Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.

views updated Jun 27 2018

Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. With the tasks of facilitating military movement by the construction of roads, bridges, and bases, and of protecting troops or territory through fortification, military engineering has been part of warfare since ancient times. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has supervised most of the construction for the U.S. Army and, after 1947, for the U.S. Air Force (the navy has its own construction agencies). It has also had important, if sometimes controversial, civil works responsibilities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originated on 16 June 1775, when Gen. George Washington appointed Col. Richard Gridley as the first chief engineer of the Continental army. Later, Gridley was succeeded by several French officers, most notably Gen. Louis du Portail (American spelling Duportail) in 1777. A Corps of Engineers was established by Congress as a component of the Continental army in 1779.

The engineers' fortifications played an important role in many Revolutionary War battles, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battles of Saratoga, and the engineers' siegecraft, including sapper and mining operations, contributed to the victory at the Battle of Yorktown. Like most of the Continental army, they were mustered out after the war. A combined Corps of Artillerists and Engineers was created in 1794, but it was short‐lived.

In 1802, recognizing the need for a national engineering capability, civil as well as military, Congress, supported by President Thomas Jefferson, established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. For more than a quarter century, West Point remained the only engineering school in the country. Congress also established the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which dates its continuous origin from 1802, and stationed the Corps at West Point. Until 1866, the academy superintendent was a military engineer.

The nation repeatedly called upon the Army Engineers to perform civil works as well as military engineering projects. During the nineteenth century, the Corps supervised construction of extensive coastal fortifications and built lighthouses, piers, and jetties, as well as mapping navigation channels. After the Supreme Court's Gibbons v. Ogden decision that federal authority over interstate commerce included river navigation, the General Survey Act of 1824 led to the Corps of Engineers' assignment to survey routes for roads and canals. Another act the same year authorized the Corps to dredge and make other navigation improvements on the nation's waterways. This was the origin of the Corps' responsibilities in river and harbor improvements, and it eventually led to the Corps' reorganization into a series of local district and regional division offices, all under the Office of the Chief of Engineers. A Corps of Topographical Engineers, a separate unit in 1838–63, helped explore, survey, and map many regions of the West.

During the Mexican War and Civil War, in addition to supplying many important commanders such as Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, and George Gordon Meade, the Corps of Engineers played important roles in mapping, road and bridge construction, fortifications, and siegecraft. The 2,170‐foot pontoon bridge built across the James River in June 1864 was the longest floating bridge erected before World War II.

Army Engineers continued the construction and modernization of coastal fortifications in the second half of the nineteenth century on the Pacific Coast and on the overseas territories acquired in the Spanish‐American War. They also continued river and harbor improvements. One of the Army engineers, George W. Goethals, supervised the construction of the Panama Canal. In World War I, the Quartermaster Corps constructed training cantonments in the United States while the Corps of Engineers built bridges, roads, railroads, and buildings for the American Expeditionary Forces in France.

In the 1930s disastrous floods led Congress, through a series of measures culminating in the Flood Control Act of 1936, to declare flood control a function of the federal government and to authorize the Corps of Engineers to build levees, dams, and reservoirs to supervise such projects on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other rivers. The Flood Control Act of 1944, authorized the Corps to construct multipurpose dams that provided flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, hydroelectric power, and recreational areas.

During World War II, the Corps of Engineers was given responsibility for all U.S. Army and Army Air Forces construction, as the Quartermaster Corps concentrated on its other responsibilities. In the United States and around the world, army engineers built airfields, roads, bridges, ports, petroleum pipelines, military camps and cantonments, warehouses, hospitals, and dozens of other facilities, including the Pentagon, the world's largest office building, completed in 1942. Among the most acclaimed of the combat engineers' achievements were the Alcan Highway to Alaska, the Ledo and Burma Roads through the mountains and jungles of Asia, and the clearing of mines and underwater obstacles from the beaches before the invasion of Normandy. The Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers supervised the Manhattan Project, the construction of the atomic bomb.

During the Cold War, the Corps of Engineers engaged in a major construction program as part of the military buildup of the early 1950s, erecting U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force bases in the United States and throughout the world, from the deserts of North Africa to the permafrost of the arctic. To protect the United States, the Corps erected extensive radar early warning systems across northern Canada, and NIKE and other antiaircraft missile sites in the United States. In the missile age, the Corps constructed ICBM silos, ballistic missile early warning systems (BMEWs), and part of the NASA facilities at Cape Kennedy.

During the Korean War, combat engineers destroyed bridges over the Naktong River and built fortifications that helped stop the North Korean assault at the Pusan perimeter. In the Vietnam War, army engineers built military bases and roads in Southeast Asia. To cut through the jungle in support of U.S. “search and destroy” missions, the engineers also introduced the Rome plow, a military tractor equipped with a protective cab and a special tree‐cutting blade.

The Corps of Engineers engaged in varied civil works, including construction of Veterans Administration hospitals, post offices, and bulk mail facilities. The Corps' dam construction and other flood control work came under attack, particularly in the 1960s and 1980s, when critics accused it of being overly responsive to “pork barrel” projects of the Congress. Paradoxically, when the federal government responded to the environmental movement in the 1970s, the executive branch turned first for protection of the nation's wetlands and waterways from pollution to the Corps of Engineers, whose regulatory authority under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act was expanded under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972.

The change in public attitudes of the 1980s, however, led to the Water Resources Act of 1986, which signified a major change in water resources planning. The new direction was toward shifting responsibility away from the federal government, which indicated a diminished civil works role for the Corps of Engineers. But the military role of the Corps continued, as seen in its construction of army and air force facilities in the buildup of the 1980s, the Corps' roles in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War in 1990–91, and its erection of military facilities for peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia and Kosovo throughout the 1990s.
[See also Academies, Service: U.S. Military Academy; Bases, Military: Development of; Engineering, Military.]


Forest G. R. Hill , Rails and Waterways: The Army Engineers and Early Transportation, 1957.
Blanche D. Coll , et al., The Corps of Engineers: Troops and Equipment, in Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army in World War II: The Technical Services, 1958.
William H. Goetzmann , Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863, 1959.
Karl C. Dod , The Corps of Engineers: The War Against Japan, in Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army in World War II: The Technical Services, 1966.
Lenore Fine and and Jesse Remington , The Corps of Engineers: Constructions in the United States in Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army in World War II, 1972.
Vincent C. Jones , Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb, 1985.
Martin Reuss and and Charles Hendricks , U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: A Brief History, 1997.

John Whiteclay Chambers II

Army Corps of Engineers, U.S

views updated May 08 2018

Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.

The Continental Congress in June 1775 organized what later became the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) when it authorized an engineer and two assistants to prepare fortifications for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Engineers were further organized in 1779, but it was not until after the Revolutionary War that the Corps was permanently established, in 1802. Thus, the Army Corps of Engineers, located within the Department of Defense, is the nation's oldest water resource agency, dealing primarily with the construction and maintenance of navigable streams and harbors.

Nineteenth Century

The Corps contributed to both civilian and military constructions (e.g., lighthouses, coastal fortifications, and harbors) when national defense and commercial transportation were determined to be interdependent. Many historians claim that the greatest accomplishment of the early Corps was its work on forming a reliable transportation system within the expanding United States, via activities such as mapping navigation channels and building canals and harbors.

The General Survey Act (1824) authorized the Corps to formulate surveys for waterways that were of commercial or military importance, or were used for mail delivery. The Corps was assigned to improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and later on the Missouri River. The Corps' work on the interior transportation system of the country was a vital foundation for economic development and westward expansion.

Twentieth Century

The Corps' efforts to improve waterway navigation continued with the deepening of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (1926) that eventually became a part of the intercoastal waterway connecting waterbodies from Massachusetts to Florida and westward to the Rio Grande River. Construction and maintenance of canals, locks, and other structures continued, along with important surveys of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Delta. The principal national expenditure up to this time period was directed at levee construction.

Dam Regulations.

The country's water resources became a concern during the beginning of the century due to neglected waterways, increased hydropower demands, and additional western irrigation projects. Numerous dams were constructed when studies showed that hydroelectric power was an efficient use of water. However, it was also concluded that dams threatened waterway navigation. As a result, Congress delegated the Corps to regulate dam construction.

The Rivers and Harbors Acts (1890 and 1899) required that construction plans and specific dam sites be approved by the Corps, while the General Dam Act (1906) forced dam owners to construct, operate, and maintain their facilities in specific ways. During the 1930s, the Corps participated in three major hydroelectric projects: Passamaquoddy Tidal Power (Maine), Bonneville Dam (Columbia River), and Fort Peck Dam (Missouri River).

Flood Control Measures.

The failures of an uncoordinated levee system was recognized as early as 1879, when the Mississippi River Commission was created to undertake flood control planning on the lower Mississippi. Despite this Commission, the existing levee-based flood control system was proven to be inadequate when two major floods in 19121913 and another one in 1916 flooded the lower Mississippi River valley.

These floods caused significant economic damages and human suffering. Damages to property and commerce were quite costly. And these were recurring events. When over 16 million acres in the lower Mississippi River valley were flooded again in 1928, Congress passed flood control legislation and gave a role to the Corps in its implementation.

Floods continued to cause substantial damage, and, with severe flooding events on the Ohio River, Congress passed the 1936 Flood Control Act. Until this time, Congress had been hesitant to create a strong role for the federal government in floodplain management. This act declared flood control to be acceptable federal government activity and authorized more than two hundred construction projects. Under the act, both the Corps and the Department of Agriculture shared responsibility for these activities.

This legislation was a significant event in Corps history for two reasons. First, it authorized physical structures as the means to control floods, and these construction activities were historically the Corps' expertise. Second, it was the first significant federal use of the cost-benefit ratio as a decisionmaking criterion. The act includes the famous provision that "the benefits to whomsoever they accrue exceed the costs" and launched the use of cost-benefit analysis for water projects. This economically based decisionmaking criterion spurred the Corps' involvement in water resources planning. The Flood Control Act (1944) allowed the Corps to build multiple-purpose reservoirs, mainly for irrigation, navigation, water supply, hydropower, and recreation.

Electrical Output.

After 1945, additional multipurpose hydroelectric projects were built on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest, and the Missouri and the Arkansas Rivers. By 1975, Corps projects were producing 27 percent of the total U.S. hydropower and 4.4 percent of all electrical energy output.


The Corps is an organization that has historically built water infrastructure. The Corps' current regulatory mission is a natural result of its historical mission and society's changing needs. Environmental considerations are becoming increasingly important to the Corps' activities. Public controversies over structural projects have pressured the Corps to account for the environmental impacts of its construction activities and to widen its consideration of nonstructural approaches to solve water problems.

The Corps continues to be involved in ongoing controversies related to its activities, and these conflicts are indicative of the evolution that water planning and management is undergoing. The Corps has historically played an important role in water management, and will continue to do so as its mission and mandates change.

see also Balancing Diverse Interests; Bureau of Reclamation, U.S.; Canals; Cost-Benefit Analysis; Dams; Floodplain Management; Hydroelectric Power; Infrastructure, Water-Supply; Planning and Management, History of Water Resources; Ports and Harbors; River Basin Planning; Transportation; White, Gilbert.

William Arthur Atkins

Faye Anderson


National Research Council. New Directions in Water Resources Planning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.

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

Internet Resources

ACE Institute for Water Resources. <>.

Brief History. Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. <>.


In 1802, Albert Gallatin delivered a Congressional report outlining his plan to improve the U.S. transportation system. Called the Gallatin Report (1808), it listed improvements to roads and canals connecting northern and southern states, northern states to the Great Lakes, and eastern states with western areas.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

views updated May 11 2018

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Established in 1775, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (otherwise known as the corps) is the world's largest public, engineering, design, and construction management agency. The corps obtains its authority from the secretary of the army and is a division serving the chief of engineers within the Department of the Army. Funded by Congress, the corps' primary responsibilities include the management and execution of civil works programs in or adjacent to the nation's waterways (e.g., rivers, harbors, and wetlands), administration of environmental laws to protect and preserve these waterways, and the review of applications and issuance of permits for proposed projects affecting such bodies of water. As part of its responsibility, the corps assesses the consequences of proposed activities on water bodies, balancing environmental and developmental need and concerns. This often brings environmental and business groups into conflict such as in the case of dredging. Environmental groups oppose dredging due to its adverse effects on aquatic species whereas industry asserts that such dredging reduces the costs of river transportation by allowing larger ships to pass through waterways with fuller cargo loads. The corps reviews and issues permits under the Clean Water Act or Rivers and Harbor Act, ensuring that proposed activities do not adversely affect or impede U.S. waterways. Under the Clean Water Act, the corps primarily issues permits for the discharge of excavated material or fill, whereas under the Rivers and Harbor Act, the agency issues permits for the construction of structures such as bridges, dams, dikes, or causeways. With respect to both laws, the corps considers reasonable and alternative locations and methods for a proposed project, potential effects on private and public uses, and the need for a specified project. During the past several years, however, senators have introduced legislation such as the Corps of Engineers Modernization and Improvement Act of 2002, in an effort to reform the corps' project review and authorization procedures. These procedures have been criticized for allowing a number of projects to go forward that have had few economic benefits and high environmental costs. Agencies similar in purpose to the corps exist in countries such as Australia, Britain, and Canada, but they function on a much smaller scale in comparison.


National Research Council, Committee to Assess the U.S. Army Corps of Water Resources Planning Procedures. (1999). New Directions in Water Resources Planning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

internet resource

Services for the Public. Available at #environmental.

Robert F. Gruenig

About this article

United States. Army. Corps of Engineers

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic


United States. Army. Corps of Engineers