster department and to an army -- into an army with a quarter of a million men. uncounted wagons had to be procured. the men did not have clothing or underwear. there were soldiers out in patrol in their longjohns because there were no uniforms.
todelegated a lot of work his very experienced underlings and began to work with these industries to mobilize them and to arrange for supplies. when he did not get the supplies he needed, he ordered supplies from france. clothing, blankets, and he got reamed out for that. ever he had to until he could get this machine up and running. he lucked out because you may recall that the treasury ran out of money in early 1862. the president was very glum and down about the prospects. to meigs'sered over
office downtown and he walked in and sits in front of the fire and says, what am i going to do? heroes, one of the not of american history, mcclellan -- that was gentle, right? that is washington doublespeak. mcclellan is ill and would not see the president. ged it at first. not justlans, he was putting out fires. he began planning what became the brown water navy.
he started doing drawings of these ships, these riverboats, and they had to -- technology was changing and they were rifled and they could obliterate wood. meigs started designing iron covered riverboats that ultimately -- damn the torpedoes -- farragut used to turn the tide. the boats were not ready until later, actually. in any case, they made a big difference. michelle: does he ever see the battlefields? so much of his activities were legit to goal. did he get a chance -- were
logistical. rolet: meigs relished his and he welcomed it. i get the sense he knew this was a match he was feted for. the 1840's andin 1850's, he is air again and boorish -- arrogant and boorish, he came to realize that he was genius.a logistical he had the support of the supportt and he had the of another cranky man, the secretary of war stanton. .eigs never served in battle he had gone out to bull run and saw the shooting and never led men in battle and he always felt bad about it. in a way, that is a good thing.
if you are a military guy, you need to want to confront the enemy. dispatched to tennessee when there was an emergency in chattanooga. they had to get men from washington in northern virginia down there to save the day and he helped in that process. to go toaid i'm e.g. chattanooga because it turns out, -- stanton said, i need you to go to chattanooga because it turns out, they are surrounded. there and he was in the midst of it and he reveled being there when it was all unfolding.
it still was not enough, though. he did not want to go back. he liked being with the guys in the field. he went back and he asked for a commission in the field and stanton said no, we need you here. in 1864, he had his chance. when -- takece what you can, we need supplies. they got a bunch of horses and they tried to do a hail mary and attack from the north in washington, d.c. when they saw that his army was moving through, they thought it was trickery and they downplayed it and they realized it was for
real. meigs bagged to be given command department.ermaster initially, he was told no. he went and asked another commander and got approval and rallied these men and went to totten is notort far from here, right? 's mainappens that meigs force he was leading was that fort stevens. when the southerners came from the north, meigs got to be in charge of the battle. he was joined in that battle for two days by the president and the president was -- he wanted to see this. they all came up in their
carriages, the illuminati of washington. day, haven this key you guys been to fort stevens? it is fantastic. you can almost see how it would unfold. lincoln is standing there and literally, we have accounts of bullets buzzing into the dirt. a soldier got hit nearby. kernel soldier, maybe a yelling at lincoln, get down you fool. that was all of her window homes homes.er wendall in the newspaper business, we call that too good to check.
[laughter] i could not verify that this is true. , i think it is hard, reading between the lines, he was very happy that he finally had that monkey off his back. he was so happy and so high flea -- highly suffer guarded and so memo tocal, he wrote a his soldiers recounting their bravery and the dateline was something like, meigs headquarters. now it is in the official record. exultationrom that to finally getting to command
troops in the field to the death of his son, can you tell us what happened and how that impacted him? i think i will do this in reverse. 1864, after the wilderness campaign and the overland campaign and the siege in richmond, the bodies were being brought up to washington for the hospitals and the cemeteries and the cemeteries were built and the bodies were stacking up and like all, it was physical presence and it was so nasty and it underscored the urgency of solving the problem. land of his now hated adversary and created arlington cemetery.
it is a compelling story for me wasuse by this time, meigs embittered by the losses everybody was suffering. he did not want the lees ever coming back. that land was, i think, pretty clearly taken illegally by the north. they did not allow the family to pay their taxes. you cannot pay your taxes so we will take it from you. in any case, meigs did not want them coming back so he ordered their bodies be buried around the rose garden. you have to be pretty angry to do something like that. he became angrier still because of something that happened to his son.
his son john was very much like his dad, brilliant engineer, went to west point, top of his class. assigned toand was the shenandoah valley and he was a mapmaker and apparently very good coming back with a couple of guys. the story is unclear. it might always be unclear. the outcome is it appears john guysht these three or four were union guys. they may have been undercover, they may have been wearing raincoats. in any case, they were southerners. meigs was shot dead. montgomery thought it was murder . when he heard about it, he was in new york.
he declared it was murder and it was a plot because john was his son. it turns out, and i thought this was interesting, john's gun had been fired and unlike meigs's version of the story, john had engaged in a firefight. in any case, he died and meigs might have gotten over it, but i think he lived without loss for the rest of his life. michelle: maybe you can describe what john's sarcophagus looks like at arlington. robert: it is really interesting. of john meigs in the position he was in when they found him. kind of interesting. michelle: what did meigs do
after the war? robert: there is a woman named mary? how do you say her last name? she wrote a magnificent collection of john meigs's letters to his family. it is unorthodox because there is commentary throughout but it is the letters and it is beautifully curated and it is so thought-provoking and i wanted to recommend it. christ and country is what it is called. about meigs, he is arrogant.
there are people who are meigsi ans. and there are others who hate meigs. apart from the letters and the love he had for his family in private and his commitment to , youountry, after the war should read what meigs wrote about his views about sending the diaspora of union soldiers. he really feels for these young men. he senses the majesty of it. he arranged for all of that. it is an incredible logistical undertaking. for him, the war was not close to being finished because there were still bodies in the field.
meigs mobilized these units to go into the south and virginia and collect these bodies. i am so impressed with that. meigs is fighting tooth and nail --r the design of the stone of the headstone. befelt every soldier should interred and identified. every man and every brother and every mother and sister should be able to honor their lost one. war, meigs had the itch to create again. he wanted to build. he wanted to travel. he went to rome and finally saw these buildings and this art he had only read about.
and he was excited about that. involved in the original arts and industries building any sketched that in and the general inign of that, participated that building. he designed cottages for the areonal cemeteries and they multipurpose designs that should be adapted based on materials available. that kind of thing is really neat to me. you have the general design all over the country. he did a lot of other stuff. i wonder if you know about this,
congress did something unusual in that they funded the creation of a new building for the pension bureau. quarterion bureau was a of all federal spending for widows and people who had been disabled. they had this huge bureaucratic workforce. was -- congress said, here is the money for this building and you will have meigs build it. and drew on his for his design and the design, of course, was innovative, used new technology, and foreshadows -- if you look
at the pension building and look at its design, it foreshadows most of the architecture in soho in new york and most of new york . i cannot remember the exact name architecturally of what that is called. he spent five years building the used 15building and he million red bricks. he included the tallest columns in the world at the time, which are made to look like marble. he designed it so the air would flow into the building and up. could demonstrate the health benefits to the employees. at the time, the building -- people laughed at it because it was so different. -- is so weird compared to
said,it was sherman who in effect, everything about that building is good except that it is fireproof. they thought it was a joke. becamete changed and it the national building museum. i was taken by a clip i found in the new york times, the critic came to see it in the times critic said, it is unbelievable building. thecannot even grasp significance of the building until you are there and in it. it stands alone as a model for a type of public architecture. michelle: that sounds like a
good place to end this formal interview. if anyone would like to ask robert questions about meigs, we will open it up to questions. amateurs talk about strategy and experts talk about logistics. i am the last person who ever q inred out the character james bond movies stands for quartermaster. this is a remarkable book and here is my question. the part of your book i thought was most poignant was right at the end when meigs has helped to arrange for lincoln's body to lie in state in the capitol. would you talk a little bit about that? he had a unique perspective.
robert: meigs was in the room all night long. let me go back a half step. meigs wanted to go, he was in the field helping sherman along the coast and he wanted, when gohmond fell, he wanted to to the house of his enemy. he decided to come home and come home with grant. he comes home straightaway to 14, heton and on april wrote in his journal, he was with his family and he stopped to see seward who was still .njured by an accident he is with his family and he wrote in his journal, the country is drunk with joy. that afternoon.
that night, he get some and and he grabs a jacket and a gun and he joins the group around lincoln's bed. he is their own ninth and then gets the assignment -- she is there all night and then gets the assignment for lincoln to lie in state and goes to the capital to arrange it and i am not sure exactly at one point you are getting at except that he was really proud about the capitol and proud that it looked so together and had a majesty for the president and he thought the president looked -- theand looked thereess that had been after the shooting.
and he recorded this in his journals. himincoln's interest in early on, he was promoted rapidly. do you have any idea what lincoln source of information on him was? robert: it was only a matter of weeks. the guy we are sure sold him to lincoln was seward. seward had become a fan of meigs and a fan of the capitol dome, after being a critic of it, by the way. at the same time davis was a patron. seward and davis were complete opposites politically but they were friendly with each other. they shared this admiration for meigs. when lincoln came to town, seward pushed meigs in front of
the president as a captain and they arranged for the first secret mission of the war. lincoln, without consulting his cabinet, ordered meigs to a forced to go to fort pickens and make sure they maintained control, which they did. after that, lincoln was very impressed and listened to seward. i do not know if there were others. i suspect seward was the main guy. >> [inaudible] you said that was what got you involved. robert: he was not involved -- i know only a little bit about the canal. it was a beautiful failure.
the main connection is the proximity of the aqueduct to the canal. >> [inaudible] period of time in the early 1970's, it was a courthouse. i was a young lawyer practicing in that building. as they restored it, they were uncovering a lot of things that had been covered up. it is a masterful building and i enjoyed that period of time, seeing what they were uncovering. michelle: it was not only just for the pension bureau, but it was meant as a public space. one of the few places you could have an inaugural ball. it is not just a single purpose
space. robert: when you go there, take note of the steps. this is another argument and i don't feel like i should be arguing -- why would an architect in that day and age design steps that were only this high? he did it because he was empathizing with the men who were wounded in the war. michelle: one thing i wanted to -- i am sorry. >> tell us a little bit about his early life. robert: he was born in georgia when his father and mother moved there to start a medical practice. mom could not stand the slavery all around her. they moved back to philadelphia.
they have their anchor to connecticut. in philadelphia. he went to west point when he was 16. michelle: i can pick up on the family issue. his brother was -- had moved to the south and remained loyal to the south. did you explore much about the internal civil war in his own family? robert: a little bit. honest androfoundly i told you about his accounting to the penny and he fought ferociously.ption he was ready to take it on.
he took on the corruption in a way that created a problem when his boss -- his new secretary of war was john floyd and he was a corrupt human being who allowed corruption to flourish and meigs refused to yield to these schemes. rarely -- he thought it openly -- fought it openly and he had contacts in the press and on the hill and he used it. floyd just said, you are out of here and banished him down off the coast of florida. that was in late 1860. he traveled through florida and he visited his brother.
he grew as a man. i always thought this was funny. he visits his brother and he sees they are preparing for the possibility of secession. he writes letters back to winfield scott saying, they are preparing for secession. lots of people knew that but meigs had his blinders on so operating in as way as a spy, but it shows a certain night have it take -- it aivete. certain n the brother used the same kind of language that meigs used
except it was for the south not the north. there will have to be oceans of blood. we have to wade through oceans of blood before we can reconcile our differences. i thought that was kind of funny. michelle: did they reconcile after the war? i cannot remember. robert: neither can i. michelle: i think we have had a wonderful conversation with you and about montgomery meigs. thanks for coming. [applause] we hope to see you downstairs. >> interested in american history tv? visit our website, c-span.org/history. you can do the tv schedule, preview upcoming programs, watch
college lectures, archival films, and more. next, the hampton roads naval museum, a discussion on civil road -- civil war shipwrecks and hansen roads, virginia. -- in hampton roads, virginia. she gives details of the sinking's of the ships and problems with the plunder of the artifacts from the wrecks. this talk was that gettysburg college. it is just under an hour. good afternoon, everyone. .mp carmichael it is a