Military History Monday: United States Army Corps of Engineers

On June 16, 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the first Chief Engineer of the Army, a post filled by Colonel Richard Gridley.  The following year Rufus Putnam would replace Gridley.  From the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, George Washington knew he would need engineers, yet it was hard to find trained engineers.  Congress was forced, instead, to turn to France who had vastly more experience in military engineering.

The French engineers began arriving in 1776 and by the end of the next year one of them, Louis Duportail, was promoted to brigadier general and chief engineer.  Duportail, like his predecessor, believed there should be a separate corp of engineers.  He proposed companies of engineers to be formed which would be called Sappers and Miners, and led by American officers.

On May 27, 1778 Congress authorized three companies of Sappers and Miners.  The companies received instruction in repairing damaged works and erecting new ones.  The recruitment and training process continued for at least two years, but not before the Continental Congress formed the official Corps of Engineers that Duportail thought so essential on March 11, 1779.

The Corps participated in some significant battles and victories, according to The History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, edited by Joe Ballard:

In February 1776, General Washington’s council of war decided to draw the British out of Boston by erecting works on the unfortified Dorchester Heights.  To achieve surprise the Army needed to move quickly, but the ground was frozen more than foot deep.  Colonel Rufus Putnam, Washington’s Chief Engineer, offered an innovative solution to the problem.  He recommended using chandeliers – wooden framed will with bundles of sticks – to raise the walls above ground.  To the astonishment of the enemy, the Continentals erected the chandeliers in a single night (March 4-5).  When it was determined three days later that the position could not be taken, the British found that their hold on Boston was no longer tenable and evacuated the city.

Thus, the quick action of Putnam’s corps helped the Americans reclaim Boston.  The following year, a Polish engineer officer, Lt. Col. Thadeus Kosciuszko, and his engineers successfully placed obstructions that significantly slowed down the advance of British General John Burgoyne to Albany following defeat at Fort Ticonderoga.

The most significant contribution of the Corps during the Revolutionary War was at Yorktown where George Washington and his engineers executed siegecraft which resulted in victory and the surrender of Lord Cornwallis.  The Corps, along with Sappers and Miners, performed reconnaissance and executed various field works, including fortification, transportation of cannons and ammunition, erecting gun platforms and clearing the way for the infantry to ultimately succeed.  This, in George Washington’s estimation, was Duportail’s finest hour.

YorktownSurendrAt the end of the Revolutionary War, there was a debate as to whether the newly liberated nation would even have a standing army in peacetime.  One proposal was to have an engineer corps with artillerists and to also establish an academy to provide training.  On one hand it seemed more prudent to keep an engineer corps ready and trained in the event there was another war.  However, Congress ultimately did not approve of a peacetime Army which negated the need for the Corps of Engineers.  Along with the other members of the Revolutionary Army, the Corps was mustered out of service.

The recommendation for a “small corps of well-disciplined and well-informed artillerists and engineers” came up again after the Constitution was ratified in 1789 and the new government was formed.  Nothing came of the recommendation until in March 1794 when post-war tensions with Britain began to arise.  At that time President Washington was authorized by Congress to temporarily appoint engineers who would helped to fortify key harbors.

The following year Congress officially established a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers – one regiment only, however.  At this time the idea for a training academy also began to be discussed.  When war with France was threatened in 1798, Congress added another regiment.  By 1802, however, Congress reduced the military again and the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers were separated.  The Corps of Engineers remained and took charge of the newly established United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

A new Chief Engineer was appointed – Jonathan William, a grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin, who also became the first superintendent of the Academy.  Williams brought in new curriculum which included both mathematics and engineering.  One part of the practicum was the construction of permanent defenses along the eastern seaboard.  However, the next conflict where the Corps would see action would largely take place further inland from the seaboard, although the fortified harbors were better able to prevent the British from attacking during the War of 1812.

The War Department and the Academy debated regarding the idea of engineers assuming command duties.  The War of 1812 would be the first time that engineers would serve in command positions – Captain Charles Gratiot commanded the entire force in Michigan Territory and Joseph Swift, who would later serve as Chief Engineer, commanded hundreds of soldiers before the war’s end in New York.  The contributions the Corps made in that war helped solidify its reputation and ensure its long-term viability.

In 1800, Secretary of War James McHenry wanted to expand the scope of the Corps by including fortification of “public buildings, roads, bridges, canals and all such works of a civil nature.”  The Academy would, in the years after the War of 1812, begin to graduate men who would go on to play a role in building the infrastructure of a growing nation.

In 1816 topographical officers, or “topogs”, were added to the Army.  Unlike the Army Corps of Engineers which concentrated on the building and maintenance of structures and fortifications, the “topogs” carried out more civilian-oriented tasks such as surveying, exploring and map-making.  The Corps of Topographical Engineers would contribute a great deal towards the expansion westward beginning in the 1840’s.

The 1840’s saw the migration begin to Oregon and later California with the gold rush.  One of the most well-known surveyors was John C. Frémont, who along with his guide Kit Carson, mapped the Oregon Trail and more.  While it wasn’t an easy task, the topogs were able to piece together a picture of what the country west of the Mississippi looked like.

In 1846 the Mexican War necessitated the reactivation of an active Army engineer company.  Two notable engineer officers, who would later fight on opposite sides in the Civil War, were Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan.  When the Civil War began, the War Department again increased the number of Army engineer companies.  These units would frequently be called to serve in perilous situations, such as Fredricksburg, Virginia in 1862 –  while under heavy Confederate fire, they laid six pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River.

CivilWarUSArmyCorpEnginAfter the Civil War, the Corps of Engineers no longer supervised West Point and with no major conflicts between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, some returned to civilian jobs.  The duties of the Corps expanded during World War I.  According to The History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Not only did the engineers provide American combat divisions with the officers and men to staff the large 1,660-man engineer regiments that were part of each Army combat division, but they also built the port facilities, roads and railroads needed to bring essential war materiel to the front, harvested timber for military construction, employed searchlights in anti-aircraft defense, organized the first U.S. Army tank units, and developed chemical warfare munitions and defensive equipment.

With the advance of technology came even more responsibility and respectability for the Corps.  Some Army engineers joined the fighting and suffered casualties.  One of the most important contributions was the production by the Corps of approximately 200 million board feet of lumber in France, used for the construction of new port facilities for American ships, storage depots, barracks, rail lines and hospitals.

The Corps’ active duty roster was reduced after World War I, but after Germany invaded and conquered France in 1940, the buildup began again.  One task undertaken was the construction of air fields.  Interestingly at this time, Blacks joined the Army in large numbers and many were assigned to the engineering units (and usually served in segregated construction units).   Research and development efforts had already produced a “light and inexpensive pierced-steel plank mat” to provide safe landings for American planes.  Fortuitously, an engineering unit had already been deployed to the Hawaiian Islands prior to December 7, 1941 when they were called upon to maintain and repair roads and other infrastructure following the attack.

The Corps would be assigned the tasks of clearing mines and building roads in North Africa.  Several U.S. Army Engineer units were on hand on June 6, 1944 when the beaches of Normandy were stormed.  Beach obstacles were cleared and bulldozed, with some engineers joining the infantry teams in the assault against the Germans.  Possibly one of the most important contributions of the Corps to the war effort would be the appointment of Major General Leslie R. Groves to oversee the Manhattan Project.

LeslieGrovesGroves had oversight of two atomic production plants at Oak Ridge (Tennessee) and Hanford (Washington state) and the building of facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico where scientists gathered to devise a way to construct a bomb capable of ending the war with Japan.  During that effort, the Corps was used not only to construct facilities, roads and housing, but to build scientific equipment needed to carry out the research and development of the atomic bomb.  Before World War II ended, $2 billion dollars would be spent on the project.

TRooseveltCanalAs essential as the Corps of Engineers is to the successful conduct of war, through the years there have been many other notable contributions made by the Corps:

  • When President Kennedy began the race to land on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, the Army Corps of Engineers was called into action to construct facilities both large and small.  Two of the major projects, of course, were the Johnson Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas and the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • With the expansion westward after the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, a National Road was needed.  The federal government constructed the road at a cost of over $6 million, but when the road fell into disrepair, the Corps was called upon to repair it, along with the construction of a new route west of Cumberland.  So well-built and sturdy were some of the bridges along that road, that they remain in use today.
  • Today we often hear about the Army Corps of Engineers being called to assist with flood control, cleanup and abatement.  The Corps was called out (as in criticized) in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when levees previously believed to be safe failed and resulted in devastating floods in New Orleans.
  • Construction supervision of the Panama Canal was transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by President Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Many buildings and structures in Washington, D.C., including the Washington and Lincoln Monuments were built or supervised by the Corps.

As the years have passed since the official establishment of the Corps in 1802, it has grown not only in size but importance – by helping to defend our country as well as building and repairing our country.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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