U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers



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


The bulk of the work of the Bureau was river and harbor developments. In 1840, it was proposed to spend $1,479,277 on sixty-two projects. Geographically, these jobs were distributed as follows:


Great Lakes, including Lake Champlain



New England Coast



Hudson River to Chesapeake Bay



South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts




The largest single item was $250,000 for deepening the mouths of the Mississippi River. The next was $150,000 for the Delaware Breakwater. The peak amount among the lake ports was $30,000.

The year 1839 witnessed the introduction of two new materials in river and harbor work. One was concrete, which was then more commonly called beton. It was used experimentally in establishing part of the foundation for the mole at Oswego. The other was treated timber, or in the language of the day, mineralized timber. The preservative process (with sulphates of iron and copper) cost about $5 a thousand feet B.M. Concrete shows in the estimates at $6 a cubic yard. Cut stone was at $13.70 and rubble stone with cement mortar at $2.00. Dredging at this time ranged between 20 to 30 cents a cubic yard, though a little later we find excavations at as low as 18 cents.

Captain T. J. Cram, the Topographical Engineers in charge of the pier and breakwater construction at Chicago, hazarded some remarks about the future growth of this fledgling city of the West, which indicate so clear a vision as to reflect credit on the high intelligence and foresight of his Corps. His report made in 1839 is too long to reproduce, but it contained a very able and logical presentation of the reasons which forced him to the conclusion that "Chicago is but the nucleus about which there will grow up, at no remote period, one of the most important towns upon the lakes."

Expansion, 1839-1859

During the next twenty years, the estimates for Chicago harbor rose from $30,000 to $220,000. This advance in appropriations was indicative of a general policy. For example, the 1839 estimates for work one the St. Mary’s River, Georgia, were $7,500 and the 1858 estimate was $77,546. An exception to the general expansion appears in the much reduced estimate for work in removing obstructions from the mouths of the Mississippi River, which shrank from $250,000 in 1838 to $13,177.95 in 1858; though in the latter year, $172,900 was asked for the improvement of the river itself, for which nothing was asked in 1839.

The scope of the Corps was increased so that its duties included the construction of light-houses. This work was added by an act of March 3, 1847, which brought no joy to the Chief of Bureau. Colonel Abert in his report for 1850 said that he was at a loss to understand why this job had been wished off on his Corps. "Certain it is that this office was not called upon for any opinion upon the subject, not for any plans or estimates in reference to any of the works." He made Captain W. H. Swift superintendent of light-house construction, which then included light-houses on Sand Key and Carysfort Reef (Florida), Brandywine Shoal (Delaware Bay), Whale’s Back (New Hampshire), Minot’ Rock (Massachusetts), and Wangoshance (Michigan).

The law directed that the light-house on Sand Key should be "a screw-pile light." It raised the ire of Colonel Abert for Congress to prescribe in purely engineering matters; and he so expressed himself in his annual report (1850).

….Mitchell’s screw-pile, the only ever known to have been applied to such purposed. Generally speaking, it may be considered an erroneous course for a law to prescribe a plan. Its tendency is to cramp the engineer; and too generally these plans in laws are rather influenced by some projector of a favorite scheme than by any serious and professional investigation, and the engineer is blamed because of consequences made necessary by the law. A striking instance of this my be found in the Potomac bridge, in reference to which the general plan was a direction of law.

The mention of the Potomac Bridge recalls that the street paving in Washington was done under the supervision of the Topographical Engineers. The state of streets and drains in the capitol, and the ideas of Congress on the subject, at this time may be somewhat exemplified by mentioning the fact that the Chief felt called upon to explain in detail why he refused to proceed with the paving of Fifteenth Street, on the east side of the Treasury Building, for which Congress had appropriated $1,500. He said that the need for a sewer was already felt, and he respectfully suggested that it would be folly to lay the paving, and then in a few years have to dig it up in order to put in a sewer. If Congress would please give him $2,160 more, he would lay the necessary drain first and so do the job economically. Accurate topographical knowledge of the terrain is essential to all military operations. The Topographical Engineers are the eyes of the commanding general. With the information which they furnish him, said the Chief of Topographical Engineers in one of the reports:

War becomes a science, in which intellect will ever predominate over numbers; without it, war becomes the mere exhibition of physical force; slow, expensive, and often disastrous, as numbers and courage can alone be relied upon. Unless a knowledge of the country through which an army has to move is possessed, the army can act only on the defensive, and if his knowledge has to be obtained in the presence of an enemy, it is always at great loss of time, necessarily imperfect, and at great hazard of the services and lives of invaluable officer.

….Now this knowledge, a duty of the corps of Topographical Engineers to collect, can be well obtained only in time of peace. Peace is, therefore, the period which best enables a people to acquire the information necessary for the defense of their own soil…

The Corps of Topographical Engineers was indefatigable in both peace and war in collecting geographical and topographical data. It served in all the wars which were fought from the War of 1812 to the War between the States. It was represented in the field in probably all the domestic hostilities and disturbances from the Seminole War of 1817 to the Mormon Rebellion of 1857. Major Long and Captain Young, Topographical Engineers, served with General Jackson in 1817. The latter was with Old Hickory in his private war against the Spaniards in Florida – which was embarked upon without the authority of Congress under the guise of punishing (to borrow the language of the Senate) a "miserable, undisciplined banditti of deluded Indians and fugitive slaves." Captain J. H. Simpson served as chief topographical officer with the forces in Utah. He was assisted by Captain J. W. Abert, Second Lieutenant J. L. K. Smith, and Brevet Second Lieutenant H. S. Putnam.

Mexican War

Two-thirds of the officers of the Corps served actively in the field during the Mexican War. At the conclusion of peace most of them returned from Mexico either maimed with wounds or sick from the fatigue and exposure. The reports of the commanding generals paid frequent and brilliant compliments to their services. The Chief of the Corps said:

The Brevets which have been bestowed attest an accordance of the judgment of the Executive with these compliments. But, in addition to their regular corps duties, several of the corps occupied and exercised important military commands. Captain J. E. Johnston, of the corps, now brevet colonel in the army, in the exercise of the corps duties, until after the battle of Cerro Gordo, where he was severely wounded while reconnoitering the enemy’s position, was afterwards made lieutenant colonel of the regiment of voltigeurs, and in that capacity acquired great reputation for the skill he displayed in the drill and discipline of the regiment, and for his gallantry in command on several important occasions. On the peace, he returned to his corps as a captain under a law of the last session and with the brevet of a colonel.

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