U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers


Topographical Engineer Interpretation Course Information.
June 3-7, 2015

 Bent's Old Fort NHS 
Living History Encampment
La Junta, Colorado


Bent's Old Fort
Announcement and application for 2015
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Tentative Syllabus
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The Living History Encampment at Bent's Old Fort NHS is a five day, four night immersion course for which graduate credit is available. The Topographical Engineer section of the course was designated in 2009 as an approved summertime activity for Cadets of the U S Military Academy at West Point and is meant to familiarize interpreters with the skills and knowledge of the topographical engineer officer of the 1838-1850 period. To this end, participants are assumed to have just graduated from West Point and will be receiving on-the-job training regarding expeditionary mapping skills using period instruments such as the Fortin barometer, hypsometer, reflecting circle, artificial horizon,  portable meridian instrument, quintant, sextant, etc.  Additionally, participants will receive several period publications, a text, and a field notebook. Desbordes repeating circle

Officers and gentlemen attending should peruse the suggested reading list and equip themselves with a working sextant or quintant (a limited number of Davis Mark III sextants will be available for student use). Although period instruments are fine if they are in alignment and the arc is readable, it is suggested that the Davis Mark III, an inexpensive plastic sextant, should be purchased since instruction will be specific to it. (The Davis Mk III can be found on the internet for around $50). Acquiring the artificial horizon is not necessary. In addition to the sextant, a pocket compass (period if possible) should be brought.

Although wearing the uniform of the Army of the United States helps immensely to form and channel the thoughts and demeanor of the interpreter and is encouraged, it is not necessary.  Normally, there were more civilian specialists than officers on these expeditions, topog officers did not necessarily wear the uniform, and officers were not limited to topographical engineers.  However, if you plan to wear a uniform, we will be portraying officers of the Mexican War period to the public during this event, and for that reason, it is necessary that the uniform be defensible as one of the 1838 - 1850 era. The clothing regulations for this period can be read here.

Clothing.  (See NOTE below).

Civilian garb for a gentleman of the period is acceptable. For those participants whose closets do not contain an abundant view of camp supply of 1840's clothing, the park will be able to help you. Please contact Greg Holt at 719-383-5023 or email at Greg_Holt@nps.gov 

Uniform: Wearing pieces of the uniform with civilian clothes as comfort dictates is historically correct for expeditions.  The following articles of uniform would be acceptable for an officer if the student wishes to bring any of them:

Mexican War era forage hat or straw hat. Forage hat should have hat badge. (if at all possible, uniform pieces should be consistent with whatever branch is chosen)

Mex War to Civil War era frock coat (single breasted), or white linen or cotton roundabout as per 1847 regulations.

Rank on straps (pre-1850 size if possible) should be 2nd or 1st Lieutenant, in keeping with historical norms. Contra-epaulettes for those uniformed as dragoons or topogs are fine.

Stock or cravat of black silk

Sash should be crimson silk (orange for dragoons)

Sword belt should have belt plate appropriate to the era and branch.

Sword (if worn) should be 1833 or 1840 dragoon design, although any period officer’s sword would be acceptable if the rest of the uniform corresponds.

Trousers - should be white cotton drill, either fly-front or broadfall.

NOTE.  For a better idea of what can be worn, see the images from past schools.  These can be accessed from the Index page under the Living History heading.

Footwear - Ankle-high boots, Jefferson boots, Cheyenne- or Arapaho-style moccasins, or Wellington-style boots worn under the pant leg. No high top boots worn outside the pant-leg if you are in uniform.

Tentage, etc.

Tents will be provided

Cots will be provided

Participants are invited to bring a mosquito net.
"As there was no wood, we used the "bois de vache," and lay down near the smoke of the fires to avoid the mosquitoes. We had no sticks to support our mosquito bars." J.W. Abert, 1846.

Participants should bring their own blankets. Buffalo robes will be available.

Participants should bring their own plate, cup, and utensils. If you have a period canteen, bring it.Wuerdemann zenith telescope

Suggested Reading

To prepare yourself, there are several extremely good books available that will give one the flavor of the times.

Bent's Fort:

Lavender, David, 1954. Bent's Fort: Doubleday and Co. NY. Reprinted many times.

DeVoto, Bernard, 1943, The Year of Decision, 1846: Little, Brown and Co.

Bent's Fort and Topographical Engineers

des Montaignes, Francois. The Plains: Being no less than a Collection of Veracious Memoranda taken during the Expedition of Exploration in the year 1845, From the western settlements of Missouri to the Mexican Border, and from Bent's Fort on the Arkansas to Fort Gibson, via South Fork of Canadian -- North Mexico and Northwestern Texas. Nancy Mower and Don Russell, editors, reprinted by University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. The account of Fremont's 1845 expedition by a member of the expedition.

*Schubert, Frank N., (ed.) March to South Pass: Lieutenant William B. Franklin's Journal of the Kearny Expedition of 1845. Engineer Historical Studies, no. 1, GPO, Wash, DC. Franklin, with Kearny, passed through Bent's a few days before Fremont arrived.

Galvin, John (ed). Through the Country of the Comanche Indians in the Fall of the Year 1845; The Journal of a U.S. Army Expedition led by Lieutenant James W. Abert of the Topographical Engineers. John Howell - Books, San Francisco, 1970. Abert's account of his expedition with Lt Peck after their separation from the Fremont expedition at Bent's.

Galvin, John (ed). Western America in 1846 - 1847; The Original Travel Diary of Lieutenant J. W. Abert. John Howell - Books, San Francisco, 1966. Abert's account of his trip with the Army of the West from Ft Leavenworth, through Bent's, and into New Mexico the year after his trip with Fremont.

*Emory, William H. 1848. Notes of a Military Reconnoissance from Fort Leavenworth in Missouri to San Diego, in California. 30th Congress, 1st session, Senate Document No. 7. Lt Emory's report of the movement of the Army of the West which passed through Bent's Fort.

Traas, Adrian G. From the Golden Gate to Mexico City - The U. S. Army Topographical Engineers in the Mexican War, 1846 - 1848. Wash., DC, CMH Pub 70-10 (GPO), 1992. An excellent overview of the activities of the Corps during the Mexican War.

Topographical Engineers:

Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863. New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1959. 509 p.

Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire. New York, NY. Alfred A. Knopf, 1967

*Schubert, Frank N., ed. The Nation Builders: A Sesquicentennial History of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, 1838-1863. Ft Belvoir: Office of Hist, Corps of Engineers, 1988.

*Schubert, Frank N., ed. Vanguard of Expansion: Army Engineers in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1819-1879. Wash, DC: GPO, 160 p.

* These references are available on-line through the Suggested readings page.

See also the brief articles on the history of the Corps at:

History - Beers

History - Robinson




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