U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers



William M. Robinson, Jr.
Major, Corps of Engineers Reserve


The Corps of Topographical Engineers had its beginning in 1813. For an even half century thereafter the engineers of the United States Army were divided into two services. As the exigencies of the War of 1812 brought the offspring corps into life, so the experience of the first years of the War of Secession dictated its return to the parent Corps of Engineers.

Subordination to the Corps of Engineers

At the beginning of 1812 the Corps of Engineers consisted of only sixteen officers and four cadets; but in anticipation of war with England (which was declared on June 18) it was increased, though not commensurate with the needs of the service. This deficiency was somewhat overcome by the appointment of sixteen Topographical Engineers for duty on the staff of general officers. Upon the conclusion of peace in 1815, though the Line of the Army was spared, the staff departments were virtually abolished, leaving only two topographical officers on duty. A little over a year later (April 24, 1816), the General Staff was revived, and a few of the Topographical Engineers were restored. These officers, ten in number, continued as an integral part of the General Staff until the reduction act of March 2, 1821 – which decreased the army from an aggregate of twelve thousand, six hundred and sixty-four officers and men to six thousand, one hundred and eighty-three. The section authorizing the retention of the Topographical Engineers was vague. The President assumed that it was the intention of Congress to set these officers apart as a separate corps, and so created the Bureau of Topographical Engineers in the War Department. The highest ranking topographical officer, Brevet Major John Anderson, was made Chief of Bureau; and the ten officers of the new corps were put upon a separate promotion list. Now, the Chief of Engineers was a colonel, and he considered – and it was so recognized – that the Corps of Topographical Engineers was subsidiary to the Corps of Engineers and a part of his command. This condition of subordination persisted for ten years, when the Secretary of War (Randolph, acting during the transition from Eaton to Cass) promulgated a regulation which declared that, "the Topographical Bureau will hereafter constitute a distinct bureau of the War Department, and the officer in charge thereof will communicate directly with the Secretary of War, from whom he will receive all his orders, and to whom he will make all his reports." The regulation failed to specify the duties of the respective corps. The result was that confusion and want of system continued in engineer affairs.

The rank of the Chief of Topographical Engineers, in the meantime, had been raised to lieutenant colonel by brevet. A small body of civil engineers had been added under an act of April 30, 1824. About thirty artillery and infantry officers had been detached temporarily from the line for topographical duties. Yet the Chief, now Brevet Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Abert, considered that the engineers at his command were too few for the adequate discharge of the duties of a corps de ponts et chaussees, which he conceived was a more proper function of his corps than of the Corps of Engineers. In his annual report of November, 1835, he said that it seemed to him "an unequivocal dictate of common sense to say, that the corps which is employed in making the survey, digesting the plan, and forming the estimate of a work, Is, from the nature of the case, more fully imbued than any other can be, with the considerations and unity of view which the constructions involve, and therefore better qualified to superintend them." There does not seem to have been much, if any friction between the officers of the two corps. The officers of the Corps of Engineers regarded the superintendence of civil works as an embarrassment to the proper function of their corps, and befriended the propositions, which the Secretary of War put before Congress, for the rearrangement of duties. At length a relief law was passed of July 5, 1838.

An Independent Corps

The act increased the rank and numbers of Topographical officers and the dignity of the Bureau. The rank of the Chief of Topographical Engineers was place on a parity with that of the Chief of Engineers, who at this time was Colonel J. G. Totten. The Corps of Engineers, however, remained the stronger organization; for, while the Corps of Topographical Engineers was increased from ten to thirty-six officers, the Corps of Engineers was increased from twenty-two to forty-three officers. In fact, the Topographical Bureau really lost in personnel by the act, for Section 31 prohibited the detail of officers of the line on works of internal improvement. Thirty-two attached officers were thus lost and only twenty-six permanent officers were picked up. But the drawing of a distinct line between the duties of the two corps was a comfort to all concerned. The Engineer Department was to have charge of all improvements of a military character, such as fortification; and the Bureau of Topographical Engineers was to undertake all War Department works of a civil nature. The two corps exchange existing projects so as to bring old work within the new cleavage.

Work of the Corps in 1839

The sudden accession of many new works sixty-six distinct projects of breakwater, harbors, rivers, and roads – produce intense activity among the Topographical Engineers, who were already engaged upon a number of surveys. Six officers were with General Taylor fighting the war in Florida as field and topographical engineers. Colonel Abert, nevertheless, reported, in 1839, that he had a sufficient number of officers to execute the various missions of the Bureau. But he complained about the poor quality of the civilian agents, the difficulty in procuring and subsisting satisfactory labor, in getting boats, baggage-wagons, instruments, and other items for the survey parties, and especially about the niggardliness of Congress, which prevented and economic construction program and thereby forced the Bureau’s contracts into a "species of retail trade" which "enhanced prices." To gain some idea of the proportion of the public works of that day, let us examine the reports for 1839 and the estimates for the succeeding year.

There were surveys under way of the Yellow and Suwannee Rivers in Florida, on the Des Moines and Iowa Rivers, on the Red Cedar River in Iowa, at Oswego and Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario, for a route for a railroad from Milwaukee on Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, and in the Indian Territory to define the tribal lines. A survey party had for some years been operating in the country west of the Mississippi and north of Missouri during the summer season. By the end of 1839, this party had determined astronomically one hundred and forty positions and had collected "a vast fund of topographical knowledge." But the Chief of Topographical Engineers was anxious to speed up the acquisition of "knowledge of so vast a region, bordering upon so extensive a line of our settlements, inhabited by a numerous, warlike, and well-armed race, bound to us by no ties of common feeling or interest, and with whom peace can be counted upon no longer than their fears or their whims may induce them to keep it." Apparently the good Colonel’s anxieties had been aroused by the Niagara complications of 183701838 and the unsettled state of the Maine boundary dispute with Great Britain. To rush the Canadian frontier surveys, the Chief asked an extra appropriation of $18,000. The usual appropriation to carry on the general survey work of the corps was only $30,000, which stands in pitiful contrast with the present day expenditures of the Geological Survey.

The road work carried on by the Corps included fifteen projects in the Northwest, mostly in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, amounting to $250,147, and one project in Arkansas at $30,000. Appropriations ($18,761) had been previously made for six roads in the Territory of Florida, but the prevailing Indian hostilities had prevented the requisite surveys. Colonel Abert was not in favor of paving the roads with gravel or macadam. It was his idea that the obligation of the Bureau was discharged when the road was opened; that is, when the timber had been "cut down and removed, the undergrowth grubbed up and removed, ditches dug on the sides of the road when required, swamps made passable by the customary log structures, and bridges thrown over streams that are not conveniently fordable, leaving all artificial structures of a road bed to the future efforts of the local authorities, or to positive legal enactments by the General Government."

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from Robinson, William M., Jr.  "The U.S. Topographical Engineers."  The Military Engineer Vol. 23, no. 130, (July-August 1931): pp. 303-306 
    This copyrighted material is used with the permission of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME), publisher of The Military Engineer in which this article appeared in its volume 23, no. 130, (July-August 1931): pp. 303-306



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