Happy Birthday to the Army Corps of Engineers

By Nancy Spannaus

March 11, 2022—Today marks the 243rd birthday of one of key institutions that built and defended the United States – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), a cornerstone institution for the American System of political economy. Its formal founding can be traced to March 11, 1779, when Congress established the Corps out of a group of U.S. and French engineers. Its first tasks, obviously, were to aid in battlefield operations, which they did notably at the decisive siege and battle of Yorktown.

The role of the French engineers, and those trained by the French, such as Kosciusko, was of vital importance to this work. It was critical to many battles, as well as the construction of West Point[1] and many other fortifications.

The castle used to symbolize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The engineers having been mustered out of service at war’s end, a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers was established within the U.S. Army in 1794. That skilled grouping was later constituted into a separate Corps of Engineers with the establishment of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1802. Given the high tensions between the United States and the European imperial powers, the Corps then spent its energies building up the country’s coastal and other fortifications, most notably those of New York City prior to the War of 1812.

Following that War, under the leadership of West Point Superintendent Joseph Gardner Swift,[2] the Corps underwent a significant upgrading, once again with the aid of the French. The process is described in an article by the late historian Pamela Lowry on this blog. She recounts the 1815 visit of young officers Sylvanus Thayer and William McRee to Paris, where they had been deployed by President Madison to seek the expertise needed to upgrade West Point. They sought out those they could find from the famed Ecole Polytechnique, then dismantled in the wake of France’s defeat, and bought over a thousand books for the West Point library, including many of those used at the Ecole. Most importantly, Ecole graduate Simon Bernard was recruited to head the construction of U.S. coastal fortifications, and Ecole Professor Claudius Crozet agreed to teach engineering and descriptive geometry at West Point.

Happy Birthday to the Army Corps of Engineers
Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent of West Point, Painting by Robert Weir (Wike)

Lowry describes the outcome as follows:

While Sylvanus Thayer was still in Paris, he was selected to become the new Superintendent of West Point. Thayer had been an early graduate of the academy, and had experienced the frustrations felt by its faculty and students alike at its lack of funding for textbooks and scientific apparatus, and its inconsistency of requirements for its students. Thayer resolved to completely reorganize West Point on the model of the Ecole, and to transform it into a great scientific and technological school which would disperse the benefits of its education into the general population.

This outlook corresponded to that of the Founding Fathers, who had pressed Congress for the establishment of a military academy, including the study of science and technology. George Washington, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams had all envisaged such an academy, but the funding from Congress was not forthcoming. Finally, in 1802, President Jefferson signed the Military Peace Establishment Act, creating a Corps of Engineers to be “stationed at West Point” and which was ordered to “constitute a military academy.”

Building the Nation

The Corps’ great contributions to building the nation’s civilian infrastructure began in 1824. First, in Gibbons vs. Ogden,[3] Supreme Court Justice John Marshall ruled in favor of federal authority over interstate commerce. Then, President Monroe overcame his resistance to federal backing for internal improvements by signing the National Survey Act of 1824. That Act authorized the President to have surveys made of routes for roads and canals “of national importance, in a commercial or military point of view, or necessary for the transportation of public mail,” and allocated $30,000 toward that process. While Monroe began the process, incoming President John Quincy Adams, who considered internal improvements “a sacred duty,”  commissioned the Corps of Engineers to carry out projects all around the country.

A month after the National Survey Act (April 1824), Congress appropriated $75,000 to improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers by removing sandbars, snags, and other obstacles. Later, the act was amended to include other rivers such as the Missouri. The Corps of Engineers, as the only formally trained body of engineers in the republic, thus built and improved a network of infrastructure projects that would facilitate commerce throughout the nation.

Happy Birthday to the Army Corps of Engineers
An Army Corps snag boat clearing snags in the Mississippi River.

In 1826, Congress authorized the president to have river surveys made to clean out and deepen selected waterways and to make various other river and harbor improvements. This act was the first to combine authorizations for both surveys and projects, as the ACE’s write-up of its history explains.[4]

Corps members were also deployed by the President to aid the railroad companies. A notable example is the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was being planned at the same time as the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

A Vital Need

Over the next 150 years, the ACE continued to play a vital role, especially in water management, flood control, and hydro-electric projects, in addition to its military deployments. Its engineers were often deployed in disaster relief; note its deployment to build field hospitals during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its ability to use its expertise, of course, varied widely, depending upon the willingness of the federal government to invest the funds needed for vital projects. The FDR era represented a high point in its activity.

Corps engineers helping residents during the great flood of 2011.

The shift in thinking in Washington from long-term economic development to reducing costs and prioritizing “environmentalist” goals, has significantly hampered the good which the 37,000 members of the Army Corps can accomplish.

Interestingly, almost the same conflict between prioritizing adequate investment in public works for the general welfare, or reducing costs (and now “environmental footprints”) plagued the Corps in the 1820s.

When the ACE produced a report on the route for the C & O canal in 1826, it caused an uproar due to the price tag, a hefty $22 million. So be it, they said. “When a nation undertakes a work of great public utility, the revenue is not the essential object to take in consideration—its views are of a more elevated order—they are all, and it may be said, exclusively, directed toward the great and general interests of the community.” The engineers argued that any revenues derived from the canal (a matter of considerable interest to the canal company) were “. . . of merely secondary importance for the nation.”[5] Their route and estimate for building the canal were, however, set aside, and a new study commissioned, which came in with a much lower price-tag, due to dramatically reducing the quality and usability of the waterway.

The C&O Canal, shown here in 1910.

In essence, the ACE’s approach was right. It’s not the immediate payback of a project, but its long-term contribution to the prosperity and development of the nation as a whole which should determine the parameters of an infrastructure project.  Indeed, we see the results of the opposite thinking today, as we choose to expand our highways to extraordinary width, rather than make the substantial upfront investment to build modern, high-speed rail. Cheaper now, but worse for the general welfare. And that’s only one small example.

We cannot afford to simply honor the ACE for its accomplishments of the past.  It is a vital part of the reconstruction we so desperately need in our economy today. It is my hope that this short review will encourage many of my fellow citizens to come to that realization as well.

[1] See Men of Action: French Influence and the Founding of American civil and military engineering, by J. Ledlie Klosky and Wynn E. Klosky, in Construction History, vol. 28, no. 3. (2013).

[2] For a full discussion of Swift’s role in preparing the Corps for its nation-building role, see Chaitkin, Anton, Who We Are, America’s Fight for Universal Progress, from Franklin to Kennedy, vol. 1, 2020, passim.

[3] See https://americansystemnow.com/steamboat-case-clears-way-for-american-system/

[4] See https://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/Brief-History-of-the-Corps/Improving-Transportation/

[5] See the Army Corps’ write-up of this conflict at https://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/Historical-Vignettes/Civil-Engineering/070-C-O-Canal/