Roads, Military

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ROADS, MILITARY. From the colonial period to the beginning of the twentieth century, the construction of military roads resulted in many notable achievements: the Braddock Road, cut through the wilderness to Fort Duquesne in 1755; the backbreaking labors of Continental troops struggling to clear a path for guns captured at Fort Ticonderoga in the first year of the American Revolution; George Rogers Clark's road to Kaskaskia and Vincennes, built in 1778 and 1779; supply routes to the forts of the Old Northwest; the long stretches of corduroy road laid by the engineer battalion in the Civil War; the blazing of jungle trails in the Philippines during the insurrection of 1899–1902; and the road constructed in 1916 by engineers of the punitive expedition to Mexico, which made possible the first motorized movement by an army.

World War I and World War II called forth prodigious road-building efforts. In 1918, engineers of the American Expeditionary Forces repaired war-torn French highways and rebuilt and maintained roads across noman's-land and beyond. World War I—the first conflict to require construction of substantial hard-surfaced roads—witnessed the debut of army engineer units trained especially for road building. In World War II, U.S. Army engineers completed more than ten thousand miles of road in the southwest Pacific area alone; and two projects of that war—the Ledo Road, linking India with China, and the Alcan, or Alaska, Highway, stretching across northwestern Canada and southeastern Alaska—rank

among the greatest military roads ever. The U.S. armed forces' largest engineering project in a foreign country involved reconstruction of highways in the Republic of Vietnam. Their efforts there linked the major towns of that country with some three thousand miles of modern, high-speed, asphalt-surfaced roads capable of bearing heavy loads.

The term "military roads" also has broader connotations. Since ancient times, roads have served a dual purpose. The great Roman highway system facilitated both military movements and trade. Similarly, the first large road-building project undertaken in the United States, the National Road, or Cumberland Road, served not only postal and commercial purposes but also functioned as a military route. As one congressional sponsor emphasized, its utility "in time of war for the transportation of the munitions of war, and the means of defense from one point of the country to another … must be palpable and plain to every reflecting mind." Later, the army built myriad wagon roads in the trans-Mississippi West that carried both military supply trains and caravans of prairie schooners. During the twentieth century, designers planned and built the vast interstate highway system with both military and commercial ends in view.

The army turned to good account in civil works the experience it gained on military projects. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and contructed the systems of scenic roads in Yellowstone and Crater Lake national parks and the initial highway network in Alaska. And it was by no means coincidental that an army engineer, Francis V. Greene, perfected asphalt as a street-paving material and adapted it for use in the North American climate.


Beck, Alfred M., et al. The Corps of Engineers: The War Against Germany. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1985.

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

Jackson, William Turrentine. Wagon Roads West: A Study of Federal Road Surveys and Construction in the Trans-Mississippi West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Morse Joseph E., and R. Duff Green, eds. Thomas B. Searight's The Old Pike. Orange, Va.: Green Tree Press, 1971.


Jesse A.Remington/c. w.

See alsoInterstate Highway System ; Overland Trail .