Engineers, Corps of

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ENGINEERS, CORPS OF. The world's largest engineering force, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is the only organization of its kind that fulfills both military and civil missions. Within the army, it acts as a combat arm and a technical service; within the federal government, as a national construction agency. Older than the Republic, the corps has a proud history of service in war and peace. The breastworks at Bunker Hill, the Cumberland Road, the Panama Canal, Fort Peck Dam, and the Manhattan Project exemplify its contributions. The names of Pierre C. L'Enfant, Sylvanus Thayer, John C. Frémont, George B. McClellan, Leslie R. Groves, and Lucius D. Clay suggest the versatility of its officers.

The corps had its beginnings in the American Revolution. On 16 June 1775, the day before the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress authorized a chief engineer and two assistants for the Grand Army. Three years later, the Congress provided for three companies of sappers and miners. Led largely by French volunteers, the infant corps helped assure the success of George Washington's Fabian strategy and the decisive siege at Yorktown. Disbanded in 1783, engineer units reappeared in 1794 as elements of the short-lived Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, which began construction of American seacoast defenses.

The present organization dates from 16 March 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill providing for a corps of engineers to be stationed at West Point, New York, and to "constitute a military academy." The first engineering school in the United States, West Point was also the leading one until the Civil War. Composed almost exclusively of top academy graduates, the Corps of Engineers formed the only sizable group of trained engineers in the country.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, as the nation expanded, the federal government pressed the Corps of Engineers into service. Military engineers built roads, canals, piers, and lighthouses; they constructed and repaired fortifications and surveyed and explored the country. They also worked to improve the navigation of the water routes that spread people and commerce across the nation. In 1824, Congress directed the Corps of Engineers to remove the shoals, snags, and sandbars that impeded navigation on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Thereafter, the corps assumed increasing responsibility for river and harbor projects. Within 150 years, the corps had spent more than $20 billion to develop thousands of miles of inland waterways and hundreds of deep-water harbors. This effort also yielded far-reaching benefits in flood control, power production, water conservation, pollution abatement, and recreation.

Although the Corps of Engineers can point to a long list of achievements, implementation of its civilian mission has not been without controversy. It has often been accused of underestimating project costs. For example, in 1887, the corps convinced Congress to authorize $10 million for 439 projects. Based upon evidence that the actual cost of the projects would be at least $200 million, President Grover Cleveland vetoed the bill. By the mid-twentieth century, critics argued that the massive dams and stream channelization projects undertaken by the corps, whatever their cost, were undesirable because they disrupted ecosystems, polluted streams, and exacerbated the effects of flooding.

Implementation of military missions by the corps generated much less criticism. American military annals are filled with the exploits of army engineers. Some 150 battle streamers adorn the corps colors. The defense of Washington in the Civil War; the siege of Santiago, Cuba, in 1898; vast port, depot, road, and railroad works in France during World War I; the building of the Ledo Road and Alcan Highway; amphibious landings and the bridging of the Rhine during World War II; the buildup at Pusan in Korea; and the creation of the Da Nang base in Vietnam, are instances of engineer soldiers in their traditional roles—impeding enemy advances and assisting the movement of friendly forces. On many occasions, engineer troops also fought as infantry. Engineer officers, experienced in peacetime undertakings, were well fitted for high command and staff positions. Generals Robert E. Lee and Douglas MacArthur epitomize the engineer commander. In the nation's major conflicts, the army's top logistical minds were military engineers: Montgomery C. Meigs in the Civil War, George W. Goethals in World War I, and Brehon B. Somervell in World War II.

Today, the corps is organized into eleven divisions, forty districts, and hundreds of area and project offices. Since the 1950s, it has been active in space, missile, and postal construction, as well as in its traditional fields of endeavor. And, while management of the nation's water resources remains one of its most important responsibilities, its priorities in that area—like those of the country as a whole—have shifted towards recreation; fish and wildlife conservation; pollution abatement; and small, local works to generate power and to control floods. The corps enforces the Clean Water Act, regulates activities in wetlands, administers hundreds of reservoirs, and manages millions of acres of federal land.

As might be expected with an agency of its size, the corps continues to face criticism from a variety of directions for the impact of its projects, its management practices, and the scope of its activities. Nevertheless, the Corps of Engineers has played a unique role in both war and peace throughout U.S. history and will continue to do so in the future.


Fowle, Barry W., ed. Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II. Fort Belvoir, Va.: Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1992.

Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Hill, Forest G. Roads, Rails and Waterways: The Army Engineers and Early Transportation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.

Shallat, Todd. Structures in the Stream: Water, Science, and the Rise of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Stine, Jeffrey K. Mixing the Waters: Environment, Politics, and the Building of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1993.

Welsh, Michael. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Albuquerque District, 1935–1985. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Jesse A.Remington/c. p.

See alsoArmy, United States ; Explorations and Expeditions: U.S. ; Mississippi River ; Missouri River ; Ohio River ; River and Harbor Improvements ; Rivers ; Roads ; Waterways, Inland .