On June 16, 1775, George Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress. That same day, the Congress authorized the creation of the post of chief engineer for the army, in anticipation of upcoming battles with British forces. The engineers’ work building fortifications, surveying terrain, and clearing roads during the war proved so valuable to the Revolutionary forces that the Congress resolved, four years later, based on a recommendation from the Board of War:
Resolved, That the engineers in the service of the United States shall be formed into a corps, and styled the “corps of engineers;” and shall take rank and enjoy the same rights, honours, and privileges, with the other troops…That a commandant of the corps of engineers shall be appointed by Congress, to whom their orders, and those of the Commander in Chief, shall be addressed…
The future of the corps was even more firmly assured in 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the first U.S. school of engineering. Until 1866, the superintendent of West Point was an engineer officer. One of West Point’s missions was to train generations of military engineers to participate in both military and civilian engineering projects on behalf of the nation.
The Army Corps of Engineers played an active role in the development and/or completion of many sites in the nation’s capital, including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Rock Creek Park, and the Library of Congress. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who had served as an engineer during the American Revolutionary War, designed the basic plan of the city of Washington, D.C., and supervised the design of its earliest public buildings.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has engaged in various civil construction projects and has long maintained a national role in the development of coastal fortifications, lighthouses, and waterways; in the improvement of rivers and harbors; and in the design, building, and maintenance of structures such as bridges, canals, levees, locks, and hydroelectric dams and roads.
To relieve unemployment during the Great Depression, the U.S. Government engaged the Corps of Engineers in planning, constructing, and maintaining a vast flood control network of levees along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The dams and locks of the related Upper Mississippi Nine-Foot Channel Project mitigated economic problems and brought a fully navigable interior river system to the Midwest.
During World War II, corpsmen worked on military engineering projects in the European and Asian-Pacific theaters—building bases, landing strips, storage depots, and hospitals. The corps both facilitated the mobility of allied troops and countered the mobility of enemy troops. In 1942, they eked out a 1,500-mile trail through the Pacific Northwest, creating a military supply route that became known as the Alcan (Alaska-Canadian) or Alaska Highway. The corps helped to build the nuclear research facilities in the U.S. that were used by participants in the Manhattan Project to develop the Atomic Bomb.
Today, the corps continues its work in the management of water resources, the development of civil and military infrastructure, and the response to natural and man-made disasters, and works with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up contaminated sites.
- Search on Army Corps of Engineers in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey to view various projects of the corps.
- Search on the keyword engineer in the George Washington Papers to find documents recounting the activities of military engineers in the American Revolution
- Search for newspaper accounts of the activities of the Army Corps of Engineers throughout the country in Chronicling America, the Library’s online collection of historic newspapers.
- Explore the Veterans History Project, to find collections referencing the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from World War I to the present day (A tip: limit results to digitized collections by selecting “Yes” in the field labeled “Digitized Collection?”).
- Visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website to learn more about their history and access their Digital Library.