So, our problems start with the title. Really, Meigs reads out as Seward’s general, later becoming Stanton’s general (Lincoln appears disinterested from first to last). As for "Master Builder of the Union Army," as I have said before, there were two, McDowell and Franklin, who as staff officers under the direction of Salmon Chase created the tables of organization and equipment under which the Union armies fought. Meigs’ job was to provide the equipment and supplies specified by McDowell and Franklin and approved by Simon Cameron.
"Master builder" appears wordplay on his engineering and construction history. In this builder phase, the Capitol architect called Meigs “a military upstart who happens to have the power to annoy.” More than an insight, this might be a paradigm.
With Quartermaster, the less you know about Meigs, the more enjoyable the read. Author Robert O’Harrow Jr. is a Washington Post reporter who moves the story briskly past multiple scandals and crises. This may be the publisher’s preference. Simon & Schuster’s mass market likely has no time for “scholarly minutiae.” So, when Meigs bungles a foreign procurement early in the war, Congress bans foreign military imports for the duration. No foul, no harm? Certainly, no blame, no details.
The Fremont procurement matter gets a little more attention than Meigs’ many others disasters. Even so, we get the data needed to see that this story is not on the level:
Meigs permitted [Quartermaster Justus] McKinstry to buy as he saw fit and, in an emergency, even to set the prices.Meanwhile…
Meigs told McKinstry and Fremont to follow proper contracting procedures whenever possible and to send proposals and bids to Washington for review.This is called a double bind. It is a CYA trap. Consider
Meigs … had passed on every [McKinstry] request for funding to the Treasury with alacrity.Yet it is McKinstry and Fremont who appear at fault here. (Seek out McKinstry’s detailed rebuttal to the Administration’s charges - they are not mentioned here.)
After Antietam another supply crisis erupted, one where Meigs disputed the number of sound horses delivered to the AoP. Yet by January 1863,
Meigs eventually acknowledged a crucial shortcoming of his system, saying that there were not nearly enough knowledgeable inspectors to cull out lame animals ...The quantities were significant. The War Department established a Cavalry Bureau to remedy Meigs’ inefficiency but the author implies that this mid-war improvement might be a credit to Meigs. Meanwhile two years of horse shortages have passed.
Meigs’ actual work life is a mystery. He gets in early and stays late but we have no idea what he does to fill those office hours other than exceed orders, redefine his responsibilities and obnoxiously overreach into others' portfolios. One suspects that the largest part of his wartime job was just signing papers and answering questions. That is not building an army. And we don't know if he did this himself or he delegated it.
O’Harrow has access to Meigs’ prewar diaries which raises other questions.
Meigs spends the Buchanan years complaining about Secretary of War Floyd’s corruption – was Meigs a facilitator of that corruption? How much work did he give to Floyd's friends?
The diaries end before the Civil War. Mistakes continue. For instance Meigs arranges an evacuation of freedmen from Ile a Vache, “a faltering effort by Lincoln to create a colony…” This was not a Lincoln project but that of an entrepreneur named Harold Kock. It is Lincoln who rescues the colonists by directing Meigs to evacuate them.
As we go through the ACW, Meigs is treated as the Administration’s action officer doing a little of this and that. He starts the war as a captain and in terms of the way he is used, remains at that level despite his general’s rank. His large quartermaster war staff, the responsibilities of which we never learn, seems to free him for ever more special projects, projects worthy of an aide de camp.
Thus he finishes as he began.
He was never entrusted with a command; his responsibilities were divided up; and he never escaped the War Department or its intrigues. In his many corruption scrapes, he evaded censure. His attainments were shared attainments. His blunders caused death and prolonged the war..