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.
Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Congress and the War Department approved the transfer of military construction responsibilities from an overtaxed Quartermaster Corps to the Corps of Engineers. The shift was implemented piecemeal. After the Destroyers for Bases Agreement of September 1940, the chief of staff, General George Marshall, assigned the Corps the job of constructing air bases in the string of British Atlantic territories from Newfoundland to British Guiana, thereby initiating a program of overseas base construction by the Corps of Engineers that long remained one of its most important functions.
In November 1940, Marshall ordered the transfer to the Corps of Engineers of all air base construction in the United States, excluding the Canal Zone. Finally, in December 1941, Congress transferred to the Corps the responsibility for real estate acquisition, construction, and maintenance for Army facilities, including training camps, government-owned munitions plants, air bases, depots, and hospitals.
Domestic base construction peaked in 1942, as the nation geared for war. U.S. military construction expenditures in July of that year alone exceeded those spent during the entire period of 1920 1938. By the end of 1942, the Army could house 4.37 million soldiers and provide hospital beds for 180,000 more. It had built 149 munitions and aircraft manufacturing plants and constructed depots with 205 million square feet of storage space. Domestic military construction has remained an important function of the Corps of Engineers since 1942, but never again did it reach the level of that year.
During World War II, Army engineers placed floating and later fixed bridges across the rivers of Italy, France, and Germany, supporting hotly contested crossings of the Rapido, Roer, and Rhine rivers. Engineer troops prepared and developed beaches for assault landings, both in Europe and the Pacific. On the beaches of Normandy, engineer troops, operating under heavy enemy fire, cleared lanes for landing craft by destroying the mine-bearing steel structures that the Germans had implanted in the intertidal zone and bulldozed roads up the narrow draws through the cliffs lining the beaches. During the Battle of the Bulge, quick engineer actions destroyed critical bridges in the path of advancing German forces, slowing and diverting them while Allied forces regrouped. The engineers also opened road connections traversing the long wilderness reaches between the southern Canadian road net and interior Alaska and between British-ruled Assam Province in India and Yunnan Province in southwestern China.
Outstanding Army engineer support continued in the Korean War. Army engineers destroyed bridges over the Naktong River and built fortifications that helped American and South Korean forces hold the Pusan perimeter in the southeastern corner of the peninsula while General Douglas MacArthur prepared his assault landing at Inchon near Seoul. When Chinese forces entered the war and forced the Americans to retreat, the engineers built lateral roads behind new defensive lines that permitted the rapid movement of forces and equipment to areas subject to heaviest attack. This helped American commanders stabilize the front.
In Vietnam the engineers helped provide access to enemy strongholds in support of concerted U.S. search and destroy missions. To assist in these efforts and to reduce enemy attacks on military convoys, the engineers introduced the Rome plow, a military tractor equipped with a protective cab and a special tree-cutting blade. Engineer troops also constructed 900 miles of modern, paved highways connecting the major population centers of the Republic of Vietnam and monitored the construction by private American contractors of an additional 550 miles of Vietnamese highways.
The Corps' role in responding to natural disasters has evolved since just after the Civil War. Direct federal participation in disaster relief began in 1865 when the federal government helped freed blacks survive flooding along the Mississippi. The Corps' first formal disaster relief mission was during the Mississippi Flood of 1882, when it supported Army Quartermaster Corps' efforts to rescue people and property. Army engineers played a critical role in responding to the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1889 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
In 1917, the Army reorganized its disaster relief responsibilities and assigned command and control during disaster situations to department or Corps area commanders. Following major flooding in 1937, the chief of engineers ordered all engineer districts to develop flood emergency plans.
In 1947, the Corps responded to an explosion of 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate on board a ship docked in Texas City, Texas. Two years later, it handled its first major snow removal emergency a massive blizzard on the Great Plains. By 1950, the Corps had established a reputation for responding quickly and effectively to disaster relief missions. Under the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 the Corps continued to be the lead federal agency during flood disasters. Five years later, Congress passed Public Law 84 99 which improved the Corps' ability to fight floods. The law authorized an emergency fund of $15 million annually for flood emergency preparation, flood fighting and rescue operations, and repair or restoration of a flood control work.
During the 1960s the Corps responded to two powerful natural disasters: the Alaskan earthquake of 1964 and Hurricane Camille in 1969. The extensive damage caused by these events and Tropical Storm Agnes (1972) prompted Congress in 1974 to broaden federal responsibility for disaster assistance and assigning responsibility to federal agencies.
By the 1980s the Corps' mission had expanded from flood fighting to other hazards. Consequently, the Corps established an emergency management program. In 1988 the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide for all disasters, regardless of cause. The Corps works closely with FEMA in many natural disasters including floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.
Between 1989 and 1992, the Corps responded to the largest and most destructive oil spill in U.S. history in Prince William Sound in Alaska. It also responded to Hurricane Hugo, which caused major damage in the Virgin Islands and coast of the Carolinas, and to the Loma Prieta Earthquake in California. The 1990s brought even costlier natural disasters. Between 1992 and 1995 the Corps performed major repair and rehabilitation work in the wake of Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, record flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and the Northridge earthquake in California.
When the Cold War ended, the Corps was poised to support the Army and the Nation in the new era. Army engineers supported 9/11 recovery efforts and currently play an important international role in the rapidly evolving Global War on Terrorism, including reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stands ready to support the country's military needs in the 21st century as it has done during its more than two centuries of service.
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