Bruce Kauffmann: Meigs created national cemetery

Bruce Kauffmann: Meigs created national cemetery

Last week in 1864, Brigadier Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who had been appointed quartermaster general of the Union Army in 1861, established Arlington House, the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, as a cemetery for the Union's soldiers. Today, Arlington National Cemetery remains America's national military burial ground.

Meigs was one of the true unsung heroes of the Civil War. As quartermaster general, he was charged with ensuring that military supplies — food, clothing, munitions, weapons — were effectively delivered to the Union armies in the field. It was a huge undertaking, involving more than 130,000 employees, yet Meigs did a first-rate job.

Not only did he establish a transport system that was highly efficient, but he was also scrupulously honest. By war's end Meigs's department had spent nearly half a billion dollars, yet a later congressional audit found not one penny unaccounted for in any contract Meigs authorized.

And then in 1864 Meigs was charged with finding a new site for a military cemetery because — in a war that eventually resulted in 620,000 dead soldiers on both sides — all the nearby Union military cemeteries were full.

His gaze soon fell on Arlington House, which the Lee family had evacuated when the war began because it was in Union-held territory near Washington, D.C.

Although a native of Georgia, one of the first states to join the Confederacy, Meigs was a loyal Unionist who despised all Southerners who had chosen secession. That meant Lee, the Confederacy's most celebrated soldier, was high on his hate list.

So in May 1864, Meigs ordered that Union soldiers be buried in graves that would eventually surround Lee's home. By the time Arlington House was officially designated a military cemetery in June, more than 2,500 soldiers were buried on its grounds.

That number would increase by leaps and bounds, and by 1865 it became obvious that regardless of the war's aftermath, disinterment of that many soldiers was politically (and morally) impossible, meaning Lee and his family could never again call Arlington House home — which had been Meigs' intent all along.

Indeed, although Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, later successfully sued the federal government to return Arlington House to the Lee family, he quickly realized they could never again live there, so he sold it back to the government for a paltry $150,000.

As a postscript, in October of 1864, Meigs' own son John, then a first lieutenant in the Union Army, was killed in battle near Swift Run Gap, Va. John, too, was subsequently buried in the grounds of Arlington House. To be specific, he was buried in Mrs. Lee's rose garden.

Bruce Kauffmann's email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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