15 Things You Should Know about the Army Corps of Engineers

By Mike Case

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was founded on June 16, 1775, just two days after the Army was established.

Best known for building bridges and roads, blasting through obstacles, clearing minefields and more, Army engineers and their work impact the daily lives of civilians and military personnel across the country.

Here are 15 facts that you should know about the Army Corps of Engineers:

1. In July 1775, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington appointed Col. Richard Gridley as the first chief engineer of the then-Continental Army.

Gridley, who planned the defense of Breeds Hill and was wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill, supervised the building of fortifications around Boston which helped to force the British out of the city in 1776.

2. On February 26, 1783, after the American Revolution, the Continental Army Corps of Engineers was disbanded.

However, in 1794, Congress authorized the formation of a new Army Corps of Artillerists and Engineers. Then, a few short years later on March 16, 1802, lawmakers re-established the separate Army Corps of Engineers as we know it today.

3. After re-establishment, the Army Corps of Engineers worked to improve the nation’s coastal and harbor defenses.

This included an 11-pointed fort in New York harbor that protected the city during the War of 1812 and would later serve as the location for the base of the Statue of Liberty.

The Fort Totten Metro Rail station. | Photo credit Transitfilms6420/Wikimedia Commons

4. In Washington, D.C., the Metro Rail’s Fort Totten station is named after Brig. Gen. Joseph Gilbert Totten, the longest-serving USACE chief engineer.

In addition to serving as chief engineer for 25 years (1838-1864), Totten was also a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and a founder of the National Academy of Sciences.

5. The Army Corps of Engineers’ motto is “ESSAYONS.”

The term, which is a French phrase meaning “Let us try,” is a nod to the French engineers who aided the American Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

United States Army Corps of Engineers castle. | Photo credit U.S. Army

6. The exact origin of the emblem of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps Castle, is unknown because of an 1838 fire at West Point that destroyed its records.

In 1840, the castle was unofficially adopted by Army Corps of Engineers as its symbol, becoming official in 1902.

7. One of the oldest responsibilities of the USACE is maintaining safe, reliable, efficient and environmentally sustainable waterborne transportation systems throughout the country.

To accomplish this mission, engineers upkeep roughly 25,000 miles of inland waterways, including the Mississippi River, to make sure they are safe and navigable for commerce.

Photo credit U.S. Army/Matt Roe

The Dredge McFarland, a deep-draft ocean-going hopper dredge owned and operated by the USACE Philadelphia District, works in the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River in February of 2016.

8. Some well-known landmarks in the Washington, D.C., area were built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Some of these include the Tidal Basin, the Washington Monument and the Pentagon (which they built in only 16 months!). Fun fact: USACE also had a hand in planting the famous cherry trees around the Tidal Basin.

Northwest exposure of the Pentagon’s construction underway in 1942. | Photo credit U.S. Army

9. Speaking of building, the USACE has built plenty of structural marvels around the country.

A few highlights include the Bonneville Dam and NASA’s launch facilities. A USACE engineer also oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal.

10. A number of celebrities have served in the Army Corps of Engineers.

During World War II, comedy legend Mel Brooks and baseball legend Warren E. Spahn both served as combat engineers.

Photo credit USACE/Misty Cravens

Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River at Lake Cumberland in Jamestown, Ky., discharges water Feb. 24, 2019.

11. The USACE is the 5th largest supplier of electricity in the United States.

It’s also the largest generator of hydropower and renewable energy in the country, helping save 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year.

12. The Army Corps of Engineers spends a lot of time maintaining outdoor spaces.

Currently, the group oversees 400 lake and river projects in 43 states, 12 million acres of public lands and over 93,000 campsites.

The last crime committed by Jesse James was to rob a payroll for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Blue Water Camp in Alabama. | Photo credit DVIDS

13. In March 1881, a corps paymaster was robbed by the infamous outlaw Jesse James and his gang.

It ended up being James’ last crime before his death.

14. After September 11, 2001, the USACE 249th Engineer Battalion, called Prime Power, deployed to New York City.

Within a week, the unit restored power to Wall Street, allowing important financial operations to continue.

15. The Army Corps of Engineers plays a critical role in disaster relief operations.

The unit has been some of the first responders in natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, Sandy and Rita.

-This story was originally published in 2020. It has been updated in 2022.

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