Home / Articles / The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in American History
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is America’s oldest and largest engineering organization. It is also the most controversial. Since 1802, when Congress created the Corps within the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the army engineers have brought science into government and extended the federal responsibility for natural resources. As the construction arm of Congress, the engineers managed some of the world’s most monumental construction. As the nation’s premier builders of water projects-dams, dikes, canals, harbors, hydro facilities, and navigation channels-the Corps promoted a systems approach that standardized construction, elevated the power of Congress, and professionalized public works.
The story of the Corps rarely intersects with the traditional textbook history of the United States. Corps history, however, reveals many American themes. Beast and benefactor-praised as a nation builder, elsewhere denounced as an out of control bulldozer -the agency straddles deep divisions. In a bigger-is-better nation, the Corps had been grandiose. Yet the Corps is also at odds with American traditions. In a nation committed to private enterprise and states’ rights, the Corps has been denounced as a military agent of big-government centralization. Army engineering lent support to the grand construction projects that were the target of resistance to federal public works.
Origins of the Civil Works Mission
The Corps emerged from the formative conflicts that divided the young republic during the Federalist Era. George Washington’s America stood at a geopolitical crossroads between two great rivals in Europe: Britain and France. Britain was the great center of industrial capitalism. Its grandest construction projects were built by self-made private enterprise. France was the center of science and formal academic training. France’s most magnificent projects were tax-financed and military inspired.
Young America mixed those traditions. Antebellum America, like Britain, relied on private enterprise and apprenticed craftsmen. The first well-engineered highways were private turnpikes. Early canal projects were privately financed through the purchase of stock. Maritime entrepreneurs built warehouses and wharves without federal aid. It remained for Alexander Hamilton, as George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, to develop the constitutional arguments that led to federal support for public projects. Hamilton advanced the idea that roads, canals, and other public construction were necessary for public safety. The Constitution, said Hamilton, implied a federal authority to build lighthouses for the safety of shipping, to remove obstructions to river commerce, and to build highways for troops. Thomas Jefferson, although suspicious of bureaucracy, admired the French talent for comprehensive planning and scientific professionalism. The result was a so-called “mixed enterprise” that allowed Congress to purchase stock and otherwise subsidize local construction. Jefferson envisioned a military academy for engineers that would professionalize the army and coordinate public works.
French engineering inspired the Corps. At the U.S. Military Academy, an engineering school, West Pointers learned French, studied mathematics, and grounded engineering in theory. French schooling left the West Pointers with an attraction to federally funded networks of projects and a preference for complex design. In 1816, President James Madison recruited French general Simon Bernard to head a U.S. board of fortification planners. The Monroe administration expanded Bernard’s authority to roads and canals. After 1824, with the passage of the General Survey Act and the first federal river improvement act, the French-led Corps of Engineers assumed an active role as transportation planners. The Corps supervised the massive Delaware Breakwater. Together with the U.S. Bureau of Topographical Engineers, the Corps planned lighthouses, bridges, and Great Lakes ports of refuge from Buffalo to Duluth. French-trained army engineers pioneered urban planning and sanitation engineering in Washington, D.C.
In antebellum times, when Congress hotly debated the constitutionality of federal internal improvements, the most expensive federal projects were seacoast fortifications. From 1808 to 1861, army engineers built one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of fortified harbors-more than 50 massive projects. Army engineers also surveyed the competing routes for the Pacific Railroad. In antebellum times their numbers were never more than 100, yet the engineering elite of the army planned a dozen major canals, a national highway, hundreds of beach-front dikes, and thousands of miles of navigation channels. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Corps loaned officers to corporations as a form of federal aid.
The U.S. Civil War settled, among other issues, the constitutional question of internal improvements. For Lincoln Republicans used the reorganized Corps to promote industrial development. It was an age of innovation-of rivers that resembled canals, the so-called slack river projects of the Ohio valley. It was an age of concrete, the motorized canal lock, and the suction-cutter dredge. The Delaware became a 30-foot channel; the Ohio, a series of locks and dams. Congress, increasingly powerful, spent freely and the Corps became a funnel for federal money to local constituents. Gradually the Corps also took responsibility for planning a system of flood levees on the Lower Mississippi. After 1902, civilian agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the dam-building U.S. Reclamation Service rose to challenge the Corps monopoly over monumental construction. But the Corps, still the favorite of Congress, remained the nation’s foremost authority on water construction. Broad powers of implementation allowed the engineers to broker public assistance and direct federal aid.
Three missions have since dominated the Corps civil works. The first is navigation improvement-the channeling of rivers, the dredging of harbors, and the construction of locks and dams. Corps-built navigation channels move oil from Tulsa to refineries above New Orleans. Barges of wheat and corn lock through Army engineered rivers from Omaha to Chicago. Soo Locks allow ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes. The Corps’s Saint Lawrence Seaway connects the North Atlantic to the Great Lakes. Mississippi tows push river barges through the Corps’s slackwater staircase from St. Louis to St. Paul.
Twentieth century navigation improvements contributed to the Corps’s decentralization. The Corps answered to local shippers. Powerful river and harbor lobbies fractured the agency into regional divisions and districts, each with its own character. In New Orleans, for example, the Corps became closely tied to powerful shipping interests. The problem of mud bars in the delta channels below New Orleans became a focus of agency science. New Orleans evolved into a Corps-built leveed fortress of canals, floodwalls, and dikes.
A second mission is flood control. This mission began in 1850 when a flood on the Mississippi excited the attention of Congress. After 1879, with the creation of the Corps-led Mississippi River Commission, engineers developed a sophisticated science of floodway design. In 1917, after another bad flood year on the Mississippi, Congress turned again to the Corps. On the Mississippi River and Sacramento River, the agency methodically networked pumps, levees, and spillways. In 1927, when the great Mississippi flood became the nation’s most horrific disaster, the Corps emerged as a target of public dispute over military thinking and the role of the army as a protector of public safety. Yet the Corps had powerful patrons. In 1936, Congress expanded the federal flood program to the 48 states with $310 million for 250 projects.
The grandest result of the program was the Mississippi River and Tributaries project-the MR&T. Its vast system of levees and spillways funnels the dangerous river from St. Louis to New Orleans.
The Corps is also a builder of dams. Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River, completed in 1924, added hydropower to the Corps’ waterway mission. Bonneville Dam on the Columbia and Fort Peck on the Missouri were monumental examples of multipurpose construction, merging navigation with flood protection, recreation, irrigation, hydro, and erosion control.
Environmental protection, a third mission, grew from the same scientific tradition that made the Corps an expert on floods. Corps engineers led the scientific surveys that mapped water resources. The engineers also surveyed Yellowstone and Yosemite parks. In 1899, the so-called Refuse Act extended the environmental mission, making the engineers responsible for obstructions in navigable streams. Here began the Corps’s controversial permit authority to regulate dumping. Legislation such as the 1972 and 1974 Clean Water Acts expanded that authority. With the rise of the environmental movement, and the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, the Corps became the steward of fraying coastlines and vanishing swamps.
Teaching the Corps: Lessons Learned
Teaching the Corps’s remarkable story illuminates some deeply American conflicts over the role of the peacetime Army and science in policymaking. Heirs to the French tradition of the scientific expert, the Corps moved from fortifications, to roads, to river and harbor improvement. The growth of the Corps divided the engineering profession. Builders in the craft tradition damned the Corps as aristocratic. Advocates of small government feared that army engineering might trample on states’ rights. Anger at the Corps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina emerges from a long history of opposition to army civil works. There has seldom been a time in U.S. history, not even wartime, when the Corps was not a lightning rod of controversy over the scientific expert in national affairs.
Gaining perspective on the rise of national planning is another reason to study the Corps. Only the Corps had both the training and national stature to broker public resources, to map basinwide networks of river and harbor improvements, to regulate and plan. Routinely denounced, the Corps, nevertheless, relied on powerful patrons and coped with political change.
The story of the Army Corps, finally, gives pause to consider what waterway construction has wrought. In 200 years more than 15,000 miles of rivers have been dredged for navigation. More than 300 American rivers have been impounded for flood control. Erosion-control dikes have aggravated erosion. Wetlands became subdivisions. Corps dams quiet the rivers, killing fish. Corps levees sink Louisiana by denying the lowland marshes their annual blanket of silt. The Corps-for better or for worse-has been the agent of this modernization. Americans have learned that every engineering solution has secondary consequences.