The Beginnings to 1815

The history of United States Army Corps of Engineers can be traced back to June 16, 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; however, it was not until 1779 that Congress created a separate Corps of Engineers. Army engineers, including several French officers, were instrumental in some of the hard-fought battles of the Revolutionary War including Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and the final victory at Yorktown.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the engineers mustered out of service. In 1794, Congress organized a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, but it was not until 1802 that it reestablished a separate Corps of Engineers. The Corps' continuous existence dates from this year. At the same time, Congress established a new military academy at West Point, New York. Until 1866, the superintendent of the academy was always an engineer officer. The first superintendent, Jonathan Williams, also became the chief engineer of the Corps. During the first half of the 19th century, West Point was the major and for a while, the only engineering school in the country.

From the beginning, many politicians wanted the Corps to contribute to both military construction and works "of a civil nature." Throughout the 19th century, the Corps supervised the construction of coastal fortifications and mapped much of the American West with the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which enjoyed a separate existence for 25 years (1838-1863). The Corps of Engineers also constructed lighthouses, helped develop jetties and piers for harbors, and carefully mapped the navigation channels.

Once reestablished, the Corps of Engineers began constructing and repairing fortifications, first in Norfolk and then in New Orleans. The Corps' fortifications assignments proliferated during the 5 years of diplomatic tension that preceded the War of 1812. The chief engineer, Colonel Jonathan Williams, substantially expanded the system of fortifications protecting New York Harbor. The works, which Williams and his successor Joseph Swift erected around that harbor including the 11-pointed fort that now serves as the base of the Statute of Liberty, convinced the commanders of the British navy to avoid attacking that strategic location during the War of 1812.

Responding to the success of its fortifications during the War of 1812, the United States soon developed an expanded system of modern, casemated, masonry fortifications to provide the first line of land defense against the threat of attack from European powers.

While Congress reduced the size of the country's infantry and artillery forces after the war, it retained the increased number of officers that it had authorized for the Corps of Engineers in 1812. Pleas from several secretaries of war for more engineers to work on fortifications led Congress to double the size of the Corps again in 1838. The fortifications, which the Army engineers built on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and after 1848 on the Pacific coast, securely defended the nation until the second half of the 19th century when the development of rifled artillery ended the earlier impregnability of the massive structures.

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