A journalist documents the achievements of an unsung Union hero of the Civil War.
Here’s a challenge: write a riveting story about a general whose military contribution involved procuring rather than leading troops gloriously into battle. That’s the task Washington Post reporter O’Harrow (No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, 2005, etc.) assumes in this biography of Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892), Quartermaster General of the Army during and after the Civil War. An abolitionist, Meigs graduated from West Point and became a brevet second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Before the Civil War, he supervised the construction of the Washington Aqueduct, the dome of the U.S. Capitol, and Union Arch Bridge in Maryland. He was just the sort of experienced manager that newly elected Abraham Lincoln needed as his quartermaster, the person responsible for getting clothing, blankets, horses, food, and ammunition to the troops. “There is no glamour in this,” O’Harrow notes. Unfortunately, he makes it even less glamorous in the book’s prewar first half, with dry chapters that read like a catalog of activities rather than a dramatic story. Passages in which Meigs manages payroll and signs requisitions for candles, sponges, and sperm oil aren’t exactly page-turners. Much better are the sections on the Civil War, in which the author cites his subject’s innovations, such as his adoption of the Singer sewing machine to help the Union Army “surmount the limitations of an industry in which seamstresses stitched most clothing by hand.” The writing is more vivid in these sections, too, as when Meigs, who had traveled to Manassas during the first Battle of Bull Run, learns that a cannon shot “had recently decapitated two Union soldiers” and says that the flying shells were like “someone was tossing paving stones at me.”
An intermittently engaging biography of a logistics genius whose behind-the-scenes influence did as much to win the war as that of most military commanders.