Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Role of Engineers in the Civil War: The Topographical Engineers (part 1)


The evolution of topographical engineers as an important arm of the military began when the first topographical engineers were appointed during the War of 1812. An act of Congress on March 8, 1813 authorized the selection eight engineers and eight assistants to serve on the general staff. The engineers were given the rank of brevet majors and the eight assistants as brevet captains. The topographical engineers were assigned the duties "to make such surveys and exhibit such delineations as the commanding generals shall direct; to make plans of all military positions which the army may occupy and of their respective vicinities, indicating the various roads, rivers, creeks, ravines, hills, woods, and villages to be found therein; to accompany all reconnoitering parties sent out to obtain intelligence of the movements of the enemy or of his positions; to make sketches of their routes, accompanied by written notices of everything worthy of observation therein; to keep a journal of every day's movement when the army is in march, noticing the variety of ground, of buildings, of culture, and distances, and state of roads between common points throughout the march of the day; and lastly, to exhibit the positions of contending armies on the fields of battle, and the dispositions made, either for attack or defense."

Following the War of 1812, the topographical engineers were disbanded as part of the reduction of the Army in 1815. However, President Madison retained two officers to conduct surveys on the northern frontier and of Lake Champlain. An April 24, 1816 law organized the Army general staff defined northern and southern divisions and allocated three topographical engineers and two assistants for each organization.

Burning of Washington
In 1816, Congress appropriated funds to construct a system of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast. The forts were in response to the successful British invasions including the burning of federal offices in Washington during the War of 1812. The War Department organized a Board of Engineers for Fortifications to examine and to select sites for the works. The same year, Major Stephen H. Long began to explore and conduct surveys in the West. His initial operations were surveys of the Illinois, Fox, Wisconsin, Upper Mississippi, and Minnesota Rivers in connection with construction of forts on the frontier. During 1819-1820, he conducted an expedition to the Rocky Mountains. In 1823, he determined the northern boundary with Canada at the 49th parallel at Pembina while exploring the Minnesota River and the Red River of the North. Another officer was assigned topographical duties with General Andrew Jackson’s army in it operations against the Seminole Indians.

Pawnees in a parley with
Major Long's expedition
The Topographical Engineers were placed under the Engineer Department in 1818. In 1824, the Topographical Engineers were given the responsibilities to make improvements in the nation's transportation system. A Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements was formed to perform surveys, plans, and estimates for roads and canals. One of the Board's earliest projects was the survey of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

On June 22, 1831, the Topographical Bureau was made an independent office of the War Department directly responsible to the Secretary of War. During the 1830's, the Topographical Engineers were extensively engaged in public and private internal improvements. Numerous surveys were made of rivers, roads, canals, railroads, and harbors throughout the country. After the Topographical Engineers completed the surveys, government projects for the improvement of rivers and the construction of roads were performed under contracts administered by the Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster's Department. Topographical engineers worked on the survey of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. They managed construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal aqueduct over the Potomac River at Georgetown.

Beginning in 1834, the Topographical Engineers were employed in construction of lighthouses. The completed facilities were turned over to the Treasury Department for administration.

Indians and Negroes Attacking Whites 
In 1836 several Topographical Engineers were sent to Florida for service with the Army against the Seminole Indians. The Topographical Engineers had been so busy with other assignments that they had not been able to conduct military surveys and explorations. The lack of this information for Florida impeded operations against the Seminoles. Throughout the war, topographical officers and other officers of the Army were assigned to military expeditions where they obtained topographical information. This work allowed the engineers to assemble a topographical map of Florida for use by General Zachary Taylor in his campaign against the Seminoles.

Efforts continued through the 1830's to form a Corps of Topographical Engineers. On July 5, 1838, the Florida war and the expansion of the western military frontier forced Congress to increase the Army. As part of this law, a Corps of Topographical Engineers was organized with one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, four majors, ten captains, ten first lieutenants, and ten second lieutenants. After the Corps of Topographical Engineers was organized, the Secretary of War assigned it all civil engineering works directed by the United States. The new Corps was now responsible for all civilian works. Projects involving improvements of rivers and harbors along the Gulf, Atlantic, and Lake coasts were transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. The Corps of Engineers would concentrate on military works. Plans and drawings of fortifications were transferred from the Corps of Topographical Engineers to the Corps of Engineers.

(Source: A History of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, 1818-1863, by Henry P. Beers, U S Corps of Topographical Engineers, http://www.topogs.org/History.htm.)

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