Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs Commands a Provisional Division in the Defenses of Washington July 1864
Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs provided invaluable service to the Union Army as Quartermaster General. Though his tireless efforts and his engineer’s organizational skills, Meigs kept the vast Federal supply chain going by supplying whatever was needed wherever it was needed. It was Meigs who recommended that the U.S. take over Robert E. Lee’s Arlington Virginia estate for use as a cemetery for Union soldiers, and Arlington National Cemetery came into existence.
In the summer of 1864, Meigs briefly took on another role, that of commander of troops in the field. In response to the enormous number of casualties suffered by the Union Army in the Overland Campaign, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant brought in thousands of reinforcements from the defenses of Washington DC. Washington was heavily fortified with forts and heavy artillery, but after Grant pulled out a thousands of the soldiers manning these defenses, there were few left to defend the city. Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early and approximately 14,000 Rebels moved north out of the Shenandoah Valley and into Maryland. Grant ordered the Union 6th Corps north to reinforce Washington, and the race was on to see if Early would get there before the 6th Corps arrived.
Early was held up a day or so while he defeated a smaller Union force at the Battle of Monocacy on July 9th. It didn’t end the threat to
Washington but the battle did buy some time to organize the defense of the capitol while the 6th Corps made its way north. Some infantry and cavalry were still present but not nearly enough. They were joined by regiments of the Veterans Reserve Corps, soldiers who had been wounded or ill and not fit for the rigors of active campaigning but could still perform in support roles. Meigs was ordered to report for possible field command to go with his quartermaster duties. He also volunteered the services of his Quartermaster Department’s clerks and other civilian employees to help man the defenses.
Meigs was given command of sector that included Fort Stevens, made famous when Abraham Lincoln came under fire when he came out to see skirmishing between the makeshift Federal force and Early’s Confederates. There was some fighting on July 11th-12th, at about the same time that the 6th Corps was beginning to arrive. Concluding that an all out attempt to take Washington would have resulted in unacceptably high casualties, Early withdrew.
General Meigs filed this report on his eclectic division of soldiers and civilians in the fighting around Washington:
Washington, July 25, 1864.
COLONEL: On Saturday, the 9th of July, after consultation with the Secretary of War, I directed the clerks of the Quartermaster-General’s Office, and the clerks and workmen employed by the officers of the quartermaster’s department in the District of Columbia and in Alexandria to be organized and armed. On Sunday, the 10th, arms were procured from the arsenal; they were distributed on that day and on Monday. Such an organization had been made over a year since, but the arms then issued having been recalled, the organization in the departments of Washington and Alexandria had not been kept up. Lieutenant-Colonel Greene, chief quartermaster of the Military Department of Washington, however, under instructions from Major-General Augur, had retained the arms issued to the men employed under his direction, and had preserved the military organization.
Under orders of the Secretary of War, I reported to Major-General Halleck, chief of staff, late on the evening of the 9th, for such field services as would not too much interfere with my duties as Quartermaster-General, and was directed to provide for relieving the guards of the quartermaster’s stores, and some of the public buildings by the organized clerks and operatives of the Quartermaster’s Department. Finding that a movable force more than sufficient for this duty could be furnished by the Quartermaster’s Department, I offered their services to Major-General Augur, commanding the Department of Washington, and on the 11th July, it being reported that the enemy was advancing upon the Seventh-street road, I was requested to send them to report to Major-General McCook, headquarters at Fort Stevens. The battalion of clerks of the Quartermaster General’s Office, about 250 strong, relieved the guards of the storehouses, corrals, &c., of the depots and of the public buildings, enabling the soldiers there employed to go to the front. The arrival without wagons or horses of portions of the Sixth Corps from the Army of the Potomac, and of the Nineteenth Corps from New Orleans, requiring new outfits of transportation, made it necessary to leave in the city a large portion of the wagon-masters, operatives, and teamsters, and reduce the movable force in the Washington depot to about 1,900 men, of which 1,500 were placed under the immediate command of Brig. Gen. D. H. Rucker, and with them I reported to Major-General McCook about sunset on the 11th; and was directed to march to Fort Slocum and place the men as might be advised by Colonel Haskin, commanding the forts on the right.
Colonel Haskin supplied a staff officer to point out in the darkness the line of rifle-pits extending from Fort Stevens to Fort Totten; about one mile in length. The men were posted therein and lay upon their arms all night.
The next morning, 12th, I received Special Orders, No. 2, from Major-General McCook’s headquarters, and assuming command of the troops in the intrenchments from Fort Stevens to
Fort Totten, I proceeded to organize them into a division of three brigades as follows: First Brigade, Brig. Gen. D. H. Rucker, composed of the quartermaster’s men of the depot of Washington, with a detachment of the Provisional Brigade, occupied the intrenchments on the right between Forts Stevens and Totten. Second Brigade, Brigadier-General Paine, composed of the Twelfth Veteran Reserves, the Second District of Columbia Volunteers, and three companies of the quartermaster’s men of the depot of Washington, occupied the intrenchments on the left, between Forts Slocum and Stevens. Third Brigade, commanded first by Colonel Price, of the [Seventh] New Jersey Volunteers, then by Col. A. Farnsworth, Twelfth Veteran Reserves, and afterward by Colonel Alexander, of the Second District of Columbia Volunteers, a provisional brigade of these regiments, organized from the hospital and convalescent and distribution camps of the Department of Washington. It was placed in reserve and bivouacked in rear of Fort Slocum in the center of the line. The garrison of the two forts, Slocum and Totten, were a separate command, under Colonel Haskin, U.S. Army, and though at first ordered to report to me the order was soon afterward revoked. Finding, however, that the garrison of Fort Slocum was not as strong as it should be, I ordered Colonel Price, then commanding the Provisional Brigade, to ascertain the number of artillerymen in his command and to send them to report to Colonel Haskin at Fort Slocum. The garrison thus received a re-enforcement of 105 trained artillerists.
The division thus organized on the morning of the 12th July, had an effective strength present for duty of 4,914 men and officers with one section of light artillery, which was placed in one of the trenches on the left.
During the 12th the enemy made their appearance in front of Fort Stevens, and a portion of the command, which had been placed on the skirmish or picket-line, was engaged.
But two casualties have been reported to me among civilians of the Quartermaster’s Department. A battalion of three companies of quartermaster’s men of the depot of Washington had moved out to Fort Stevens under orders from Major-General Augur only on the 11th, and a portion of these were engaged in the skirmish in front of Fort Stevens on the 12th. John Rynders, a member of Company B, was slightly wounded in the arm, and a former employé of the Quartermaster’s Department, who accompanied Company B as a volunteer, was shot through the body and almost instantly killed. He was buried with the others who fell in the skirmish, and I regret that I have not yet been able to ascertain his name; when found it will be placed upon his grave, now marked “unknown,” in the cemetery set apart by order of the Secretary of War for those who fell in the defense of the capital on the 12th July.
Four hundred men were detached from the command on the 12th to be placed on the picket-line by staff officers of Major-General McCook. The Twelfth Veteran Reserve and the Second District Columbia were relieved from duty in the trenches about 4 p.m. of the 12th July, by two regiments of the Provisional Brigade, and were themselves placed in the reserve until about 9 p.m., at which time, under instructions from General McCook, they were ordered to march to Fort Saratoga to report to Major-General Gillmore, who had asked for re-enforcements, and were encamped for the night near Fort Thayer, where they remained during the 13th. On the 14th these two regiments, by order of Major, General McCook, returned to my command. The forces of this division had been hastily organized and sent to the field in an emergency and without baggage. They were supplied during the 12th and 13th with shelter-tents, blankets, and such equipage as was necessary to their comfort and health while on duty in the trenches.
On the 14th, under orders from Major-General Augur, the enemy having retired from the front, the quartermaster’s men were relieved from duty in the trenches, and I turned over the command of the remainder of the division to Brigadier-General Paine, and directed General Rucker to march the civilians to Washington and return them to their regular duties, but to keep up their military organization and drill.
Major Darling, of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, commanding cavalry outpost, with a force of about 460 cavalry, operated in front of the extreme right toward Baltimore turnpike and railroad. He sent me information on the afternoon of the 12th that his force had been driven in by a strong body of cavalry and artillery, which interrupted the travel for a time and injured the railroad to a small extent. The day was hot and dusty, and the movements of the cavalry could be traced from the forts by the columns of dust which they raised. The enemy came as far as the Maryland Agricultural College, and when they retired were pursued by our cavalry, who being in inferior force and without artillery, appeared to be repulsed in their attack. After relinquishing the command of the division to General Paine, I spent some hours in riding over the scene of the conflict and visiting the bivouacs and line of battle of the enemy in front of Fort Stevens. From the extent of ground occupied by them they appeared to have a strong force within supporting distance of the skirmishers, which alone seemed to be engaged. The three companies of the quartermaster’s men, organized under Lieut. Col. E. M. Greene, chief quartermaster, Department of Washington, who were on duty during the affair of the morning of the 12th in the trenches between Forts Stevens and Slocum with General Paine’s brigade, were ordered on the afternoon of that day to report to General Rucker. Through some misunderstanding two companies, B and C, marched to General Rucker’s office in Washington. Company A reported at his headquarters in the field and remained on duty until the brigade was relieved.
The quartermaster’s men of the Department of Washington, south of the Potomac, were organized into five companies, making a force of about 400 men. Companies E and F were, at the request of Brigadier-General Slough, commanding at Alexandria, detailed and placed on picket duty around that city. The other companies were placed in reserve at the wood-yard, drilling constantly, and held in readiness to defend the public property. The employés of Capt. J. G. C. Lee, assistant quartermaster, at Alexandria, were also organized and placed on duty. The whole civil force of the quartermaster’s department on military duty on this occasion was about 2,700 men.
I have to express my satisfaction with the conduct of both the soldiers and civilians who were under my command. Though hastily organized and equipped they moved promptly at the call of danger. I had on no occasion to inflict punishment or administer reproof during the time they were under my observation, and their services were useful and important in the defense of the capital, seriously threatened by a considerable rebel army under skillful and experienced leaders. Those who were on duty in the city relieved at least an equal number of trained soldiers and enabled them to go to the front, while those who were placed in the intrenchments extended the line of battle fully a mile to the right of the center of attack, and by their presence and bearing, standing upon the parapets and exposing themselves, perhaps, more than more experienced soldiers would have done, they convinced the enemy that the fortifications of Washington were not unmanned.
l inclose such reports as I have received from subordinate commanders, and remain, very respectfully,
M. C. MEIGS,
Quartermaster-General, Brevet Major-General.
Lieut. Col. JOSEPH H. TAYLOR,
Chief of Staff and Assistant Adjutant-General.
From The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXVII, Part 1.