Plan of the military academy at West Point, New York
The history of United States Army Corps of Engineers can be traced back to 16 June 1775, when the Continental Congress organized an army with a chief engineer and two assistants. Colonel Richard Gridley became General George Washington's first chief engineer. One of his first tasks was to build fortifications near Boston at Bunker Hill. The Continental Congress recognized the need for engineers trained in military fortifications and asked the government of King Louis XVI of France for assistance. Many of the early engineers in the Continental Army were former French officers. Louis Lebègue Duportail, a lieutenant colonel in the French Royal Corps of Engineers, was secretly sent to America in March 1777 to serve in Washington's Continental Army. In July 1777 he was appointed colonel and commander of all engineers in the Continental Army, and in November 17, 1777, he was promoted to brigadier general. When the Continental Congress created a separate Corps of Engineers in May 1779 Duportail was designated as its commander. In late 1781 he directed the construction of the allied U.S.-French siege works at the Battle of Yorktown. From 1794 to 1802 the engineers were combined with the artillery as the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers.
The Corps of Engineers, as it is known today, came into existence on 16 March 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson signed the Military Peace Establishment Act whose aim was 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." Until 1866, the superintendent of the United States Military Academy was always an officer of engineer.
The General Survey Act of 1824 authorized the use of Army engineers to survey road and canal routes. That same year, Congress passed an "Act to Improve the Navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers" and to remove sand bars on the Ohio and "planters, sawyers, or snags" (trees fixed in the riverbed) on the Mississippi, for which the Corps of Engineers was the responsible agency.
Formerly separate units
Separately authorized on 4 July 1838, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers consisted only of officers and was used for mapping and the design and construction of federal civil works and other coastal fortifications and navigational routes. It was merged with the Corps of Engineers on 31 March 1863, at which point the Corps of Engineers also assumed the Lakes Survey District mission for the Great Lakes.
In 1841, Congress created the Lake Survey. The survey, based in Detroit, Mich., was charged with conducting a hydrographical survey of the Northern and Northwestern Lakes and preparing and publishing nautical charts and other navigation aids. The Lake Survey published its first charts in 1852.
In the mid-19th century, Corps of Engineers' officers ran Lighthouse Districts in tandem with U.S. Naval officers.
The Army Corps of Engineers played a significant role in the American Civil War. Many of the men who would serve in the top leadership in this institution were West Point graduates who rose to military fame and power during the Civil War. Some of these men were Union Generals George McClellan, Henry Halleck, George Meade, and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, and P.G.T. Beauregard. The versatility of officers in the Army Corps of Engineers contributed to the success of numerous missions throughout the Civil War. They were responsible for building pontoon and railroad bridges, forts and batteries, the destruction of enemy supply lines, and the construction of roads. The Union forces were not the only ones to employ the use of engineers throughout the war, and on 6 March 1861, once the South had seceded from the Union, among the different acts passed at the time, a provision was included that called for the creation of a Confederate Corps of Engineers.
The progression of the war demonstrated the South's disadvantage in engineering expertise; of the initial 65 cadets who resigned from West Point to accept positions with the Confederate Army, only seven were placed in the Corps of Engineers. To overcome this obstacle, the Confederate Congress passed legislation that gave a company of engineers to every division in the field; by 1865, they actually had more engineer officers serving in the field of action than the Union Army. The Army Corps of Engineers served as a main function in making the war effort logistically feasible. One of the main projects for the Army Corps of Engineers was constructing railroads and bridges, which Union forces took advantage of because railroads and bridges provided access to resources and industry. One area where the Confederate engineers were able to outperform the Union Army was in the ability to build fortifications that were used both offensively and defensively along with trenches that made them harder to penetrate. This method of building trenches was known as the zigzag pattern.
A bulldozer operated by Sgt. C. G. McCutcheon of the 1304th Engineer Construction Battalion on the Ledo Road
, Burma, 1944
From the beginning, many politicians wanted the Corps of Engineers to contribute to both military construction and works of a civil nature. Assigned the military construction mission on 1 December 1941 after the Quartermaster Department struggled with the expanding mission, the Corps built facilities at home and abroad to support the U.S. Army and Air Force. During World War II the mission grew to more than 27,000 military and industrial projects in a $15.3 billion mobilization program. Included were aircraft, tank assembly, and ammunition plants, camps for 5.3 million soldiers, depots, ports, and hospitals, as well as the Manhattan Project, and the Pentagon.
In civilian projects, the Corps of Engineers became the lead federal flood control agency and significantly expanded its civil works activities, becoming among other things, a major provider of hydroelectric energy and the country's leading provider of recreation; its role in responding to natural disasters also grew dramatically. In the late 1960s, the agency became a leading environmental preservation and restoration agency.
In 1944, specially trained army combat engineers were assigned to blow up underwater obstacles and clear defended ports during the invasion of Normandy. During World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers in the European Theater of Operations was responsible for building numerous bridges, including the first and longest floating tactical bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, and building or maintaining roads vital to the Allied advance across Europe into the heart of Germany. In the Pacific theater, the Pioneer troops were formed, a hand-selected unit of volunteer Army combat engineers trained in jungle warfare, knife fighting, and unarmed jujitsu (hand-to-hand combat) techniques. Working in camouflage, the Pioneers cleared jungle and prepared routes of advance and established bridgeheads for the infantry as well as demolishing enemy installations.
Five commanding generals (chiefs of staff after the 1903 reorganization) of the United States Army held engineer commissions early in their careers. All transferred to other branches before rising to the top. They were Alexander Macomb, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, Douglas MacArthur, and Maxwell D. Taylor.
Notable dates and projects
Gatun Lock construction, Panama Canal, 12 March 1912
- The General Survey Act of 1824 authorized use of army engineers to survey roads and canals. The next month, an act to improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers initiated the Corps of Engineers' permanent civil works construction mission. Although the 1824 act to improve the Mississippi and Ohio rivers is often called the first rivers and harbors legislation, the act passed in 1826 was the first to combine authorizations for both surveys and projects, thereby establishing a pattern that continues to the present day.
- Survey and construction of the National Road until Federal funds were withdrawn (1838)
- The 555 ft 5 1⁄8 in (169.29 m) tall Washington Monument, completed under the direction and command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, 1884
- Panama Canal, completed under supervision of Army Engineer officers, 1914
- Flood Control Act of 1936 made flood control a federal policy and officially recognized the Corps of Engineers as the major federal flood control agency
- Bonneville Dam, completed in 1937
- Flood Control Act of 1941, which channelized the Los Angeles River and parts of the Santa Ana River
- USACE took over all real estate acquisition, construction, and maintenance for army facilities, 1941
- The Manhattan Project (1942–1946)
- Planning and construction of The Pentagon, completed in 1943 just 16 months after groundbreaking
- Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, first authorized by congress in 1948
- USACE began construction support for NASA leading to major activities at the Manned Spacecraft Center and Kennedy Space Center, 1961
- King Khalid Military City 1973–1987.
- The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 (WRDA 86) brought major change in financing by requiring non federal contributions toward most federal water resource projects
- Cross Florida Barge Canal
- Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway
Occasional civil disasters, including the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, resulted in greater responsibilities for the Corps of Engineers. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans provides another example of this.