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How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works

History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The building of the Miraflores lower locks at the Panama Canal, 1912.
The building of the Miraflores lower locks at the Panama Canal, 1912.
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

In 1775, during the American Revolution, General George Washington appointed the first chief Army engineer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) was officially set apart as a separate federal agency under the Department of Defense in 1802 [source: USACE]. In that same decree, Congress instructed the Corps to establish and operate the military academy at West Point, which was the only engineering college in America for the first part of the 19th century.

During the escalating tensions leading up to the War of 1812, the Corps helped to design and build impressive stone fortifications in key harbors and coastal locations from New York to New Orleans that proved impregnable to British attacks [source: USACE].

Corps topographers surveyed and mapped the unexplored expanses of the American continent, including its many rivers. In the 1820s, Congress authorized the Corps to improve the nation's waterways for easier transportation. The corps dredged shallow passes and cleared obstacles that hindered the flow of people and goods along these "highways" [source: USACE].

Throughout the 19th century, the Corps developed innovative hydrological technology like levees to reduce the impact of periodic flooding in the Mississippi Delta, and locks to manage the steep grade changes of the Ohio River. These technologies proved indispensable to the construction of the Panama Canal (1907-1914), the greatest engineering marvel of its time. While the canal was technically the work of the Panama Canal Commission, many of the project's chief engineers came directly from the Corps [source: USACE].

During the Civil War, battalions of engineers built floating bridges called "pontoons" to transport Union troops and supplies across strategic river crossings. In World War I, combat engineers constructed hundreds of miles of railroad lines and bridges to the front lines in France. And in World War II, the Corps cleared paths through a net of offshore mines for the landing at Normandy and constructed troop housing and hospitals for 4.37 million American soldiers in Europe and the Pacific [source: USACE].

In peacetime, the Corps turned its attention to flood prevention, particularly along the Mississippi River and Delta, where levees alone proved insufficient in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. After a chemical explosion in Texas in 1947, the Corps stepped up its commitment to disaster response and cleanup, taking a lead role in disaster relief efforts until the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1988. Today, the Corps operates under the direction of FEMA in cleanup efforts following hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and even volcanic eruptions.