The U.S. Army Engineer Museum presents a chronological history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Today, the oldest unit in the United States Army is the 101st Engineer Battalion of the Massachusetts National Guard established in 1636. Although the history of American military engineering goes back more than three hundred and fifty years, the heritage of military engineering reaches back to the earliest beginnings of organized armies. On the battlefields of ancient Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, skilled Military Engineers laid the groundwork for the role of their modern descendants. During Europe's middle ages, the French coined the term "genie" to represent the Engineers. Over the years, "genie" evolved into the old English word "enginator" meaning one who operates the engines of war, such as siege towers, battering rams, catapults and the like. With the support of professional French Military Engineers, our young Army Corps of Engineers was created during America's War for Independence. Today, that French heritage is still seen within our Engineer Corps. The language of the Engineer - "abatis," "gabions," "fascines" and "pontons" -- has its roots in 18th century France. Even the motto of the American Engineers, "ESSAYONS," is French for "Let us try."
As America's War for Independence grew more contentious, it became apparent that there was an obvious need for trained Engineers. Only a few days after the Army itself was organized, the Continental Congress, on June 16, 1775, resolved that there should be a Chief Engineer for the Army in a separate department and two assistants under him. Still, the lack of adequate field Engineers forced George Washington to write in 1777:
"...The want of accurate maps has been a grave disadvantage to me. I have in vain endeavored to procure them, and have been obliged to make shift with such sketches as I could trace out of my own observations and that of gentlemen around me. I think if gentlemen of known character and probity could be employed in making maps (from actual surveys) it would be of the greatest advantage."
Finally, on March 11, 1779, Congress resolved that "the Engineers in the service of the United States shall be formed into a Corps and styled the Corps of Engineers." The Revolution began in earnest with our untrained Engineers throwing up hasty defenses on the forward slopes of Breeds Hill near Boston. The site was to become famous as the location of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The culminating decisive battle in our War for Independence occurred in October 1781 as our tried and tested Engineers overcame the British defenses at Yorktown, Virginia.
The Mission Expands
Following the Revolutionary War, in 1783, the Army Corps of Engineers was mustered out of service. But on May 9, 1794, Congress authorized a new branch, to be known as "the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers." The Army Corps of Engineers, as it is known today, was created on March 16, 1802, when the President was authorized by Congress to "organize and establish a Corps of Engineers ... that the said Corps ... shall be stationed at West Point in the State of New York and shall constitute a Military Academy." With the re-establishment of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1802, the mission of educating the officers of our Army became an added requirement. The first superintendent of the United States Military Academy was Jonathan Williams, grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin. Under Williams, the growing Corps of Cadets and the Corps of Engineers became a professional, disciplined and elite corps. The first enlisted men of the present-day Corps were authorized on February 28, 1803, but until 1846 the organization consisted primarily of commissioned officers. Company A Engineers was organized in 1846 for the Mexican War. The company operated as Sappers and Miners during the arduous march to Mexico City. In 1847, at the Battle of Contraries, the Engineers led the assault. (Company A, now A Company, 1st Engineer Battalion has been in continuous service since its foundation in 1846, the oldest such unit in the Corps of Engineers.) A total of 44 Engineer officers, including a young Robert E. Lee, served in the Mexican War. Into the 1850s, Engineers continued to map, build, explore and develop our young nation.
Exploring the Frontier
On July 5, 1838 Congress divided the Army Corps of Engineers when it authorized a separate Corps of Topographical Engineers. The foundation of this specialized Corps dated back to the Revolutionary War under General Robert Erskine, "Geographer of the Army." This new organization exerted significant influence on the early development of the United States. The Corps of Topographical Engineers virtually dominated the era of official exploration that began about 1840 and continued throughout the 19th century. The versatile officers of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, known as "Topogs," were among the first to accurately and systematically describe and record the diversity of the West. Their thorough reports encouraged settlers to move West by describing in detail what could be expected from what was previously a mysterious and undocumented region. The Topogs were expected to act as soldiers by offering protection against hostile attack. They also served as a department of public works by opening up the frontier to western settlement. The Corps of Topographical Engineers merged back into the Army Corps of Engineers on March 3, 1863. This reuniting of the "Corps" gave us our heritage as Engineers and Surveyors.
The Civil War
Just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Army had two organizations of Engineers with a total authorized strength of 79 commissioned officers and a lone company of 100 enlisted Engineers. In early August 1861, three companies were added to the Army Corps of Engineers and one to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. The commissioned officer strength was raised to 103. Thus, at the beginning of the Civil War, the total strength of the Army Engineers numbered some 750 men. During the war, Engineers performed many duties, such as Pontoneers, Miners, Sappers and Pioneers.
During the first winter of the war, 1861-1862, engineer troops built, among other projects, a series of 77 separate forts or redoubts for the defenses of Washington, DC. In 1863, the two separate Engineer Corps were reunited and continued to clear obstacles and to construct roads, bridges, palisades, stockades, canals, blockhouses and signal towers. They laid down hundreds of ponton bridges, built fixed bridges and railroad trestles, repaired railroad lines and erected field fortifications in addition to their mission as Combat Engineers, Topographic Engineers and Facility Engineers.
Building a Nation
One major lesson stemming from the Civil War was the nation's need for an improved transportation system. New technologies, such as steamships and railroads, combined with a booming rejuvenated industrial economy to create the need to adequately administer and control the growth of America's infrastructure. Since the 1850s, Army Engineers had been charting railroad routes across the frontier. Prior to that, canals, often constructed under the direction of Army Engineers, linked the cities of the east coast. Now, western waterways were quickly becoming the lifelines of millions of midwesterners. Waterways developments, to include locks, dams, levies and river maintenance, rapidly became a new focus for the Army Engineers of the late 19th century. Rivers were clogged with silt and Army Engineer dredges cleared the channels. Snags and floating trees were the bane of river boat pilots on America's rivers. With typical resourcefulness, Army Engineers tackled and removed these treacherous hazards to navigation.
Army Engineers took on civil works missions beyond the realm of navigation. In 1874, the Army Corps of Engineers was first tasked to protect our nation's environmental heritage by safeguarding our premier National Park at Yellowstone. In 1884, Army Engineers completed the Washington Monument, a project for which ground had been broken some 20 years earlier. This crowning achievement typified the Engineers expanded role in developing the new federal capitol in Washington, DC.
Projecting America as a New World Power
In the summer of 1898, America entered into a war with Spain. The
Spanish-American War led us into a new position in world politics. The
United States now wore the mantle of a world power. As we began the development
of our new empire, we first had to enhance the infrastructure of the islands
of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Our thrust into the eastern Pacific
came as Japan achieved world power status with her victory over Russia
in the Russo-Japanese War, which ended in 1904. Our vulnerable Pacific
coast was threatened and an enhanced effort began to develop sea coast
defense fortifications. These new forts were not only a reaction to changing
international political developments, but they were also a result of rapidly
improving technologies of war. New breach-loading, high-powered naval guns
necessitated the reciprocal development of better defensive fortifications.
As this arms race transitioned into the 20th century, we began one of our
most ambitious engineering projects, the Panama Canal. The canal was to
serve two functions: to improve merchant marine transportation between
the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans; and more importantly, to allow our
new modern Navy to project American interests quickly in both hemispheres.
The Great War
Within months of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in the Balkans, in 1914, the Great Powers of Europe were locked in a war of unprecedented proportions. Spanning more than four years, the "Great War" would see battles in France, Russia, Italy, the Middle East, and Africa.
When German submarine warfare forced America into the war in 1917, the United States was unprepared for the conflict. The country struggled to mobilize its vast human and industrial resources before Germany could win the ground war against France and the British Commonwealth. The small trickle of soldiers which began in the summer of 1917 ultimately became a flood of combat power which would be essential to the ultimate victory.
The Great War would not only change the map of Europe but alter the course of world history.
The advent of new technology to warfare and the size of the American Army presented the Engineers with unprecedented challenges. Engineers not only supported the other combat arms -- often fighting as infantry -- but also built the camps, supply facilities, and transportation systems needed to sustain the fighting army.
Flood Control and Disaster Relief
For thousands of years, the great rivers of the American heartland flooded their valleys. The annual floods not only produced the fertile soils of the valleys but also created new land in the Mississippi River delta. However, by the early 20th Century, settlement and economic development along the rivers were such that floods threatened lives and property.
Massive floods in 1912, 1913, 1927, and 1936 prompted Congress to pass several important flood control laws. In 1936, Congress passed the Flood Control Act. This law recognized flood control as "a proper activity of the Federal Government in cooperation with States, their political subdivisions, and localities thereof." Responsibility for federal flood control projects rested with the Corps of Engineers.
Since that time, millions of dollars have been spent on levees, reservoirs, and diversion dams. Although floods still occur, the Corps efforts have saved countless lives and property which would have been lost if control structures had not been in place. Ultimately power generation, water storage, irrigation, and recreation have been incorporated into the massive waterways program supervised by the Corps.
WWII The Engineers' War
There were few aspects of the United States' role in World War II that did not have some form of Engineer involvement. From the creation of the Arsenal of Democracy -- which provided war materials to American and Allied forces -- to the conduct of battles and campaigns, the Corps of Engineers played a role.
Within the continental United States, the total value of construction related to the war effort exceeded $15 billion (1940s dollars). Of this, more than $3 billion went to the construction of the war industries. Military facilities accounted for another $7.5 billion. On the home front, the Engineers were builders.
Overseas, the Engineers were builders and fighters. Combat and general service Engineers built thousands of miles of roads and railroads, hundreds of bridges and airfields, and countless square feet of storage and troop support facilities. Combat Engineers fought along side the maneuver arms, and in some instances, in advance of infantry and armored forces. They became experts in expedient roads and bridges as well as mine warfare. Often, they laid aside the tools of the Engineer and shouldered the weapons of combat soldier, fighting as Infantry.
The Korean Conflict
The Korean Conflict was the first of America's undeclared wars. The invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950 prompted a response from the United Nations, and American forces fought under the U.N. flag for the first time.
The rugged, mountainous terrain of Korea and the lack of developed transportation and communications systems, created significant challenges to American forces and the Corps of Engineers. Most of the initial Engineer work involved demolition of bridges and important facilities in an attempt to delay the North Korean advance to the south. In the Pusan Perimeter, Combat Engineers not only worked on standard defensive and construction projects, but also manned the front lines when the enemy threatened to penetrate the perimeter. In both the defense and offense, Combat Engineers engaged in mine warfare.
Road and bridge building dominated the construction efforts of the Engineers. Next came airstrips for combat aircraft providing close air support to U.N. forces. Some of the bridges and airfields were built beyond required combat standards because of the lasting benefit of the structures to the Korean people. In Korea, the Engineers encountered all of the challenges of those who had fought in Sicily, Italy, and China in World War II, plus the added problems associated with military operations short of war.
The Cold War
For almost 40 years, communist and democratic nations were locked in a "Cold War". With the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the age old arms race between competing powers took on a new dimension. In a parallel effort, the Corps of Engineers supervised the construction of numerous facilities for America's space program. These included the Johnson Manned Spacecraft Center in Texas and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Certain regions of the world, which had little value in the past, became strategically significant. Exploration and operational tests in the Arctic and other cold regions were common in the 1950s.
Assuming the leadership of regional alliances, such as the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization -- NATO, -- the United States deployed forces
around the world. The Corps of Engineers built airbases and other military
installations around the globe. In addition, the Corps built facilities
for its allies. Whereas military construction in the 1920s and 1930s was
for the defense of the United States and its possessions, Engineer construction
during the Cold War supported the defense of the Free World.
The Vietnam Conflict
The "Cold War" turned hot in the mid-1960s, but not on the northern German plain as many analysts had predicted. Communist insurgency in Southeast Asia threatened nations struggling to develop economically, politically, and socially following a history of colonial rule. This was a continuation of the "wars of national liberation" which had threatened Greece and the Philippines in the late 1940s.
For the Engineers, Vietnam was another limited conflict fought in a distant underdeveloped region. With the commitment of ground troops in 1965, Engineers had the dual responsibilities of supporting combat operations and of constructing support facilities for the Army, its sister services, and allied nations.
Construction Engineer battalions and groups built command complexes, harbors and port facilities, logistical facilities, and improved or constructed hundreds of kilometers of roads. Divisional Engineers focused their attention on base camps, fire bases, tactical roads, and counter-mine operations. Engineer dozers equipped with a special plow/blade cleared thousands of acres of jungle. The land clearing effort eliminated sanctuaries for Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces, made ambushes along roads more difficult, and created cleared ground for agriculture for South Vietnamese farmers.
Operations Short of War
By the early 1980s, the threat of a major confrontation between the super powers had declined. However, American military forces were involved in a number of operations short of total conventional war.
In 1983, American forces landed in Grenada in OPERATION URGENT FURY. Six years later, the forces of OPERATION JUST CAUSE freed Panama from the yoke of its dictator and secured the vital Panama Canal. The largest military operation since Vietnam, OPERATION DESERT STORM came in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. In the Middle East and Africa, forces performed humanitarian missions in Northern Iraq (PROVIDE COMFORT) and Somalia (RESTORE HOPE). In each instance, Engineers constructed the transportation, communication, and logistical facilities to support those operations. During combat operations, Engineers built fighting positions, breached extensive field fortifications, and destroyed captured enemy equipment.
The Corps was also called on in times of natural disasters. Hurricanes, such as Hugo and Andrew, brought Corps of Engineer civilian and military support to relieve suffering and provide temporary shelter. The same relief and construction skills have been applied to disasters caused by floods like those in 1993.
Engineer Hall of Heroes
The U.S. Army Engineer Museum presents the Engineer Hall of Heroes. The Hall of Heroes is designed to inspire and to reinforce the basic idea that every individual who has proudly and honorably served the Army Corps of Engineers is indeed a hero.
For more than 200 years men and women, civilians and soldiers, have
served the Army Corps of Engineers. In peace, whether the designer of our
nation's Capitol, a dredge boat pilot in 1875, a lock master in the 1950s
or an environmental engineer today; whether an astronaut aboard the space
shuttle or an engineer exploring the western frontier in the 1850s, Engineers
have served. In war, whether it was the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the jungles
of Vietnam, the mountains of Korea or the islands, forests and plains of
two World Wars; whether it was on our own soil throughout the 18th and
19th centuries, or in numerous conflicts in between, Engineers have served.
The Army Corps of Engineers is made up of a diverse group of dedicated
Americans, men and women, who, when called upon, have fought our wars.
They are the visionaries who have built our nation. The history of the
Engineers is nothing more than the history of individual Americans and
nothing less than the history of America.