The Corps traces its history back to April 26, 1775, seven days after the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. Recognizing that the need for military engineering skill would be important in the war with England, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed Boston native Richard Gridley to the rank of Colonel and Chief Engineer of the troops being raised in the colony.
In the early morning hours of June 17, 1775, Gridley, working under the cover of darkness, constructed a well designed earthwork on Breed's Hill that proved practically invulnerable to British cannon. The British eventually took the hill (later called the Battle of Bunker Hill) when the patriots ran out of gunpowder, but at a cost in casualties greater than any other engagement of the war.
Gridley was to play other critical roles in the early days of the Revolution. On the evening of March 4, 1776, Gridley, along with 2,000 men and 360 oxcarts loaded with entrenching materials, moved into Dorchester Heights. By daylight, two strong protective barriers looked down at the British. An astonished General Howe, Commander of the British forces, reportedly remarked that the Americans had done more in one night than his entire army would have done in six months. Exposed to the American batteries on Dorchester Heights and not strong enough to fight Washington's troops in other parts of Boston, the British army and fleet departed Boston on March 17, never again to occupy Massachusetts.
In 1802, Congress established a separate Corps of Engineers within the Army. At the same time, it established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the country's first - and for 20 years its only - engineering school. With the Army having the Nation's most readily available engineering talent, successive Congresses and administrations established a role for the Corps as an organization to carry out both military construction and works "of a civil nature."
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Corps supervised the construction of coastal fortifications, lighthouses, several early railroads, and many of the public buildings in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which enjoyed a separate existence for 25 years (1838-1863), mapped much of the American West. Army Engineers served with distinction in war, with many Engineer officers rising to prominence during the Civil War.
In its civil role, the Corps of Engineers became increasingly involved with river and harbor improvements, carrying out its first harbor and jetty work in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The Corps' ongoing responsibility for federal river and harbor improvements dates from 1824, when Congress passed two acts authorizing the Corps to survey roads and canals and to remove obstacles on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Over the years since, the expertise gained by the Corps in navigation projects led succeeding administrations and Congresses to assign new water-related missions in such areas as flood control, shore and hurricane protection, hydropower, recreation, water supply and quality, and wetland protection.
Today's Corps of Engineers carries out missions in three broad areas: military construction and engineering support to military installations; reimbursable support to other federal agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency's "Superfund" program to clean up hazardous and toxic waste sites); and the Civil Works mission, centered around navigation, flood control and - under the Water Resources Development Acts of 1986, 1988, 1990 and 1992 - a growing role in environmental restoration.