John Rodgers was 25 years old when he entered the Navy in 1798 as its senior lieutenant, assigned to the USS Constellation, where he was appointed captain of her French prize, L’Insurgente. He soon reached command rank and twice was captain of the legendary frigate Constitution. In the Barbary Wars, he played a central role as the on-station warrior-diplomat in the successful treaty negotiations that ended those wars. In 1814, he brought crewmen from his frigate Philadelphia, blockaded there, south to harass the British retreat from the sack of Alexandria and east again with naval guns from Washington to organize the successful land defense of Baltimore that stopped the British invasion at Rodgers’ Battery. For that action, he received a large silver service from the grateful citizens of Baltimore, who were able to awake after a long night of bombardment to the sight of the star-spangled banner still flying over Fort McHenry. From the war’s end in 1815 until his death in 1838, Rodgers was the senior officer of the Navy. Biographer C. O. Paullin wrote, “No man ever served longer or more influentially as head of the Navy than Commodore Rodgers.” (The rank of rear admiral did not appear in the U.S. Navy until the Civil War.)
Rodgers was the son of a Scottish immigrant, “Colonel” John Rodgers, who came to the colonies in the mid-1700s, married, and settled in Havre de Grace, Maryland. There, he set up a tavern and a ferry across the Susquehanna River on the main road from Philadelphia to Baltimore, raised a company of militia to fight in the Revolution, and prospered subsequently. His son John begged to be allowed to go to sea, and at age 14, his father arranged a berth for him. He spent 11 years at sea, traveling the world and learning the ropes, becoming a captain at age 24. After joining the U.S. Navy, he was still at sea nearly all the time but managed to marry Minerva Denison, one of three daughters of Gideon and Jerusha Denison, who had settled in Havre de Grace in 1797. All three daughters were to marry naval officers.
Gideon was a wealthy merchant, who had invested significantly in Maryland real estate and acquired a beautiful home at Sion Hill which is still in the Rodgers family. It may be seen still, says Paullin, “in the purity of its colonial architecture, being one of the most interesting relics of the Revolutionary era in Maryland.”
John and Minerva Rodgers had ten children. Among ; them were sons Henry, a lieutenant in the Navy lost in the USS Albany in 1854; Robert, a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War; Frederick, who died heroically as a midshipman in 1828; and John, a notable rear admiral during and after the Civil War. This John’s son, William Ledyard Rodgers, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1878, served as a passed midshipman in the USS Constellation in the Mediterranean, commanded the Asiatic Fleet during World War I, and retired from the presidency of the Naval War College as admiral. Those three generations spanned 126 years of naval service.
Commodore Rodgers’ brother, George Washington Rodgers, and his son, Colonel Robert Rodgers, sired con- tinuing lines of naval officers, most of whom made flag rank. Among them were Raymond, Raymond Perry, and Christopher Raymond Perry Rodgers, who served twice as Superintendent of the Naval Academy. Rear Admiral Frederick Rodgers retired at Sion Hill. His son John, the second designated naval aviator, made the first flight from the mainland United States to Hawaii in 1925 and was killed in a crash in Philadelphia a year later. Several marriages occurred between the Rodgers and Matthew Calbraith Perry families. Matthew, whose older brother was Oliver Hazard Perry, victor of the Battle of Lake Erie in the 1812 War, was Commodore Rodgers’ flag captain in the North Carolina in the Mediterranean in 1826-27 when Rodgers negotiated the first U.S. treaty with Turkey, commanded his own “Black Ships” for the opening of Japan to world trade in 1853-54, and was the first Oceanographer of the Navy. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison once commented that 40% of our naval officers in the late 19th Century were Rodgers-Perry relatives.
Commodore John and Minerva also had three daughters. The eldest, Ann Minerva, married Colonel J. N. Macomb, a nephew of General Alexander Macomb, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 1828 to 1841 during part of the time Rodgers was senior officer of the Navy. Another daughter, Louisa, married Major General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the Civil War. Like Rodgers, his son-in-law Meigs proved to be a prominent military figure.
Although born in Georgia of a family that had settled originally near Boston in 1632, Meigs was a Philadelphian. In 1832 he was appointed to West Point with the assistance of his uncle, John Forsyth, Secretary of State to President Andrew Jackson. He graduated fifth in the Class of 1836 and joined the Corps of Engineers. West Point at that time was the only school of civil engineering in the country, and its top graduates were assigned to the engineers to design and construct all sorts of government projects from river and harbor improvements to bridges and government buildings. Meigs’s initial assignment was as an assistant to First Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, surveying stretches of the Mississippi River around St. Louis, Missouri.
After a variety of assignments in the peacetime Army and service in the Mexican War, Captain Meigs was ordered to Washington in 1852 as a surveyor to examine possible water sources for the city. This led to a proposal for the construction of a huge aqueduct from the Great Falls of the Potomac River to Washington, including the present Dalecarlia Reservoir and Cabin John Bridge. The War Department approved the project, and Meigs found himself working closely with Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a man he greatly admired and who later appointed him supervising engineer for the redesign and expansion of the U.S. Capitol building, which included adding the present dome. In addition to the aqueduct and Capitol construction, he also oversaw construction of the Post Office building in Washington.
In 1860 Meigs became embroiled in a conflict over contracts and patronage with Davis’s flamboyant and glad- handing successor, John Floyd, in the James Buchanan administration. Meigs lost out when Buchanan refused to turn against Floyd, an important political supporter, and was exiled to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, 75 miles west of Key West, Florida. Fortunately for him, a few months later Floyd resigned just ahead of a scandal and the new Secretary of War called Meigs back to Washington to assist in strengthening various Union forts in the South.
Meigs’s long service in Washington had made him many friends in powerful places, men he had come to know professionally and who respected his work and integrity. One was Representative Abraham Lincoln, who appreciated the fact that in the years he had supervised all that Washington construction he had disbursed more than $8 million and could account for every penny. Later friends included Secretary of State William Seward and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair—both of whom meddled well beyond their appointed jobs—but did not include Secretary of War Simon Cameron. All three wanted Meigs appointed to high rank in the expanding Army, but Meigs did not want to become colonel of an infantry regiment. He believed that many officers had better training than he for the infantry and that he would be of better service addressing the myriad logistical and engineering problems of the new Army.
When General Joseph E. Johnson resigned as Quartermaster General of the Army to go south, Seward and Blair wanted Meigs to be his replacement. But Cameron had someone else in mind, one who might be less rigid in the disbursing of government contracts. The two friends argued the case with President Lincoln, who agreed. Meigs, then 45, was promoted instantly from major to colonel, then to brigadier and Quartermaster General. Promotion to major general came later.
During the Civil War, General Meigs was responsible for a department that had to equip and supply an army that expanded from 12,000 men to more than a million. It also collected a fleet of 1,000 marine transport vessels, constructed a squadron of Mississippi River ironclad gunboats for the Navy, and managed a budget of more than $2 billion (roughly equivalent to $200 billion today). Major General Philip Sheridan, one of the Army’s leading commanders, once said of Meigs’s work: “The prevailing opinion of the country [is] that without the services of this eminent soldier the national cause must either have been lost or greatly imperiled.” He was involved in everything the government did during the war and was with President Lincoln when he died. Meigs retired in 1882 after 21 years as Quartermaster General after adding design and construction of the Pension Building (now the National Museum of Architecture) to his Washington civil engineering projects. He died in 1892 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which he had recommended to President Lincoln be established as the cemetery for soldiers and sailors of the Union on the confiscated estate of General Robert E. Lee.
General Meigs had a brother, John Forsyth Meigs, a noted educator, who began a formidable line of his own. His son, Lieutenant John Forsyth Meigs, graduated from West Point in 1867; his grandson, John Forsyth Meigs, from the Naval Academy in 1911; his great-grandson, Montgomery Meigs (West Point, 1940), was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II; and his great-great-grandson is General Montgomery Meigs (West Point, 1967), former commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center and General Command and Staff College, and current Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.
Between them, John Rodgers and his son-in-law, Montgomery Meigs, stood at the apex of power in the U.S. military services for more than half of the 19th century. Their children and descendants strengthened and expanded that chain of continuing service for another 100 years.
Montgomery Meigs and Louisa Rodgers had several children. One, John Rodgers Meigs (West Point, 1863), staff engineer to General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, was killed as a brevet major in 1864. A daughter, Mary Montgomery Meigs, married Joseph Hancock Taylor (West Point, 1856), a son of Brigadier General Joseph Pannill Taylor and nephew of Zachary Taylor, commander of the U.S. Army in the early Mexican War and later the 12th President of the United States. The two Taylor brothers, Joseph and Zachary, were sons of Colonel Richard (“Fighting Dick”) Taylor of the Second Virginia Regiment in the Revolutionary War.
Zachary Taylor was born in Virginia but moved west to Kentucky with his parents in 1785. He was father of five daughters and a son, Richard. Two of the daughters died young, and two married Army officers, one of whom was Jefferson Davis. When the Civil War erupted, all the Kentucky Taylors joined the Confederacy. Richard had become a planter in Louisiana and was a keen student of military history. He accepted an offer from Major General Braxton Bragg to join his staff as a civilian but soon afterward found himself commanding troops in the Shenandoah Valley under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. He advanced to lieutenant general and became a prominent Democratic politician after the war, much involved with reconstruction.
Joseph, the younger brother, remained in Virginia and was commissioned in the Army. He and his family remained loyal to the Union, and he died in office as Commissary General of the Union Army in 1862.
Mary Montgomery Meigs and Joseph H. Taylor had five children: twin girls, Louisa and Evelyn, and three sons, Colonel John Rodgers Meigs Taylor (West Point, 1889), Joseph Pannill Taylor, who chose a civilian career, and Admiral Montgomery Meigs Taylor (Naval Academy, 1890), who served in Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War and was commander-in-chief of the Asiatic Fleet when he retired in 1933. Colonel Taylor came to the Philippines with the army of occupation and was retired in 1914 as military observer of the Balkan War for injuries sustained when his horse was shot from under him. The two brothers never married.
Louisa Taylor married Captain Philip R. Alger, U.S. Navy, long the Navy’s top expert on ballistics and the Head of the Department of Mechanics at the Naval Academy. One of their daughters, Mary Taylor Alger, married Roy C. Smith, Jr. (Naval Academy, 1910), a hero of the Nanking Affair of 1927 who was physically retired in 1938 as a commander and died in 1946. He was the son of Captain Roy C. Smith (Naval Academy, 1878), first captain of the USS Arkansas (BB-33), and grandson of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, Superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1886 to 1890 and the victor of the Spanish-American War’s Battle of Santiago in 1898. Commander Smith was born in then Captain Sampson’s quarters in the Naval Academy. Captain Smith, Sr., who was born at Fort Mason, Texas, where his father was surgeon for the Second Cavalry Regiment on the Indian frontier, was the son and grandson of Army officers and the great-grandson of Larkin Smith, captain of cavalry in the Fourth Virginia Dragoons during the Revolutionary War and Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses afterward.
Mary Alger and Roy C. Smith, Jr., had two daughters, both of whom married Naval Academy graduates. Mary Smith married Poyntell C. Staley (Naval Academy, 1933), who retired as a captain, and Louisa Smith married Stuart Stephens (Naval Academy, 1930), who was killed in a 1944 plane crash. She later married Royal Navy Commander Horace Barnard and has lived in England ever since.
The Alger-Smith union also produced two sons. The younger, Montgomery Meigs Smith, had an eye injury as a youngster that precluded naval service, but he was commissioned in the Army Reserve for World War II. The elder, Captain Roy C. Smith, III, U.S. Naval Reserve, attended the Naval Academy with the Class of 1934 and served on active duty from September 1941 through June 1970, with the exception of three inactive years as a businessman in South America. After retiring from the Navy, he worked with the Naval Academy Alumni Association for another 12 years.
Captain Smith III had two sons, Roy IV (Naval Academy, 1960) and Douglas, both of whom served in the destroyer Navy as regular officers. Roy IV resigned as a lieutenant in 1964 to seek a business career, and Douglas, whose ten-year career included command of a tank landing ship in the Mekong River Delta during the Vietnam War, resigned in 1973 for the same reason. Roy IV’s son, Lieutenant Andrew Fowler Smith, U.S. Navy, currently serves as a naval flight officer instructor at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. Lieutenant Smith represents the eighth consecutive generation of the family to serve in the armed forces of the United States, a period covering a full 200 years.
John Rodgers, Montgomery Meigs, and their descendants have had distinguished careers in the Navy and Army, have served in every war this country has fought, and continue to serve today. Eight Navy ships have been named for members of this lineage, each christened by a lineal descendant.
In this 125th anniversary year of the U.S. Naval Institute it is appropriate also to note the service of this family line to that institution. The Rodgers and Matthew Perry families were early supporters, as was Admiral Sampson. Captains Roy Smith and Philip Alger each won the Naval Institute’s Gold Medal, and Alger became its Secretary- Treasurer from 1903 until his death in 1912, setting it on the course it still follows today. Commander Roy Smith, Jr., was the first Assistant Editor of the Naval Institute Proceedings when he was on duty at the Naval Academy from 1923 to 1925. He wrote the 50th anniversary article for the magazine, and later was a frequent contributor, as was Captain John Forsyth Meigs. Captain Roy C. Smith, III, wrote the 100th anniversary article for Proceedings and has been a frequent contributor to it as well as to Naval History. Mrs. Roy Smith Jr.’s oral history provided a feature story for the inaugural issue of the latter. Roy IV has also contributed. Here, too, the tradition continues.