Skip to main content

Who Is Superior?

July 2024
4min read

Montgomery Meigs, like many other vengeful Northerners, fell into an old error: he was convinced of his own innate superiority over a large segment of fellow citizens.

For slavery was a holdover from the old colonial era, and in the increasingly mechanized, highly organized world of the mid-nineteenth century it could survive only by mutual consent. As Mr. Dumond remarks, “Few … institutions were ever so dependent as slavery upon tranquillity.” When the guns opened on Fort Sumter America’s tranquillity was violently shattered, and the conditions under which slavery could live no longer existed. Perhaps the real depth of the tragedy which followed lies in the fact that the nation destroyed slavery without first discarding the belief in racial inequality.

In the violent convulsion of the Civil War, it is significant that the hard blows were struck not so much by the dedicated abolitionists as by the military and industrial technicians who brought the North’s overwhelming strength to bear on the Confederacy’s basic weaknesses. One of these—a man who had a far larger part in the final Union victory than he usually gets credit for—was the devoted, hard-working quartermaster general of the Union Army, Major General Montgomery C. Meigs, whose biography is presented by Russell F. Weigley in an excellent study, Quartermaster General of the Union Army .

A career soldier and an engineer officer of distinction, Meigs had one of the key roles in the Northern war effort. It was up to him to outfit and equip the Union armies: shoes, wagons, tents, steamboats, uniforms, horses, mules, hospital equipment, railroad rails, pontoon bridges—the all but infinite list of things the Union armies needed was made up, bought, and distributed under Meigs’s direction, and during the war he was responsible for the spending of more than $675,000,000. All things considered, he performed his job with remarkable efficiency. Toward the end of the war the job actually looked like simple routine.

In effect, it was Meigs’s task to take the enormous potential material strength of the North and transform it into actual strength that could be applied on the battlefield. In doing this he had to make certain not only that the stuff was produced but that it was distributed to the places where it was needed, and it was here that Meigs did his best work. As the war progressed, the Confederate services of supply progressively collapsed; those of the Union continued to improve, and the striking contrast between the condition of the two armies on the Petersburg front at the end of 1864 is profoundly significant. The Northern states not only had much the greater resources to draw on, but they did a far more effective job of using what they had.

Meigs was an odd mixture. As Mr. Weigley emphasizes, he was in many ways a man of the new day, “of the materialistic, mechanically and scientifically inclined America born in the second half of the century of industrialization, urbanization and technological change”; but at the same time he was a dedicated sort of person, convinced that slavery was a profound moral wrong, almost mystically devoted to a vision of himself as an instrument in “the consummation of some inscrutable but certainly glorious divine purpose.” He saw the war as a sort of penance which the nation had to undergo for the sin of having permitted slavery to exist in the first place, and he never doubted that victory had resolved a great moral issue.

But a belief of this kind can be a dangerous possession; for unless it is linked with deep compassion and a great breadth of understanding it can be—and in Meigs’s case, actually was—the source of hatred and bitterness. When the war ended, Meigs had little room in his heart for reconciliation with the beaten foe. One of his friends from the prewar professional army was Gustavus W. Smith, who became a major general in the Confederate Army. Shortly after the war Smith was in Washington and tried to renew the old friendship with Meigs. Meigs would have none of him, arid in his diary he wrote bitterly: “I for one have no pleasure in association with such as he. Hemp or salt water should be offered to all such had I the power.” He complained repeatedly that the Southerners, owning themselves beaten, did not feel at all repentant; to him they were sinners, and he wanted them to confess their sins and ask for absolution. He came to believe, at last, that the men of the South would not believe they were wrong until a dozen or more of their leaders had been hanged.

To the eternal good fortune of this nation, a milder point of view at last prevailed, and the hangings Meigs wished to see did not take place. And the fact that a basically decent man like Meigs could come to feel as he felt illustrates in a striking way the evils that arise when human beings permit themselves to believe that they are somehow better men than other people are.

Quartermaster General of the Union Army , by Russell F. Weigley. Columbia University Press. 396 pp. $7.50.

For Meigs, and the other vengeful Northerners who felt as he did, had simply fallen into the old error: they had become convinced of their own innate superiority to a large segment of their fellow citizens. In a queer, upside-down way they were serving the old fallacy, following not so much Aristotle as the Pharisee who publicly thanked God that he was not as other men were. If there is a moral in all of this it perhaps is that any sort of belief in group superiority is the source of evil.

Slavery had been born, and had developed to the point where the country had to fight a ruinous war to get rid of it, because men had taken for granted the notion that one race of men is inherently better than another race. Slavery itself may indeed have been a great moral wrong, but it existed not because some men were sinners but simply because all men had given way to a delusion about fixed grades and classifications in the great family of man. Failing to understand that it was race prejudice itself rather than willful human wickedness that was at the bottom of the nation’s troubles, the Northerners who clamored for hangings and proscription lists were doing no more than perpetuating the real evil. Any belief that justifies the conqueror in doing whatever he chooses to do to the conquered is bound to be the source of profound wrong.

The lesson is there for us, if we have the wit to learn it. Considering the state of the world today and the hazards that it presents, it is perhaps high time that we got on with our studies.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.