- Historic Sites
The Relief Of Fort Pickens
WAR WAS DAYS AWAY, A UNION STRONGHOLD WAS THREATENED, AND THROUGH A FOG OF RUMOR, DOUBT, CONTRADICTORY ORDERS, AND OUTRIGHT LIES THE ARMY AND NAVY SET OUT TO HELP
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
Montgomery C. Meigs was an Army engineer. As a second lieutenant just out of West Point he had served for a year under Captain Robert E. Lee on a scheme to improve navigation in the Mississippi at St. Louis. Then came fifteen years of drudgery in the construction or refurbishing of inconsequential forts in various parts of the country. In November, 1852, Meigs had been assigned to survey the water supply for the cities of Washington and Georgetown, a survey for which Congress had just voted five thousand dollars. Three months later Meigs filed his report, offering three possible plans and strongly recommending the third: the building of an aqueduct from the Potomac just above Great Falls. His recommendation was accepted, and Congress forthwith appropriated a hundred thousand dollars to start construction. The new President, Franklin Pierce, assigned the task to the War Department, and the new Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, put Meigs in charge of the works. (To this day Washington’s water supply flows through the conduit that Meigs built. And that conduit is made of the same bricks that Meigs laid down in the 1850’s.)
For good measure, Meigs was on the same day made disbursing agent and supervisory engineer for the extension of the Capitol and the modernization of both House and Senate chambers, a year-old project that had run into trouble. From the start Meigs—promoted within a month to first lieutenant and then to captain—was made responsible not to General Totten, the chief of engineers, but directly to the Secretary of War.
For four years this arrangement worked admirably. Relations between Jefferson Davis and Meigs were harmonious, the Secretary gave the engineer great freedom of action, and work on both the aqueduct and the Capitol went forward speedily, efficiently, and without any hint of carelessness in the handling of public funds. In consequence Meigs was a familiar and respected figure on Capitol Hill.
In 1857, with the advent of the Buchanan administration, came a new Secretary of War, John B. Floyd of Virginia. Floyd had a considerably more relaxed attitude toward the public treasury than Meigs did. The captain was justly—and jealously—proud of his administration of the public works and determined to avoid any suspicion of graft in the letting of contracts or hiring of men. He also had a well-developed streak of selfrighteousness and cantankerousness and a demonstrated penchant for self-justification. So he and the Secretary were soon at daggers drawn, and their relationship grew steadily worse until, in November, 1859, an exasperated Floyd dismissed Meigs from the Capitol job. The captain turned to his friends in Congress, and an inquiry in the House concluded that Floyd’s contracts for marble for the Capitol were illegal and that those made by Meigs should remain in force. Floyd’s response came with the next War Department estimates, when he requested no money whatever for work on the aqueduct.
In no way daunted, Meigs went straight to the Senate, where Jefferson Davis was now chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. Davis and other admirers of Meigs wrote into the appropriation bill a half million dollars for the aqueduct. To nail down the lid they added a proviso that these funds could be expended only under the supervision of Captain Montgomery C. Meigs. As a practical matter President Buchanan could not veto the entire appropriation bill; he had to content himself with an opinion from the Attorney General that the proviso naming Meigs was not binding on the President, who as commander in chief had the constitutional right to reassign military officers. The contentious letters that Meigs then addressed to the President as well as to Secretary Floyd ensured that a pretext would soon be found to put him out of the way. And, sure enough, in the autumn of 1860 Floyd removed Meigs from the waterworks and assigned him to construction at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
Meigs travelled overland to his new post, across the southern states. He was impressed by the scope and depth of secessionist sentiment and—.when he reached his destination—by the sorry state of preparedness of the Florida forts.
Meigs devoted himself, with his usual vigor and efficiency, to improving the defenses of Fort Jefferson and also those of Fort Taylor at Key West. His sojourn in Florida was not long, however. By the end of December Secretary Floyd’s record of slovenly management in the War Department had led to his forced resignation. On February 13 Meigs received orders to return to the aqueduct. He left the Dry Tortugas within two hours and on February 20 was in Washington, where he was promptly reassigned to the Capitol job as well.
So here, at Seward’s elbow, was a trusted friend of long standing, an experienced engineer of proven competence, who knew from recent personal observation the plight of Fort Pickens and who had demonstrated beyond peradventure his willingness to proceed to an objective without undue regard for established channels of command.