U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers

topog north arrowA History of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, 1818-1863


Henry P. Beers



Topographical engineers were authorized for War Department duty by an act of March 3, 1813, to conduct engineering surveys for military purposes and to explore routes for the passage of troops, although they were not authorized in an act of March 3, 1815, establishing the army's size and composition. Reauthorized by an act of April 24, 1816, the Bureau was assigned to the Engineer Department by a War Department general order, July 2, 1818, and made directly responsible to Chief of Engineers. The Topographical Bureau was established in August 1818, pursuant to an Office of the Chief Engineer order, August 1, 1818, designating Maj. Isaac Roberdeau (photo) as Topographical Engineer to the Engineer Department and assigning him to the Office of Chief Engineer. By General Order 26, War Department, June 22, 1831, the Topographical Bureau was separated from the Office of Chief Engineer and designated an independent War Department staff organization, with direct supervision of topographical engineers, however, remaining with the Chief of Engineers. During this period, topographical engineers had acquired responsibility for civil works improvements in addition to military functions. Finally, by an act of July 5, 1838, they were organized into a separate Corps of Topographical Engineers and placed under the supervision of Chief of the Topographical Bureau. By an order of the Secretary of War, August 1, 1838, all Federal Government civil engineering projects were transferred to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Military functions performed by the Corps of Topographical Engineers were transferred to the Corps of Engineers in 1839. During the Civil War, the Topographical Bureau and the Corps of Topographical Engineers were abolished by an act of March 3, 1863, with functions transferred to the Office of Chief Engineer and Corps of Engineers, respectively.  After this date, there are no references in the Regular Army to officers' assignments as topographical engineers, nor were there any topographical engineering units within the Corps of Engineers until October 20, 1917 at Camp Devins, Massachusetts. This unit was the 29th Engineer Topographic Battalion which went to France with the American Expeditionary Force.*


For fifty years there existed in the United States Army a Corps of Topographical Engineers, whose services in peace and in war were of great importance to the country.  At first concerned with military surveys and fortifications, their operations came to include internal improvements, exploration, assistance to the Treasury Department in the Coast Survey and in the construction of lighthouses, and the Lake Survey.  In handling these various activities, the Topographical Engineers developed a body of capable officers, some of whom became famous.

 Topographical Engineers were first appointed during the War of 1812.  In that struggle as in the Revolutionary War, when Robert Erskine, Simeon Dewitt, and Thomas Hutchins performed topographical duties for the army, there was need for such a corps.  An act of Congress approved March 8, 1813 authorized the appointment, as part of the general staff, of eight topographical engineers with the brevet rank, pay and emoluments of majors of cavalry, and eight assistants with the brevet rank, pay and emoluments of captains of infantry.  The appointments made were largely from the line of the army, as follows: April 12, 1818, Maj. John Anderson, Maj. Paul H. Perrault, April 29, 1818, Maj. Isaac Roberdeau; August 3, 1813, Maj. Simon Z. Watson; April 1, 1818, Capt. Thomas Clark; April 12, 1813, Capt. James Kearney; July 20, 1813, Capt. Daniel Rose; August 3, 1813, Capt. Benjamin Conner.  Changes made in the following year included three separations and as many appointments.  Watson died on February 1; the appointment of Conner was negated by the Senate on March 4; and, on May 12, Clark was transferred to the artillery.  Maj. James C. Warren was appointed a brevet major on March 30; John J. Abert secured a similar commission on November 22; and on July 15 Gamaliel Pease was appointed captain.

 As prescribed in the regulations, the duties of the topographical engineers were "to make such surveys and exhibit such delineations as the commanding generals shall direct; to make plans of all military positions which the army may occupy and of their respective vicinities, indicating the various roads, rivers, creeks, ravines, hills, woods, and villages to be found therein; to accompany all reconnoitering parties sent out to obtain intelligence of the movements of the enemy or of his positions; to make sketches of their routes, accompanied by written notices of everything worthy of observation therein; to keep a journal of every day's movement when the army is in march, noticing the variety of ground, of buildings, of culture, and distances, and state of roads between common points throughout the march of the day; and lastly, to exhibit the positions of contending armies on the fields of battle, and the dispositions made, either for attack or defense."

 The Topographical Engineers were disbanded in 1815, for the act of March 3 reducing the Army, following the conclusion of the war with Great Britain, made no provision for their retention.  They were honorably discharged on June 10, 1815.  Under his authority to retain officers whose services were important, the President, however, kept Majors Anderson and Roberdeau on duty.  By special orders of the War Department they were directed to complete surveys on the northern frontier and Lake Champlain.  Their reports on these surveys were submitted to Chief Engineer Joseph G. Swift.  In a memoir addressed to Secretary of War William H. Crawford on January 16, 1816, Anderson and Roberdeau recommended the completion of the frontier military surveys of the country and their execution by a corps of topographical engineers under the direction of the Chief of Engineers.  The law of April 24, 1816, organizing the general staff of the Army, provided for three topographical engineers and two assistants for each division.  Majors Anderson, Roberdeau, and Abert were reinstated on May 2, 1816 and were assigned to the Northern Division under Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown.  Major Kearney was reappointed on April 29, 1816, and on the same day Stephen H. Long and John Wilson were given appointments of the same rank; all three were assigned to the Southern Division under Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson.  On February 17, 1817 Major Perrault was reappointed to take the place of Wilson, who had resigned on September 15, l816, and on February 19, Hugh Young and on March 6, William T. Poussin were appointed captains.


In 1816, following an appropriation by Congress, work was inaugurated upon a system of fortifications upon the Atlantic Coast, which had been successfully invaded by the British during the war.  A Board of Engineers for Fortifications was organized by a regulation of the War Department of November 16, 1816 to conduct examinations and to select sites for forts.  General Simon Bernard, who had been a distinguished engineer under Napoleon, was made an assistant engineer on November 16, 1816 to have charge of this work.  He continued In the position until 1831 when he resigned to return to France.  The Topographical Engineers were placed under the orders of the Board to perform surveys, and thereafter part of them were engaged in this task.  Roberdeau, Abert, Kearney, and Poussin were the earliest officers detailed to the Board.  Two new captains, John Le Conte, and Hartman Bache, were also attached to it in 1818.

 Maj. Stephen H. Long undertook in 1816 a series of explorations and surveys in the West which were to occupy him for a number of years.  His earliest operations were surveys of the Illinois, Fox, Wisconsin, Upper Mississippi, and Minnesota Rivers in connection with the establishment of forts on the expanding military frontier.  During 1819-1820 he conducted an expedition to the rocky Mountains from which chiefly developed the myth of the "Great American Desert."  While exploring the Minnesota River and the Red River of the North in 1823, he determined the northern boundary at the 49th parallel at Pembina.

 Soon after his appointment, Captain Hugh Young was performing topographical duties with Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army in it operations against the Seminole Indians in the South.

 From the time of the reestablishment of the Topographical Engineers by the law of April 24, 1816 until their organization into a Corps in 1838 few changes in personnel occurred.  Throughout these years the body was limited to ten officers by the law, and by the act of March 2, 1821 fixing the military peace establishment.  The appointments of John Le Conte and Hartman Bache as captains on April 18, 1818 and July 24, 1818, respectively, brought the total up to the limit.  To replace Hugh Young, who died January 3, 1822, William G. McNeill was appointed a brevet captain on January 15, 1829, creating a vacancy which was filled on the same day by Brevet. Capt. James D. Graham.  William Turnbull was given a similar appointment on August 20, 1831.  The resignation of Poussin on July 31, 1832 resulted in the transfer from the artillery on the following day of William H. Swift as a brevet captain.  William G. Williams was taken into the Corps on January 28, 1834, as a result of the death on that day of Major Perrault.  On September 14 of the same year, when John Anderson died, Augustus Canfield was appointed brevet captain.  The resignation of W. G. McNeill to take up railroad engineering on November 23, 1837 resulted in the appointment of Campbell Graham as a brevet Captain.  All of these new officers were graduates of the Military Academy who had had details on topographical duty. 


The Topographical Engineers were placed under the Engineer Department by regulations of 1818.  A General Order issued on July 2 assigned them to that Department and made them subject to the orders of its chief and commanding engineers.  By a further regulation of the War Department a Topographical Bureau was established in Washington in August under the Engineer Department.  Major Roberdeau was placed in charge of the office, which was regarded as necessary to collect and preserve the results of the operations of the Topographical Engineers.

 A law of April 14, 1818 charged the Army and the Navy with the Survey of the Coast, which had been instituted in 1816 under Ferdinand R. Hassler, a Swiss engineer who was given an appointment in the Treasury Department.  The pressure of other tasks kept the Army from undertaking a systematic survey.  A number of detached surveys of harbors and bays were made, however, particularly by John J. Abert.

 A further occupation developed for the already overworked Topographical Engineers in 1824 in connection with internal improvements.  A Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements consisting of Gen. Simon Bernard, Col. Joseph G. Totten, Chief Engineer of the Army, and John L. Sullivan, an experienced civil engineer, had been formed to carry into effect an act of April 30, 1824 providing for surveys, plans, and estimates for roads and canals.  Authorization was included in the act for the employment of two or more civil engineers and officers of the Corps of Engineers.  During the 1824 season, survey parties engaged on internal improvements were led by Majors Abert and Kearney and Captain McNeill, while Captain Poussin was on immediate duty with the Board.  One of the earliest projects developed by these officers was the survey of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  In 1828 Perrault submitted a report upon a trans-Florida canal.  Many enterprises engaged the services of the Topographical Engineers during succeeding years.  So numerous were the demands upon the War Department for their services, that it was impossible to fill all the requests.

 The enlarged program of the Topographical Engineers resulted in recommendations for their expansion and for their formation into a corps similar to that of the Corps of Engineers.  Unlike other Army corps, the Topographical Engineers were without a responsible head. Under the existing law no officer of the body could attain higher rank than major.  The President could confer brevet lieutenant colonelcies, but he could not increase salaries.  Majors Abert, Long, and Kearney presented a statement of their views to Secretary of War James Barbour on December 22, 1826.  They proposed that a recommendation be made to Congress for a corps of one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, two majors, eight captains, ten first lieutenants, ten second lieutenants, and ten brevet second lieutenants.  Congress took up the matter that session, but failed to pass a bill.

 Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Abert, who was ordered to Washington on January 31, 1829 to succeed Roberdeau, continued the movement for a better organization for the Topographical Engineers.  Abert soon realized that the Chief Engineer ever since the establishment of the Topographical Bureau had retained control of the Topographical Engineers, and that the officer in charge of the Topographical Bureau had been doing little more than caring for the records and instruments.  He urged the Secretary of War, P. B. Porter, in a letter of February 12, 1829 to place the operations of the  Topographical Engineers under the superintendence of the head of the Topographical Bureau instead of continuing that officer as a "Subordinate Clerk to the Chief Engineer."  The time had arrived, he believed, for the separation of the Topographical Engineers from the Corps of Engineers and the establishment of the Topographical Bureau as an independent division responsible directly to the Secretary of War.  An immediate result of the communication was the issuance of an order by Chief Engineer Charles Gratiot on February 20, 1829 making Abert assistant to the Chief Engineer with authority to prepare and issue with the approval of the Chief Engineer, instructions and orders to the Topographical Engineers.  As Abert pointed out to Gratiot on August 11, however, he was unable to prepare instructions because he did not receive the correspondence which would provide him with the requisite knowledge.

 The changes sought by Abert were soon accomplished.  He was made a member of the Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements by an order of June 10, 1830, which rescinded that part of the order of February 20, 1829 making him an assistant to the Chief Engineer. John H. Eaton, who served as Secretary of War from March 1829 to June 1881, favored legislation for the increase of the Topographical Engineers, whose activities he regarded as important and necessary.  An improvement in the status of this body was effected by General Order No. 26 issued by the Secretary of War on June 22, 1831.  This made the Topographical Bureau an independent office of the War Department directly responsible to the Secretary of War.  Reports, returns, et cetera, from the officers of the Topographical Engineers were to be made to the officer in charge of the Bureau.  Besides the Topographical Engineers, the Bureau employed in this year the services of twelve civil engineers and thirty officers of the line detailed from the artillery and infantry.

 During the 1830's the Topographical Engineers were extensively engaged upon internal improvements both governmental and private.  Numerous surveys were made of rivers, roads, canals, railroads, and harbors in all parts of the country.  After the surveys had been made by the Topographical Engineers, government projects for the improvement of rivers and the construction of roads were carried out on contracts superintended by the Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster's Department.  Stephen H. Long and William G. McNeill worked upon the survey of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  Long gained a reputation as a railroad engineer, and was employed upon projects in New England and in the South.  In the District of Columbia the Topographical Engineers superintended the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal aqueduct over the Potomac River at Georgetown, in order that the canal could reach an ocean connection at Alexandria.  William Turnbull was in charge of the project from 1832 to 1843.

 Upon the reestablishment of the Coast Survey in the Treasury Department in 1836, the Topographical Engineers again became associated with this work.  Capt. William H. Swift was assigned to serve as assistant to Hassler.  Thereafter until the abolishment of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, one or two officers were assigned to the Coast Survey.  Altogether Swift served from 1833 to 1843.  Other officers who served on the Survey were: Joseph E. Johnston, 1844-1846; Andrew A. Humphreys, 1844-1850; Thomas J. Cram, 1847-1855; James H. Simpson, 1856-1858; Martin L. Smith. 1857-1859.

 Beginning in 1834 the Topographical Engineers were employed in connection with the construction of lighthouses.  These were turned over to the Treasury Department for administration upon their completion.  Surveys for a lighthouse in Delaware Bay were conducted in 1834 Major Hartman Bache was occupied during much of his career in the Topographical Engineers upon lighthouse duty.  From 1862-1870, he served as a member of the Lighthouse Board.  A law of March 3,1847, placing the construction of certain lighthouses under the superintendence of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, kept some of its officers busy for over five years.  When the U. S. Lighthouse Board was established in 1852, Lieut. Col. James Kearney became a member and Lieut. Edmund Hardcastle its secretary.

 In 1836 several Topographical Engineers were withdrawn from internal improvement projects and ordered to Florida for service with the Army against the Seminole Indians, whose opposition to removal to the West had resulted in warfare.  The Topographical Engineers had been so occupied with other undertakings during years past that they had had no time for military surveys and explorations designed to secure information for use in war.  The lack of such data pertaining to Florida seriously impeded operations against the Seminoles who sought refuge in the unknown fastnesses of that country.  In 1837 Washington Hood compiled a "Map of the Seat of War in East Florida" from data on hand in the Topographical Bureau.

Throughout the war, topographical officers and other officers of the Army were constantly employed with the troops upon their expeditions securing topographical information.  After several years of reconnaissances, a topographical map of Florida was prepared by Capt. John Mackay and Lieut. Jacob E. Blake of the Topographical Engineers by order of Gen. Zachary Taylor, who commanded the army in Florida.  The map was compiled from surveys and reconnaissances performed by army officers and from previously published maps.  Embodied in this map was the work of the following Topographical Engineers:  Capts. Walter B. Guion and John Mackay and Lieuts. Thomas B Linnard, Jacob E. Blake, John W. Gunnison, and Robert M. McLane.

 Improvements in the map were made in subsequent years, as a result of the continued operations of Topographical Engineers.  Another map was compiled by Captain John McClellan and Lieutenant A. A. Humphreys in 1843 from examinations made by officers of the Topographical Engineers, Ordnance, Dragoons, Artillery, Infantry, and the Navy.  Acknowledgment was made to the following Topographical officers for important information:  C. Graham, Guion, McClellan, Johnston, Mackay, Linnard, Humphreys, Blake, Allen, Warner, Gunnison, McLane, Palmer, and Pope.  In 1845, Lieut. W. B. Franklin prepared a "Map of the Peninsula of Florida," reduced from that of McClellan and Humphreys with corrections made possible by additional surveys.  Another map was prepared by Joseph C. Ives which incorporated additional data gathered from surveys by Lieuts. M. L. Smith and F. T. Bryan.  During 1845 to 1847 Maj. Hartman Bache, Capts. Campbell Graham and Howard Stansbury, and Lieuts. Charles N. Hagner and William R. Palmer executed a survey of the Dry Tortugas and the reefs of Florida which added considerably to the geographical knowledge of the peninsula. 


Throughout the 1830's Lieutenant Colonel Abert continued to urge the formation of a Corps of Topographical Engineers.  He pointed out that the increase of the Topographical Engineers and their organization into a corps would be less expensive than to continue to hire civil engineers to perform the work which had long been too extensive for the Topographical Engineers.  He further indicated that efficiency would be promoted by ending the practice of detailing officers from the line of the Army, for much time had to be spent in training them.  Abert's efforts were energetically supported by Secretaries of War Lewis Cass and Joel R. Poinsett.  The Seminole war in Florida not only required the services of part of the Topographical Engineers but also necessitated the return of officers of the line detailed for duty with them to their regiments The Florida war and the expansion of the western military frontier obliged Congress to pass the law of July 5, 1838 for the increase of the Army.  Provision was included in this for the organization of a Corps of Topographical Engineers to consist of one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, four majors, ten captains, ten first lieutenants, and ten second lieutenants.  The authority contained in the act of April 30, 1824 to employ civil engineers was repealed.  The following appointments were made on July 7, 1838:  (Roster of the Corps of Topographical Engineers)

 Of the new appointments all but Guion, Hughes, Stansbury, Hagner, Palmer, Fremont, and Webster were graduates of the Military Academy who were transferred from other corps.  Most of them had performed topographical duty.

 Prior to the Civil War the following changes occurred: (Changes in the Corps Prior to the Civil War)

 The organization of the Corps of Topographical Engineers was followed on August 1, 1838, by an order of Secretary of War Poinsett transferring to it all civil engineering works directed by the United States.  This was the result of the adoption of the principle that the new Corps was responsible for all works of a civil character.  Pursuant to this order, all new projects were begun by the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and during the next year some seventy others involving improvements of rivers and harbors along the Gulf, Atlantic and Lake coasts were transferred from the Corps of Engineers, which henceforth was to be concerned with works of a military nature  Plans and drawings of fortifications were transferred from the Corps of Topographical Engineers to the Corps of Engineers.  The depression resulting from the panic of 1837 greatly reduced the appropriations for internal improvements, so that for several years operations were curtailed.

 Preparations were begun in 1842 for the resumption of improvements on western rivers following the passage of the act of August 23, 1842 appropriating $100,000.  Repairs were made to two old snag boats, which had been constructed by Henry M. Shreve, the civil agent who since 1827 had had charge of operations, and two new ones were started.  The services of Shreve on the Red River were discontinued in 1841, when Lieut. Augustus P. Allen was placed in charge of the work on that river.  Under a contract made in 1841 a newly formed raft on the Red River was removed in 1812.  When the contractor, T. T. Williamson, abandoned the work of keeping, the river open, Capt. T. B. Linnard, who had acted as superintendent since 1841, took charge in 1844.  A new system was adopted in 1843 for the superintendence of the projects, by which Major Long with headquarters at Louisville. Kentucky, supervised operations on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas Rivers and on the Ohio River below the falls at Louisville, together with the inspection of improvements on the Ohio above the falls under the direction of Capt. John Sanders, whose office was at Pittsburgh.  During the Mexican War and for several years thereafter operations were suspended for lack of appropriations.  For several years after 1849 Major Long superintended the construction of marine hospitals for the Treasury Department at Louisville, Paducah, Napoleon, and Natchez. 


Large appropriations by Congress enabled the War Department to undertake an extensive program of public works in 1852.  In order to expend these funds to the greatest advantage for the government, Secretary of War Charles M. Conrad decided to utilize to the utmost the services of Army officers.  In September, 1852, he ordered the division of the work between the Corps of Engineers and the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  The former were to have charge of improvements on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, while the latter were to retain charge of those on the Great Lakes and western rivers.  Boards were organized in each corps to handle their respective assignments.  That in the Corps of Topographical Engineers was referred to as the Board of Engineers for Lake Harbors and Western Rivers and operated for several years under the presidency of Lt. Col. James Kearney.  Long and Bache were its other members.  Its office was at Washington.

 In connection with its activities the Corps of Topographical Engineers maintained a number of field offices during these years.  Major Long, who remained in charge of improvements on the western rivers, continued his office at Louisville until 1858 when he moved to St. Louis.  At Knoxville was the Office of Tennessee River Improvements under Capt. John McClellan.  The office for works on Lakes Michigan and St. Clair was at Chicago under Maj. J. D. Graham. Capt. Howard Stansbury, who had charge of Lake Erie west of the port of Erie kept his office at Cleveland.  Works on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain were superintended by Major Turnbull from Oswego.

 The survey of the Great Lakes was conducted during its early years by the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  The development of commerce on the Great Lakes during the 1830's obliged the government to undertake the job of providing information necessary for their safe navigation.  Although surveys were made as early as 1833 and during 1836-1837,40 systematic surveying was not begun until 1841.  In that year, Capt. W. G. Williams, who was then stationed at Buffalo in charge of harbor improvements on Lake Erie, was instructed by Colonel Abert to start the survey of the Great Lakes.  During the time that Williams remained in charge, surveys were made of all harbors except those on Lake Superior.  J. H. Simpson, W. H. Warner, J. N. Macomb, J. W. Abert and W. B. Franklin were engaged on the survey during these years.  Thereafter the exigencies of the Mexican War kept operations on a small scale.

 The survey progressed in succeeding years under a series of officers.  William F. Smith was attached to the survey during 1845-1846 and E. Parker Scammon from 1847 to 1855.  Lt. Col. James Kearney directed activities from 1845 to 1851.  By 1848 the collection of lake surveys had become so numerous that the Bureau was ready to publish an atlas.  Capt. John N. Macomb took over in 1851 assisted by Lieuts. W. F. Raynolds, George H. Mendell, and George W. Rose, he completed the survey of the Straits of Mackinac and undertook that at Saginaw Bay.  Kearney, leaving his board positions at Washington, resumed command in September, 1856, but ill health forced him to quit in the following year when he was assigned the task of collecting material for a chart of Lake Ontario.  Capt. George G. Meade, who had been assisting Kearney since being relieved from lighthouse duty in May,1856, succeeded him in command.  Other officers attached to the survey during the late 1850's were C. Turnbull, W. P. Smith, J. L. Kirby Smith, R. F. Beckham, 0. M. Poe, all recently appointed brevet second lieutenants from the Military Academy.  Meade served until 1861, completing the survey of Saginaw Bay and that of the whole of Lake Huron.  Charts were prepared of both this lake and Lake Superior in 1856.  The Office was at Detroit, and from there in 1852 had begun the distribution of charts.  Upon Meade's transfer on August 31, 1861, Lt. Col. James D. Graham took charge.  Since 1863 the Lake Survey has been conducted by the Corps of Engineers. 

Next Page

*Personal communication from LTC George A. Jacob, CE Retired 

from Beers, Henry P. "A History of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, 1813-1863." 2 pts. The Military Engineer 34 (Jun 1942): pp. 287-91 & (Jul 1942): pp. 348-52. 
    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 no. 34, #200 and 201, June, 1942 and July, 1942.



Copyright © 1995 -
U S Corps of Topographical Engineers
This may be used for non-commercial
purposes with appropriate attribution.