Historical Vignette 087 - Congress Established the Position of Engineer Sergeant Major

On June 20, 1864, Congress established the position of sergeant major in the battalion of engineers with pay of $36 per month. Nearly three years later, on February 21, 1867, the commander of the battalion named Frederick W. Gerber as permanent sergeant major, making him the Corps’ top enlisted man and battalion adjutant. Gerber’s service record made him a natural choice for the position.

A native of Dresden, Germany, Gerber had arrived in the United States in the 1830s. He joined the Fourth Infantry in 1839 but returned to civilian life in 1844. His decision to reenlist when a company of engineers was authorized in 1846 brought him into the Corps for the rest of his life.

In the war against Mexico, Gerber won numerous accolades. During the Battle for Mexico City, he saved the life of Lt. George B. McClellan, a battalion officer. When the city was surrendered to the United States, Gerber got the honor to sound the surrender call. During the Civil War, Gerber had responsibility for molding volunteer recruits into engineer soldiers as the battalion exercised its responsibilities as pontoniers, sappers, miners, and pioneers. 

SGM Frederick W. Gerber, 1867   SGM Gerber with the medal of honor

On November 8, 1871, Gerber became the first engineer to receive the Medal of Honor. He had performed so well on so many occasions that he was not recognized for any single act of gallantry but for many acts and “in recognition of long, faithful, and meritorious services covering a period of 32 years.”

Gerber died in 1875 and, along with several Medal of Honor recipients, including engineer Sgt. Wilbur E. Colyer, is buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Gerber took great pride in being the senior enlisted man in the engineers. Offered a commission several times, he declined each offer. As Gilbert Thompson, who served with him, later wrote, “practical and punctilious in all duties, he [Gerber] considered that to be the ranking non-commissioned officer in the Army was a greater honor than to hold a commission.”

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June 2004