General Meigs’s Revenge or The Law of Unintended Consequences

By Susan Kuebler

With all of the brouhaha going on regarding General Robert E Lee, Confederate statues, and what caused the Civil War, I thought I would live dangerously and wade in on the subject.

Yes, I am Southern-born and bred.  My family has been in the South since at least the War of 1812 and I do qualify for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).  However, I have never wanted to join them, especially after learning that my great-granddaddy was a draft dodger from the Confederate Army.  As a poor dirt farmer in middle Georgia with a wife and two small children he refused to participate in a war where “he didn’t have no dog in that fight.”  So he hid out during the day and worked his farm by night.  According to family lore, the conscriptors almost caught him a couple of times and one of my aunts told me about seeing his hat with a bullet hole in it.

However, this article is not about the merits or deficits of General Lee.  It is a story about trying to get revenge on an enemy and having your plan completely backfire on you.

The Union Quartermaster General in Washington, D.C. hated, I mean really hated, Robert E. Lee.  Before war broke out Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, a fellow student at West Point and one-time fried of Lee, turned against him when Lee resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army.  Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Lee’s family was forced to flee their family home which had been inherited by Lee’s wife Mary from her father George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Custis Washington.  Robert and Mary Lee would never see their beloved home again.

In 1962, Congress passed a law “that empowered commissioners to ‘assess and collect taxes on property in ‘insurrectionary territory'” according to the Smithsonian Magazine which provides much of the information for this article.  It is well worth your time to read it.  The law also required that the taxes must be paid in person or the property would be put up for sale.

A tax of $92.07 was levied on the Lee’s home, and even though Mary Lee, who was living in Richmond, Virginia and in deteriorating health at the time sent her cousin with the money for the taxes, he was turned down because Mrs. Lee did not come in person.  The property was put up for auction with the only bidder being the U.S. government which acquired the property for well under its estimated value.

Jump ahead to 1865 and the end of the war following the Battle of Appomattox.  General Meigs, still in Washington as the Quartermaster General wanted to make sure that there would be no way the Lee’s would ever be able to live in their home again.  He scheme was simple and perfectly awful.  He decided to bury bodies of dead soldiers in the gardens surrounding the house.  And it worked.  Even though the Lee descendants were eventually able to obtain reimburse from the federal government for the unlawful confiscation of their home, no one from the family ever occupied the home again.

I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this.  Meigs’s scheme to turn Arlington, the name of the Lee home into a graveyard, it led to the creation of our most honored burial place for our nation’s warriors. The grounds once owned by one of George Washington’s adopted grandsons and the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, have become the final resting place for simple privates and Presidents of the United States.

While General Meigs’s original intention was the desecration of a family home of a personal enemy, it led to the creation of one of the nation’s most popular place to visit.  A place where the remains of the Unknown Soldiers from nearly every American war are guarded faithfully 24 hours a day, seven days a week by an elite Army unit.  A place where people are humbled and awed by the sacrifice of so many on behalf of our country.

So bear in mind that while getting revenge on an enemy may seem sweet at the time – it might not turn out the way you thought it would.

Oh and in a final irony, as shown in the picture above, General Meigs himself is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”. Julian of Norwich.

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