To The Corps!

I spent most of my military career serving either as a Topographic Officer (21C) or a Terrain Analysis Warrant Officer (215D) in the Army Corps of Engineers. It was clear throughout most of my career that the Engineer branch really didn’t know what to do with us. Longstanding US Army doctrine said that the Corps of Engineers ‘owned’ the topographic and terrain analysis (military geography) discipline, but owning and effectively managing are two different things. The field was so small and specialized that the Engineers tried to manage it by exception, as though we all carried a pox that would infect ‘real’ Engineers if we came too close.

However, this was not always the case. For several decades in the first half of the 19th century two military engineer organizations ran parallel to each other in the US Army. One organization was filled with officers with mostly limited engineering backgrounds. This group was detailed to handle general engineering support to field units, tackling simple engineering tasks like improvements to local fortifications, managing the construction of tracks and trails in support of military movement and doing local reconnaissance and field sketching in support of military operations. These were the regular Engineer forces assigned to the field Army. The other group was filled with the cream of the graduating classes from West Point and some of the top graduates of the few engineering schools operating in the US the time. This group handled most of the civil works improvement projects along the coastlines and interior waterways and mapped the new western territories and opened them for exploration and settlement. This last group truly was the civil engineering force for the new nation and was known as the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Topographic Engineer Shield

Uniform button design for officers assigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

From roughly 1812 to 1863 the Corps of Topographical Engineers operated as an independent organization, sometimes as a separate branch within the War Department, sometimes as a wholly autonomous section within the Army Engineers.  The ‘Corps’ was little more than a roster of officers detailed to the Topographical Engineer branch.  There were no enlisted personnel assigned and Topographical Engineers were usually dependent on local Army commanders to provide the needed manpower for projects.

What the Corps of Topographical Engineers did have was some of the best civil engineering minds in the nation.  At a time when trained engineering expertise was hard to come by – civil engineering as a defined discipline wouldn’t emerge until well after the Civil War – the Army and Congress often turned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers to handle most of the early public works planning and management. Topographical Engineers explored and mapped the Great Lakes region, managed canal construction and waterways improvements and even surveyed and planned lighthouse locations. In the 1850s, when the federal government needed to have the lands acquired from Mexico and the newly incorporated State of Texas explored and mapped, they sent in the Topographical Engineers. When Congress needed to know if there were suitable routes through the Rocky Mountains for the planned transcontinental railroad they sent the Topographical Engineers to have a look. Once the Oregon Territory dispute was settled with England the Topographical Engineers moved in to map the rugged interiors of what is today Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

Topographical Engineers Orders

Regulation on how officers assigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers are to be detailed, or appointed, to duties. Excerpted from the ‘Army and Navy Chronicle’, January 2, 1840

In 1863 the Army folded the Corps of Topographical Engineers into the regular Corps of Engineers and a proud organization that provided immeasurable service to the nation disappeared. I guess it was inevitable since there was a desperate need for trained Engineer officers to support the Federal armies during the Civil War, and there was growing overlap in the roles of the two organizations.

The Corps of Engineers’ love affair with it’s mapping and surveying mission waxed and waned over the next 150 years. Engineer officers still found themselves assigned to important topographic missions as America settled it’s western territories, rushed to map its newly acquired territories after the Spanish-American War, threw armies across the seas in World Wars One and Two and stared down the Soviets during the Cold War. I believe the peak of the Corps of Engineers interest in and dedication to its topographic mission came with the establishment of the Army Map Service in WWII. The Engineers realized they had to get damned serious damned fast about this mapping thing and developed the doctrine, equipment, techniques and technology necessary to produce maps and related products to support a world-wide war effort.  This effort continued well into the Cold War, and it was the Army Map Service (and later the Army Topographic Command) that gave us groundbreaking developments such as the Universal Transverse Mercator grid system, the Military Grid Reference System and early research work on an earth-centered geoid that ultimately became WGS 84.

As the Cold War wound down the Corps of Engineers interest in its mapping mission wound down too. As more and more map production was pushed to the national level (to the Defense Mapping Agency, which became the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which became the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) and mapping systems moved from paper to digital and became embedded in battlefield command and control systems, the Engineers seemed on a headlong march to shed their traditional topographic role. Inevitable?  Perhaps.  Wise?  I don’t think so.  Topographic knowledge is the foundation of military expertise. Great generals like Napoleon, Lee and Grant, and Patton all talked about the necessity of being able to visualize the battlefield, the ability to identify ‘good ground’. Someone will always have to paint the battlefield picture for the generals, and that’s the job of the Topographic Engineer.

Although the Corps of Topographical Engineers has faded into history they are not forgotten. There is a small but active group that keeps the history of the early Topographical Engineers alive through research and reenactments. They are the U.S Corps of Topographical Engineers. Their website is a great resource for anyone interested American history and the story of how America grew in the early 19th century.


 U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers historical website

So here’s to the Corps! To a group of dedicated Topographical Engineers that explored, mapped and helped build this great land. Ladies and gentlemen raise your glasses.

To the Corps!

– Brian