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Nighttime view of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius with ships on the water in the foreground.
Montgomery C. Meigs, view of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, ca. 1835-1876. Box OV 9, Montgomery C. Meigs Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Now Available Online: The Colorful World of Montgomery C. Meigs

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This post is coauthored by Manuscript Division historians Michelle Krowl and Josh Levy.

Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892) was a busy man, and one who saw things through the lenses of engineering and art. A longtime U.S. Army officer, Meigs was best known for his service as the Union army’s quartermaster general during the Civil War, but he was also a West Point-trained engineer, an architect, and an artist. He helped oversee some of the most iconic construction projects in Washington, D.C., including a new dome for the U.S. Capitol partly modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the expansive Washington Aqueduct system, and the Pension Building (currently home to the National Building Museum). Now available online, high-resolution full color scans of many of his oversize drawings and sketches provide vivid new insight into how Meigs saw the world around him.

A longtime resident of Washington, D.C., Meigs applied his skills as an artist and draftsman to capturing local landmarks as they once were, or how he imagined they could be. On September 25, 1850, Meigs painted the Washington Monument then under construction in watercolors and opaque white paint. Meigs the artist saw the rising obelisk reflected in the water and the beauty of the setting, despite the unsightly wood outbuildings and marble blocks littering the site. Meigs the engineer carefully rendered the construction derrick inside the shaft that lifted the building blocks into place.

Montgomery C. Meigs, watercolor of the Washington Monument under construction, September 25, 1850.
Montgomery C. Meigs, watercolor of the Washington Monument under construction, September 25, 1850. Box OV 8, Montgomery C. Meigs Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Modern eyes will notice some significant differences in both the structure and the site, beyond the obvious height differences between the half-built Washington Monument of 1850 and the finished version. Meigs’s watercolor rendered the monument at a moment early in its history. The National Mall had not yet been extended with infill, and the Potomac River flowed near the monument’s grounds. Architect Robert Mills’s original design called for two fifteen-foot entrances, and Meigs captured the pedimented entrance that then existed on the monument’s west side. By December 1885, the western entrance was blocked up entirely, and the decorated pediment on the east entrance had been removed to minimize adornment. By choosing to draw the Washington Monument from the west side in 1850, Meigs documented elements of the landmark and its grounds that are no longer visible today.

In a November 1866 architectural drawing, Meigs imagined another local landmark as it never was. St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square began with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s 1815 central Greek Cross design, which is still visible in Meigs’s drawing, as is the pediment added in 1822 that supports a bell tower. Meigs, however, envisioned St. John’s with the addition of an architecturally contrasting Italianate-style tower that literally towers over the Greek Revival church below. Readers can make up their own minds as to whether or not it was a loss to Washington’s built environment that the tower was never constructed.

Montgomery C. Meigs, sketch for redesign of St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., November 1866.
Montgomery C. Meigs, sketch for redesign of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., November 1866. Box OV 5, Montgomery C. Meigs Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

That Italian Renaissance-inspired tower may also suggest that the war-weary quartermaster general was dreaming of Europe by the end of 1866. He visited the continent in 1867, and his tours inspired him to sketch intricate architectural features and expansive street scenes, grand monuments, and rustic landscapes. As he recorded in his 1868 pocket diary, he admired the stunning seaside views in Naples, Italy, noted its bustling streets, and marveled at the collections of the National Archaeological Museum.

At the time, the nearby Mount Vesuvius served, in the words of volcanologist David M. Pyle, as “an ideal attraction, often in eruption, but rarely threatening to life or property… an accessible mountaintop, offering a commanding view of the Bay of Naples and an opportunity to peer into the abyss.” It was both a tourist attraction and a research site, offering Europe’s scientists a ready testing ground for their theories on what lay beneath the Earth’s crust, which likely appealed to Meigs’s scientific interests. Meigs visited the volcano on March 7, 1868. As was the case for so many authors, artists, scientists, and poets before him, Vesuvius ignited the artist in Meigs, who sketched a stunning illustration of the volcano erupting at night. His drawing has an eternal quality, a vision of a natural landmark that always was.

Montgomery Meigs applied his talent for art and engineering to whatever subject he captured on paper. Now his eye for color and design is more accessible than ever before.

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“…called for…” The Manuscript Division’s Robert Mills Papers also contain original journals with his drawings of the Washington Monument.

“That Italian Renaissance-inspired tower…” Robert O’Harrow, Jr., The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 233-234.

“…David M. Pyle,” David M. Pyle, “Visions of Volcanoes,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 25 (2017), 9-10, 29.

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