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Historical Vignette 128 - Montgomery C. Meigs

Meigs with Aqueduct EquipmentMontgomery C. Meigs (1816 - 1892) came to Washington, D.C., in 1852 as an engineer captain assigned the task of locating "an unfailing and abundant supply of good and wholesome water" for the capital city.  To that time, D.C. residents and government offices relied on inadequate wells and springs both to provide drinking water and to quench fires. In 1851, after a large fire nearly engulfed the entire Capitol building, Congress looked to the Corps of Engineers to secure a permanent source of water. Chief Engineer Joseph Gilbert Totten chose Meigs to oversee the project. Captain Meigs was a West Point graduate (class of 1836), and his early assignments consisted of typical engineer duties: fortification construction and riverine navigation improvements. Once in D.C., Meigs identified the Potomac River at Great Falls as an ideal water source, with water delivery to be conducted through massive conduits downhill to the city. Congress not only approved Meigs' plan, they placed him in charge of constructing the 12-mile-long aqueduct from 1853 to1860.

U.S. Capitol DomeMeigs' success with the Washington Aqueduct earned him additional high-profile projects, including managing the construction of the U.S. Capitol's new north and south wings and its new cast iron dome, which he did from 1853 to 1859. Meigs had proven himself a talented engineer, a gifted manager, and a scrupulously honest accountant. However, as proficient as he was as a manager, Meigs' could also be vain and egotistical. He enjoyed complete control over the aqueduct program, designing bridges and ornamenting edifices however he saw fit. In contrast, while managing the Capitol project, Meigs had to work with the Architect of the Capitol, Thomas Walter. The two men rarely saw eye to eye, and Meigs constantly made a point to amend Walter's designs with his own ideas. The feud with Walter eventually led to Meigs' dismissal from the Capitol project in 1859, but when the secession crisis in 1861 left the nation without a Quartermaster General for the Army, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln looked to Meigs to fill the void.

By accepting the role as Quartermaster General, Meigs left the Corps of Engineers at the start of the Civil War.  His focus shifted to establishing massive depots to help keep the Union armies supplied, thereby allowing them to apply constant pressure on the Confederacy. Secretary of State William Seward remarked that "without the services of this eminent soldier the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled." One of Meigs' other duties as head quartermaster was to locate and prepare new national cemeteries. By 1864, D.C.'s burial grounds were at capacity, filled with thousands of soldiers killed on the Virginia battlefields. When Meigs was a young lieutenant, he had served under another rising star in the Army Engineer community - Robert E. Lee. The two had earned each other's respect and admiration, but once Lee sided with the rebellion, Meigs saw him as a villainous traitor. Meigs' contempt for his former superior led to his recommendation that Lee's estate just across the Potomac River from D.C. be used as a new federal burial ground, thus establishing Arlington National Cemetery.

Pension Building Columns After the Civil War, Meigs remained Quartermaster General until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1882. That same year, Meigs was put in charge of designing and constructing a new building for the Pension Bureau (today's National Building Museum). Meigs modeled the building after famous European structures and intended it to be a monument to Civil War soldiers, primarily via a 1,200-foot-long frieze around the outside of the building depicting military figures in parade.  Meigs' personal impacts on the city are enormous, but he also laid the foundation for generations of additional USACE involvement in D.C. Due to his honesty and the proficient management of his projects, Meigs bolstered the position of the Corps of Engineers as Congress' go-to construction management agency.

For more information, please see The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the District of Columbia - a brief, illustrated brochure of Engineer activities in the nation's capital: http://www.publications.usace.army.mil/Portals/76/Publications/EngineerPamphlets/EP_870-1-73.pdf

Or our book-length monograph:

Capital Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Development of Washington, D.C., 1790-2004. http://www.publications.usace.army.mil/Portals/76/Publications/EngineerPamphlets/EP_870-1-67_2011.pdf