There was a good piece in last Friday’s Washington Post about Union Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs.  The provisioning of the Union Army is an often overlooked component of the Civil War, probably because the story of how Billy Yank’s socks reached him during the Siege of Petersburg does not make for dramatic story telling.  Still, undramatic is not the same as unimportant.

Meigs is of course most famous for creating Arlington National Cemetery in the flower garden of Robert E. Lee’s home.

Meigs, however, was responsible for much more than that.

Even if the war had not come Meigs would have been justly famous for engineering the Washington Aqueduct, among other things.  This system of bridges and channels partially opened two years before the conflict started and was fully operational by 1864.  Given that Washington D.C. went from tidal backwater to armed fortress during the war, this is no small thing.  Ironically the war itself may be the reason we think so little of Meigs’s aqueduct today.  The mundane story of our drinking water, however important it obviously is, cannot compete with headlines from Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

The aqueduct is still in use today, bringing millions of gallons of water to the region.

(Lithograph of the Washington Aqueduct, circa 1865; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

During this same period he was working on U.S. Capitol dome.

(Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: Collier’s New Encyclopedia, v. 1)

(Library of Congress)

The structure was famously incomplete during President Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural.

I began thinking more about Meigs’s role in the development of the nation’s capital during a visit to the National Building Museum this past Memorial Day weekend.  The museum is in what used to be the old Pension Building.  The mammoth edifice is testimony to the power Union veterans held for decades after the war.


This frieze runs the perimeter of the building.

Meigs made sure to include this memorial to one of his strongest supporters.

If you want to see the man’s legacy, look around you.