U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers

A History of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, 1818-1863


Henry P. Beers


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In 1846 and 1847 many of the Topographical Engineers were withdrawn from the civil operations in which they had been engaged, to participate in the war with Mexico.  Texas was occupied by United States soldiers under the command of Col. Zachary Taylor in July, 1845, following the negotiation of an annexation treaty.  Late in the year topographical surveys of the Nueces River, the Laguna de la Madre and Aransas Bay were performed for Taylor by Capt. Thomas J. Cram and Lieut. George G. Meade.  In the next year, Capt. John Mackay and 2d Lieut. Martin L. Smith surveyed Lavaca and Matagorda Bays.  These and other officers served with Taylor in the campaign he waged in northern Mexico.  Lieut. Jacob E. Blake was killed while making a daring reconnaissance at the battle of Palo Alto.  Capt. William G. Williams was mortally wounded at the battle of Monterey on September 21 1846, after serving as chief topographical engineer to Taylor throughout the preceding summer.  Early in the succeeding year 2d Lieut. Francis T. Bryan was wounded in the battle of Buena Vista.

An important contribution to the topographical literature of the West resulted from Gen. Stephen W. Kearny's march from Fort Leavenworth, Missouri to San Diego, California, during July to December, 1846.  A survey of Kearny's route was made by Lieuts. William H. Emory, William H. Warner, James W. Abert and William G. Peck of the Topographical Engineers.  Emory'sNotes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego... became an important guidebook of the southern road to California.

Topographical officers also accompanied Gen. John E. Wool on his march with some volunteer regiments from San Antonio, Texas, to Monclova during September and October, 1846.  Capt. George W. Hughes and Lieuts. Lorenzo Sitgreaves, and William B. Franklin reconnoitered the route for Wool's army and prepared notes and sketches from which a map was drafted

 Farther south, in March,1847, Gen. Winfield Scott undertook his important campaign for the capture of Mexico City from the port of Vera Cruz.  Topographical officers who served with him in the series of battles that occurred before the surrender of the capital in September included Maj. William Turnbull, Capt. John McClellan, Capt. Joseph E. Johnston, Lieuts. Eliakim P. Scammon, George Thom, George G. Meade, Martin L. Smith , Edmund L. F. Hardcastle and George H. Derby.  Captain Johnston became a lieutenant colonel of voltigeurs and acquired a reputation as a skillful commander.  Captain Hughes, upon his return from sick leave, marched a regiment of volunteers from Vera Cruz to Jalapa, where he became military and civil governor of the Department of Jalapa and Perote for the duration of the war.

 Capt. J. C. Fremont had played a prominent part in the conquest of California prior to General Kearny's arrival there.  He had reached California in January, 1846, upon his third exploring expedition.  With his own men and some of the American settlers he later assisted in the conquest of southern California.  After the arrival of Kearny a dispute occurred between him and Fremont, who had been vested with the title of major and the military governorship by Commodore Stockton.  This episode resulted in Fremont's conduct being investigated by a court of inquiry in Washington, and in his consequent resignation from the army on March 15, 1848. 



The acquisition of the vast southwest from Mexico, as a result of the war, and the settlement of the Oregon controversy with Great Britain, opened up the Far West to greatly expanded military operations.  War Department General Order No. 49 of August 31, 1848, placed the West under the Western Division and established several military departments.  The same order directed the Topographical Bureau to furnish officers for the Departments of Oregon, California, New Mexico, and Texas.  During the succeeding years the officers assigned to these departments were occupied with the activities which had engaged them in previous years, such as harbor improvements, building roads, construction and superintendence of lighthouses and exploration.

 At the time topographical engineers were assigned to the military departments created in the West, only a beginning had been made in the exploration of that region.  Stephen H. Long's early expedition was not followed up for many years.  During 1838 and 1839 John Charles Fremont, newly appointed second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, assisted Joseph Nicolas Nicollet in the reconnaissance of the region of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Nicollet was a French scientist who had been employed by the War Department through the efforts of Colonel Abert.  Fremont himself conducted his famous expeditions during I842-1846 over the Oregon trail to the Columbia River and to California.  His reports became guidebooks for the many emigrants flowing towards those new countries.  Upon his third and last expedition for the government.  Fremont detached Lieuts. James W. Abert and William G. Peck in August, 1845, at Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River to survey Purgatory Creek and the Canadian and False Washita Rivers.  In the same year, Lieut. William B. Franklin accompanied Col. Stephen W. Kearny's military expedition along the Oregon Trail.  On his march to Santa Fe and San Diego in 1846 Kearny's route was sketched and described by Lieutenants Emory and Warner.  Abert and Peck assisted Emory as far as Santa Fe, where they were detached to make examinations in New Mexico during the remainder of the year.

 Throughout the years between the Mexican War and the Civil War topographical engineers were constantly engaged in the exploration of the West.  After being relieved from duty with Emory, Brevet Capt. William H. Warner performed surveys in California until he was killed by the Indians in September, 1849.  In this year, Lieut. George H. Derby made reconnaissances for a map of the Sacramento Valley.  In 1849 Lieut. James Simpson surveyed a road from Fort Smith to Santa Fe.  In that year he also conducted reconnaissances in the Navajo country assisted by E. M. and R. H. Kern.  Further exploration was done by Simpson in New Mexico in 1850.  A year later, Brevet Capt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves and Lieut. John G. Parke made a survey of the Zuni and Colorado Rivers, while Lieut. George H. Derby ascended the lower part of the Colorado River as far as Heintzelman's Point.  In the same year, Capt. John Pope reconnoitered the Santa Fe trail.  A map of New Mexico prepared in 1851 by Lieut. John G. Parke was subsequently reduced in the Topographical Bureau and published.  Lieut. Israel C. Woodruff examined the Kansas and Arkansas Rivers in 1852 for sites for military posts designed to protect the Santa Fe trail.  An exploration of the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah was made in 1849 and 1850 by Capt. Howard Stansbury and Lieut. John W. Gunnison to select a route for a wagon road, a landing place on the lake, and a fort site.

 In Texas during these years surveys were made under the direction of Col. Joseph E. Johnston for military roads from San Antonio to El Paso, for a wagon pass through the Sacramento Mountains for a military road from the Gulf of Mexico to El Paso and another from the Red River to the Pecos and thence to the Rio Grande.  Lieuts. Francis T. Bryan and William F. Smith assisted in these surveys.

 During the winter of 1857-1858 Lieut. Joseph C. Ives ascended the Colorado River to a point 500 miles from its mouth in a small iron steamer shipped to the mouth of the Colorado from San Francisco.  This voyage demonstrated the practicability of navigating the Colorado during its lowest stage.  In 1859 Capt. John N. Macomb, then on duty at the headquarters of the Department of New Mexico, explored the San Juan and the head tributaries of the Colorado River in connection with opening a wagon road from the settlements of New Mexico to those of Utah.

 The topographical engineers were also active farther north.  Capt. John Pope in 1849 explored the region between Fort Snelling, Minnesota Territory and the Red River of the North with the object of locating sites for military posts.  Surveys were made in Kansas and Nebraska Territories by Lieut. Gouverneur K. Warren during 1855-1857.  Capt. William F. Raynolds was occupied during 1859-1861 in exploring the tributaries of the Yellowstone River and the headwaters of the Missouri, lie found the Yellowstone to be navigable for steamboats for a distance of 600 miles and mentioned several possible routes for wagon roads in the region.

 In Oregon and Washington Territories during the 1850's, surveys were made for various military roads under the direction of Maj. Hartman Bache and later Capt. George Thom, Lieuts. George H. Derby, and George H. Mendell.  The construction of a road to connect Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River and Fort Benton on the Missouri, the heads of navigation on those rivers, was undertaken in June, 1859.

 For several years after 1853 the topographical engineers operating in the West were chiefly engaged upon surveys of routes for Pacific railroads.  The first act of Congress appropriating funds for that purpose authorized the Secretary of War to employ the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  Of the four routes surveyed under this and subsequent acts all but the northern route, which was handled by Governor Isaac Stevens, of Washington Territory, who was a former officer of the Corps of Engineers, were under the charge of Topographical Engineers, Capt. John W. Gunnison and Lieut. Edward G. Beckwith, in 1853, explored the central route between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth parallels which was later followed by the Union Pacific Railroad.  The Santa Fe route along the thirty-fifth parallel was surveyed by Lieuts. Amiel W. Whipple and Joseph C. Ives in the same year.  A comprehensive survey of the most southern, route was not needed because of the explorations made by Emory.  Lieut. John Pope conducted an expedition from El Paso to Preston on the Red River in 1854, however, while Lieut. John G. Parke explored the line from the Pima villages on the Gila to the Rio Grande.  The Southern Pacific and the Texas Pacific later benefited from their labors.  In California during 1853 to 1855 surveys were made by Lieuts. Robert S. Williamson and John G. Parke eastward to the Sierra Nevadas for lines to connect the coast cities with the lines crossing the mountains.  In 1855 Williamson and Lieut. Henry L. Abbot ran a line for a railroad from the Sacramento River to the Columbia River.  Although these explorations demonstrated the practicability of spanning the continent with railroads along various routes,, none was completed until after the Civil War,

 From 1854 on, Capt. Andrew A. Humphreys was in charge under the War Department of the Office of Pacific Railroad Explorations and Surveys which handled the office work pertaining to the surveys.  This office remained in operation until 1861, completing by that time the compilation of reports of the railroad surveys.  Lieuts. G. K. Warren, H. L. Abbot, J. L. Kirby Smith, and J. C. Ives were employed in the office during the course of its existence 



Boundary surveying was an active form of topographical work in which details of Topographical Engineers were constantly employed.  The most extensive activity of this character was the running of various national boundaries.  The Texas boundary agreed upon with the Republic of Texas in a convention of 1638 was run along the Sabine River and northward in 1840-1841, engaging, the services of Maj. James D. Graham and Lieut. Thomas J. Lee and later Lt. Col. James Kearney and Lieuts. Jacob E. Blake, Joseph E. Johnston, Augustus P. Allen, and Lorenzo Sitgreaves.  George G. Meade, who was later to join the Corps of Topographical Engineers, was employed as a civil assistant on this survey in 1840.  The running of the northeastern boundary was undertaken in the same year and continued throughout the decade under the charge of Major Graham.  Other officers engaged upon this survey were Emory, Warner. Thom, Whipple, and Meade.  The survey of the Mexican boundary was undertaken in 1849 and continued to 1856.  Except for a period in 1850-1851, when Colonels McClellan and Graham served, Capt. W. H. Emory acted as astronomer to the boundary commission.  He was assisted by Lieuts. A. W. Whipple and Edmund L. F. Hardcastle.  Captain Emory was both commissioner and astronomer for the running, of the line of the Gadsden treaty of 1853 which provided for a more southern boundary.  He was assisted by Captain Thom, and Lieutenants Whipple, Hardcastle. Michler, and Turnbull.  During 1857-1861 Lieut. John G. Parke acted as chief astronomer and surveyor to the commission engaged in marking the northwest boundary provided for in the treaty of 1846 with Great Britain.

 The creation of new states and territories provided further boundary work for the Topographical Engineers.  Capt. Washington Hood, who in 1835 had worked with Lieut. Robert E. Lee under the direction of Capt. Andrew Talcott of the Corps of Engineers, in running the Ohio-Michigan line, surveyed the western boundary of Missouri in 1838 with John McCoy.  During 1843 to 1846, Capts. John McClellan, Thomas J. Cram, and William G. Williams ran the Michigan and Wisconsin Territory boundary.  Farther west in 1849-1850 Lieut. John G. Parke assisted in determining, the Iowa and Minnesota Territory line.  The initial point on the northern boundary of Kansas Territory was established by Capt. Thomas J. Lee in 1854.  Three years later Capt. J. E. Johnston was engaged upon the southern boundary of Kansas Territory.  The boundary between California and the territories on her east was run during 1860-1861 by a commission to which Lieut. Joseph C. Ives was astronomer and surveyor.  Boundary surveys of various Indian reservations west of the Mississippi River were also performed after the establishment of the Indian Country in 1834. 



The Civil War brought to an end most of the peacetime activities of the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  Most of the officers remained loyal to the Federal government and were transferred to the different fighting arms of the service for recruiting, training, and combat duty.  Others were attached to the military headquarters of various armies for topographical duty.  Volunteer regiments from various states were officered in part by former topographical officers.  From a total of forty-five officers at the beginning of 1861, the Corps was reduced a year later to twenty-eight officers, as a result of these transfers.

 The officers who resigned to take part with the Confederacy were chiefly the younger, more recently appointed ones.  Joseph E. Johnston, who had become Quartermaster General of the United States Army on June 28, 1860, after serving for five years in the cavalry, resigned on April 22, 1861, and in the following month became a brigadier general of the Confederate States of America.  Capt. M. L. Smith, who resigned on April 1, 1863, also became a general in the Confederate Army.  Other officers were F. T. Bryan1, W. P. Smith, Joseph Dixon, W. H. Echols, C. R. Collins, and R. F. Beckham.  Joseph C. Ives, after declining an appointment as captain in the 17th Infantry in May, 1861, was dismissed on December 26 for disloyalty to the government, and went South to fight with the Confederacy.

 Legislation and Army orders effected other changes.  An act of August 6, 1861, added two lieutenant colonels and four majors to the Corps and authorized the formation of a company of soldiers to be officered from the Corps.  In conformity with Special Order No. 95 issued on April 5, 1861, Maj. Hartman Bache took charge of the Topographical Bureau on April 11, 1861, during the illness of Colonel Abert.  A board of examination held as a result of the act of Congress of August 3, 1861, providing for the retirement of officers of the army who had become physically incapable of performing the duties of their offices, placed Colonel Abert, Lieutenant Colonel Kearney and Maj. Campbell Graham upon the retired list, effective September 9, 1861.  Maj. Howard Stansbury was similarly retired on September 28.  By General Order No. 106 of December 5, 1861, Major Long became Colonel of the Corps dating from September 9, 1861, while Major Cram took Kearney’s place.  Hartman Bache served as colonel in charge of the topographical Bureau from April 11 until December 11, when he was succeeded by Colonel Long.  The latter retained the position until the consolidation of the corps with Corps of Engineers, but from December 5, 1862 Maj. I. C. Woodruff was in charge of the Topographical Bureau.

 A number of former officers of the Topographical Engineers attained prominence during the Civil War.  Meade and Fremont became major generals in the United States Army, while Abbot, Michler, and Raynolds became brigadier generals.  In the volunteer service, generalships were held by Emory, Franklin, Humphreys, Parke, Poe, Pope, W. F. Smith, Thom, Warren, Wilson, and Wood.  Haldemand S. Putnam, J. L. Kirby Smith, O. G. Wagner, and A. W. Whipple lost their lives during the struggle.  (Topographical Engineers Appointed Generals in the Civil War)    



In "An act to promote the efficiency of the Corps of Engineers…" approved on March 3, 1863, the Corps of Topographical Engineers was abolished as a distinct branch of the Army and merged into the Corps of Engineers.  The officers of the consolidated corps were to take rank according to their respective dates of commission in either corps.  Experience had shown the duties of the two corps to be similar and often the same.  Other nations, as the Chief of Engineers pointed out in this annual report for that year, had only one corps which performed all engineer services for the Army.  The act was published to the service in General Order No. 73 of March 24, 1863.  The organization of the Corps of Engineers was announced in General Order No.79 issued on March 31.  Col. Stephen H. Long become the senior colonel, ranking next to Brig. Gen. Joseph G. Totten, chief Engineer, while Hartman Bache became the junior colonel.  General Totten thereupon took over the affairs of the topographical bureau.

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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. 



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