Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

By Earl J. Hess | Go to book overview
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1 Engineering War

Responsibility for fortifications in the pre–Civil War army rested with the Corps of Engineers, the elite of the military establishment. Created initially by the Second Continental Congress in 1779 and renewed in different form by the Congress of the new government in 1794, the corps was institutionalized in its current form in 1802. A separate group of topographical engineers, responsible for mapmaking, was created in the War of 1812 and given its own institutional status in 1838 as the Corps of Topographical Engineers. The U.S. Engineer Department was created immediately after the War of 1812 to serve the administrative needs of the corps. It was headed by the chief engineer.1

The Corps of Engineers owed its status to its role as keeper of a body of technical knowledge and its tight connection with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Created in 1802, the academy had a curriculum that was heavily oriented toward engineering. Political support for it stemmed largely from the assumption that West Point could produce a number of well-trained engineers who would eventually return to civilian life with their technical skills. The Corps of Engineers controlled the academy. Only engineer officers were appointed as superintendents, and most of the faculty were former or current members of the corps. Beginning in 1842, the assistant professor of engineering was required to participate in postgraduate training in military engineering under the academy's most famous faculty member, Dennis Hart Mahan, the acknowledged expert on fortifications in the United States. Mahan put his students through a rigorous pace in this course, requiring each one to design a fortification for a particular site and plan an attack against it.

Cadets also were exposed to practical experience in field fortification. In his third year at the academy, Cyrus B. Comstock took a course called Practical Engineering. He and his classmates spent two hours every day making fascines, gabions, and sap rollers. The class regularly visited Washington Valley, where the only company of engineers in the army maintained a demonstration site. Here the cadets watched as saps and parallels were made, inspected "a small lunette with palisaded gorge," or looked at the effects of

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