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Historical Vignette 015 - 16 March 1802 and The Establishment of the Corps of Engineers

View of West Point (1780 watercolor by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, Corps of Engineers officer).

In the Military Peace Establishment Act of 16 March 1802, Congress established a separate Corps of Engineers to be located at West Point, New York, and constituted it as a military academy with the Chief Engineer serving as superintendent. This action, taken at a time when the overall size of the Army was reduced, placed the Corps on permanent footing and capped a quarter century of efforts to provide professional training for officers.

The Corps of 1802 traced its roots to June 1775 when the Continental Congress organized the Army and provided for a Chief Engineer. Engineer officers - mostly recruited from France - gradually joined the ranks. In 1778, Congress added Engineer troops organized into three companies of sappers and miners. At the behest of the Chief Engineer, Brigadier General Louis Duportail, all Engineer officers, sappers, and miners were formed into a Corps of Engineers under his command in March 1779.

At the end of the Revolution, Congress rejected arguments favoring a peace establishment and the Corps of Engineers mustered out of service along with most of the Army. When threats of war in 1794 highlighted the need for seacoast fortifications, Engineers returned to the Army in a combined Corps of Artillerists and Engineers. A second regiment was organized in 1798.

During the Revolution, many officers, including General George Washington, saw the need for technical education so that the Army would have skilled American Engineer officers in the future. Provisions were made for Engineer officers to instruct the companies of sappers and miners in field works according to a program devised by the Chief Engineer. Minimal instruction was actually given so it was widely argued, near the end of the War, that at least one formal academy was needed at West Point; because of the nature of their work, Engineers were thought to be in particular need of formal training. The artillerists and engineers received some instruction in the 1790s, but it fell far short of requirements.

President Thomas Jefferson played a key role in getting passage of the 1802 legislation. The new Academy was part of his plan to reform the Army and educate a new class of officers who supported his own democratic principles. It also reflected his desire for an Academy not merely military in nature, but designed to produce soldiers also schooled in mathematics and science to serve the Nation in peacetime. Accordingly, he selected Colonel Jonathan Williams - more scientist than professional soldier - as Chief Engineer and the Academy’s first superintendent.

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March 2001