The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army
By Robert O’Harrow Jr.
In studying the Union war effort during the Civil War you read a lot about the main players. Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, McClellan, are all names that pop out usually on the first page of any summary of the war. As you dig deeper another name comes up, almost as a background player to each of them, Montgomery Meigs. When I started reading this book that was the thought I had in my mind, here is the background player to the war, as the Quartermaster General I knew he played a role and looked forward to some behind the scenes look at the war effort.
What I found was the story of an amazing man who truly deserves a spotlight all his own. Even before the war, he was responsible for some of the most incredible engineering projects not just in the country but in the world. He navigated the choppy waters of Washington politics as an honest man and stayed that way during his entire tenure. He not only drew his architect inspiration from Roman and Renaissance models, bringing them to the New World, but he innovated and created styles and methods used today.
Then came the Civil War.
An army had to be built and provisioned on a scale that the United States, and most anywhere else, had never known. The man put in charge was Meigs, and no one ever doubted that decision. He became an adviser and ally to Lincoln and Stanton. He built a military machine unrivaled for the age and brought it to bear against the enemies of his country. Very few biographies actually leave me in awe, but this was one.
Knowles brings Meigs’s story to the page in a bright and loving way. It would be easy to get bogged down in the minutia that was so important to everything Meigs had a hand in. Whether it was negotiating contracts for bricks for the Capitol, or gathering horses to pull the machinery of war. Every detail was necessary and well described. What helps was short chapters and breaking it up into nice bite-sized chunks. Many authors would have tried piling on and that would have ill-served this story.
I highly recommend this book.
Patton the Olympian?
On display at the National Infantry Museum at Ft. Benning is this sweatshirt that belonged to General George S. Patton. With all his bombast, all his skill and his incredible military aptitude it’s kind of hard think of him as a guy that liked to play sports. In fact, he was always a bit of a sportsman.
In fact, during the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he competed for the United States in the first modern version of the Pentathlon which was only open to military officers since it focused mainly on the skills every good officer was expected to have. The five events that made up the Pentathlon included pistol shooting from 25 meters, fencing, swimming (9300-meter freestyle) horseback riding (800 meters) and a four-kilometer cross-country run.
Twenty-six-year-old Patton did remarkably well in the multi-event sport, consisting of pistol shooting from 25 meters, sword fencing, a 300-meter freestyle swim, 800 meters horseback riding and a 4-kilometer cross-country run. He did very well in the competition. Ending up finishing fifth overall. If not for the shooting portion he may have won.
Are you saying he didn’t do well on the shooting portion? Patton? Well, see what happened was that for the competition all the other competitors used .22 caliber revolvers. Patton, however, felt that since the competition had its foundation in military training, a more appropriate weapon was needed.
So he used a .38 for his round. Unfortunately, after his score was tallied up he found that he had lost points when one of his shots missed the target. He tried to explain that he didn’t miss. One of the shots had gone through the hole left by a previous shot. The .38 leaving much bigger holes than the .22. The judges, however, did not agree with his contention and his score was docked.
Not to worry though, he bounced back from the defeat and did pretty good for himself.
Il Duce Was Here (Mussolini on Display)
Yes, the epaulets on display here were worn on the uniform of Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy. He was not always a dictator, however.
Through the use of force, intimidation and pure outright politics he climbed to the top of the heap of the Italian fascist movement. In 1922 he reached the very top. In the March on Rome he and 30,000 of his “black shirts” quickly and surprisingly bloodlessly was handed control of the Italian government. On October 28, 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III signed the order making Mussolini the Prime Minister.
Over the course of the next few years he used the democratic system to set himself up as a dictator. Eventually granting the fascist one-party control of the country. Looking to flex his muscle in a world on the brink of war, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. What proved to be an opening act in a decade of war. He took the chance to side with Germany as a member of the Axis powers.
Knowing that Italy was not completely prepared for a continental war in 1939 he hoped that Germany would be able to defeat France and England quickly. His forces would remain focused on North Africa. He was looking for a seat at the victory celebration without a lot of effort.
In 1943 the Allied invasion of Italy sort of blew up his plan. By 1945 he found himself deposed and on the run. Eventually, he was captured and executed by Italian partisans. An ignominious end for Il Duce, but maybe not ill deserved.
A (Santa Anna) Leg Up On the Competition
That leg in the carriage above belonged to Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. False though it may be the man who owned it is an amazing part of American History. With the nickname “Napoleon of the West” one would expect a man of great ability and military skill, but in reality you would find a politician that talked a good game who found himself as “president” over ten times none for very long.
In 1835 Texas, which at the time was a part of Mexico settled mainly by Americans (look it gets complicated) rebelled against the Mexican government. In 1836 it declared itself an independent state. Santa Anna led the Mexican army north to deal with the rebels. Along the way he stopped at the Alamo where he crushed and murdered the out numbered defenders. In April 1836 at the battle of San Jacinto the Texans defeated Santa Anna and captured him. He was forced into signing a treaty granting Texas its sovereignty.
Once that was settled he found himself facing the French, losing his leg in battle at Veracruz. That win however could not keep him in power and he was forced into exiled. Fast forward now about ten years to 1846 and the Mexican American War.
VS United States
At the start of hostilities, Santa Anna (still in exile) started communications on both sides. He promised the Mexican President that if he were allowed to return he would work with him to drive the Americans out. Meanwhile he told the Americans that if they helped put him back in power he would end the war. Even promising to sell them the Southwest. Everyone agreed to his terms. Soon found himself back in Mexico, reneging on both deals and taking power for himself.
On April 18th, 1847 the Mexican Army led by Santa Anna personally fought the US Army at Cerro Gordo and lost badly. Such was the route that soldiers from the 4th Illinois came upon Santa Anna’s carriage which had been abandoned in haste. In it they found his artificial leg, his roast chicken lunch (still warm) and $18,000 in coins. Numerous times since the war Mexico has asked that the leg be returned. Yet it still sits on display at the Illinois State Military History Museum.
Santa Anna himself was exiled after the end of the war. He passed time living in many places from Cuba to New York. Finally his incredible journey came to an end in 1876 at his villa in Mexico City.