three Corps of Engineers insignia in use today, which are of remote origin.
In chronological order of approximate
dates of adoption they are: The Essayons Button, first definitely known to
have been worn during the War of 1812; The Turreted Castle, believed to have been
worn by the Cadets of West Point during the summer of 1839, and approved for use on the
uniform of the Corps of Engineers during the same year: and The Corps of
Engineers Seal, believed to have been designed and used as early as 1866-1867.
(Formally designated as the Official Seal April 6, 1897.)
While we do not know who actually executed
the designs of these heraldic devices, the Engineer officers who had the most to do with
ordering the execution, adoption, or use of these three insignia for the Corps, were all
distinguished for the parts they played in shaping the history of our nation. Each
served his country notably; and each reached the top of the Corps by being appointed Chief
Engineer of the United States Army. One of the group had the added distinction of
being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry "beyond the call of
duty." And one became Commander-in-Chief of the Army itself.
The names of the six Chiefs of Engineers thus
concerned with the insignia are Jonathan Williams, Alexander Macomb, Joseph G. Totten,
Richard Delafield, Andrew A. Humphreys, and John Moulton Wilson.
THE ESSAYONS BUTTON
Jonathan Williams and Alexander Macomb may
be named most prominently as likely designers of the heraldic devices on the distinctive
button of the Engineer officers' uniform.
Col. Jonathan Williams, grand nephew of
Benjamin Franklin, was first active in his country's cause at Paris, France, during the
American Revolution; and served as secret agent in that country, and also as personal
secretary to his uncle while the latter was American Minister at Paris. A generation
after the close of the Revolutionary War, Williams was appointed the first Chief Engineer
of the present Corps of Engineers, and the first Superintendent of the United States
Military Academy at West Point - both organizations established by the same basic Act of
the Congress on March 16, 1802.
Williams' tour of duty did not end until
the early period of the War of 1812. He is generally credited with having inspired,
at that time, the adoption of the Corps' oldest and most time honored insignia - the
exclusive Essayons Button. This button has not changed in basic design since its
first definitely known use in 1814; and is still the required button for uniform worn by
the Army Engineers.
The evidence which could establish the
actual facts concerning the designing and adoption of this button probably was completely
destroyed by the fire at West Point in 1838, when the building containing the library and
earliest official records of the Corps and Military Academy was burned. Contrary to
what has otherwise been stated by some writers, there is no evidence that any distinctive
badge, seal, insigne, motto, or other symbolic device ever was adopted for exclusive use
by the Continental Army Corps of Engineers established in 1779 under command of General
DuPortail and most of the officers of the
Continental Army Corps of Engineers during the American Revolution were French Engineer
officers, either on loan from King Louis or outright volunteers in the American cause.
(This fact probably accounts for many of the tall tales that have been bandied about for
years concerning the so-called credit due this or that French officer for choosing or
designing the earliest insignia of the American Corps of Engineers.) As a matter of
fact, every known evidence indicates that all three insignia of the Corps were conceived
and designed, or at least approved for adoption, by American Army officers after the
establish of the Corps at West Point in 1802.
The work being done by Colonel Williams
and his associates during the trying period of the Napoleonic wars (which included, of
course, our own War of 1812) furnished foundation aplenty upon which some imaginative
American Army officer could conceive the design of an appropriate heraldic device to
symbolize army engineering work as it was then being performed by Engineer Corps officers.
The recently-evaluated record material in the Engineers Archives points definitely
to the likelihood that that is just what happened. And significantly, the basis for
this conclusion hinges upon the subject of map making - one of the prime activities of
Army Engineers since the organization of the Corps in 1802.
The basic device on the Engineer button is
described as follows:
. . . . it shows the masonry of the
bastion of a marine battery, embrasured and crenellated, surrounded by water, a rising sun
with rays, all surmounted by a soaring eagle bearing in its beak a streamer displaying the
The main elements on the design would
appear to commemorate the very important work which Col. Jonathan Williams had been
conducting - the fortification of New York Harbor and the harbors of other important
Atlantic Coast cities. This work had been pushed with great speed to protect the
country against possible invasion by some one of the great powers then engaged in the
Napoleonic struggle in Europe. It was in 1807 that Colonel Williams, while still
superintending the Military Academy, began personally to plan and construct fortifications
in New York Harbor that would stop any enemy who essayed the city's capture. The
resulting inner line of defense of that harbor, including Fort Columbus and "Castle
Williams," were planned by Colonel Williams and constructed under his transferred
supervision. Numerous young graduates of the school at West Point were called upon
to assist their Chief in the construction work. Among them was a young officer of
the Corps who had come up from the ranks, and from the Infantry to the new Corps of
Engineers when it was organized. He had received a commission in the Corps, and while
stationed at West Point during the Academy's opening year had finished the formal academic
course as a student officer. That was Alexander Macomb - destined to become Chief
Engineer, and finally Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army.
By 1807, Macomb had attained the rank of
Captain in the Corps. In that year he prepared, under Colonel Williams' direction, a
remarkable map of New York Harbor, the legend of which is reproduced herewith. [Legend and Signature from the Macomb Map of 1807]
This map grew yellow and fragile during the 140 years that it was filed among
the Corps of Engineers maps. When it was found recently by the writer, its
significance in connection with the history of the design of the Essayons Button was
immediately apparent. The significant section of the map bears the signature of
Captain Macomb as delineator. It will be noted that the map contains all the main
elements found in the Essayons Button design. There are the surmounting Eagle, the Water
Bastion, the Rising Sun with Rays, and the motto Essayons. In addition to these
elements Macomb placed in his drawing a round fort to the right and a frigate entering the
space between the two protecting fortifications. The round fort with flag atop was
probably inspired by the "stone tower" then under construction, and known to
posterity as "Castle Williams." Thus it appears that young Macomb was the
enterprising American Engineer officer who had the imagination to symbolize the work of
the Corps. Or it may have been Macomb's Chief, Colonel Williams, who furnished the
idea for the decorative effect which contained the principal elements of the design on the
Button; and himself directed his young assistant to decorate the map of 1807 with his
(Williams) own ideas.
We do not know that Colonel Williams, soon
after becoming Chief Engineer, and Superintendent of the Academy at West Point, was given carte
blanche to select and design his own special uniform for the officers of the new
Corps of Engineers. And we know that he designed a special Engineer uniform.
Whether he designed a button for that uniform before 1807, and whether young Macomb merely
used a Williams design for an already existing Essayons Button to decorate his map of 1807
we do not know. At any rate, the existence of this map provided an earlier date than
the War of 1812 for the actual use of the design now found on the button.
Another map, made by Macomb in 1806, of
the Charleston, South Carolina harbor, gives us an even earlier date for the use of the
Corps' motto Essayons on a flying scroll, held in the beak of the eagle.
The year 1806 now can be accepted as the earliest known date that the Essayons
motto was used, and significantly, displayed in much the same manner that it is today on
The use of the French word Essayons
as the motto of the Corps does not necessarily indicate, as is so often inferred, that
some Frenchman chose his motto, or designed the Button or other Engineer insignia.
Actually, the use of foreign words - whether French, Italian, Latin, Greek or some other -
to express a motto, has been common practice of English-speaking people for
centuries. Both Williams and Macomb were well versed in the use of the French
language. Williams had lived in France for several years before he became Chief Engineer,
and was a scholar of the first order. Macomb's mother was French and saw to it that
her son's early academic education included a well-grounded course in the French language.
We may well assume that when Williams or Macomb happened to be confronted with an
engineering problem that someone pronounced impossible of accomplishment, it would have
been just as natural for either of these officer's to say, "Essayons"
as to say "we will try." Moreover, versed in the science of heraldry (as
they both may well have been) it would have been natural for either of them to have
selected a simple foreign word for a motto when designing a heraldic badge for their
The reason for selecting the date 1814 as
the first known date that the button was used, is that it is the earliest year mentioned
by any writer as the year the button actually was seen on a uniform by any identified
individual. Gen. George D. Ramsey, in writing about his cadet days at West Point
during 1814-1820, made the following statement regarding the uniform worn by Captain
Partridge who served as Acting Superintendent of the Academy from 1808 to 1817:
. . . . Captain Partridge was never
known to be without uniform. . . . His was that of the Corps of Engineers with the
embroidered collar and cuffs and the Essayons Button. . . .
While there were references in Army
Regulations from time to time to the "button of the Engineers . . . with only the
device and motto heretofore established," there seems to have been no authoritative
detailed description of the device on the button until the new Army uniforms were adopted
in 1840 (General Orders, 7, AGO, Feb 18, 1840). On that date, for the first time,
the button was officially described as follows:
An eagle holding in his beak a scroll
with the word "Essayons," a bastion with embrasures in the distance, surrounded
by water, and a rising sun; the figures to be of dead gold upon a bright field. [Engineer Button and Castle]
It is significant that when the above
first official description of the Essayons button was published by the War Department in
1840, Alexander Macomb was the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army at Washington;
and that the officers of the Corps of Engineers were to have a new uniform, which was to
be embellished with an added brand new insigne - the Turreted Castle device. It
would be interesting to know what part, if any, Alexander Macomb, as Comander-in-Chief of
the Army, played in selecting or approving the Turreted Castle as a new adornment of the
THE TURRETED CASTLE
Actually Generals Delafield and Totten
were the officers who first recommended the use of the Turreted Castle. And the
cadets at West Point were the first to wear it, probably during the summer or early fall
Colonel Delafield was then Superintendent
of the Academy at West Point; and in September 1839, made recommendations to General
Totten (who was Chief Engineer at Washington) for a new uniform for the West Point Corps
of Cadets. (The Academy, it should be remembered, was under the management of the
Chief of Engineers from the date of its establishment in 1802 until after the Civil War in
1866.) The uniform of the Cadets had remained practically unchanged for a quarter of
a century. Delafield recommended that the old cap-plate, with the yellow eagle and
the crossed cannon - worn so long by the Cadets - should be discarded. He proposed,
in lieu of it, "to have the eagle surmounting the wreath encircling the castle, as
prescribed for the Corps of Engineers, being the distinctive characteristic of the Corps
of which they form a part." The suggestion was approved by General Totten,
October 10, 1839.
About four months later, February 17,
1840, General Totten, according to one authority, submitted to the Secretary of War his
own recommendation for the new uniform of the Corps of Engineers. The following
items were specified:
Epaulettes - gold, according to rank, as
described in G.O. 36 of 1839; within the crescent, a turreted castle of silver. Belt
plate - rectangular, dead gold field with a bright gold double rim, a wreath of laurel and
palm enveloping a turreted castle, raised, in silver, according to design in the Engineer
In the Engineer Archives there are some
paintings of the various sections of the proposed uniform, in colors, bearing the
signature of Colonel Delafield. But there is no drawing of the castle separate and
standing alone that bears the signature of the Colonel. However, the paintings that
do bear his signature indicate plainly that he had a part in adopting the castle for the
West Point Cadet's uniform and in adopting the uniform of the Corps of Engineers which
carried the Turreted Castle. Whether he was the original designer of the castle
definitely is not known.
An authoritative writer on the subject of
the Castle Insigne of the Corps states that:
In 1841 it was used as the cap
ornament, and in 1857 as the hat ornament; in 1872 it appeared on the shoulder knot, but
it disappeared from them in 1902 when these devices became "regulation."
In 1896 it made its appearance on the saddle cloth. As a collar ornament the
turreted castle made its first appearance in 1892 on the undress coat collar, embroidered.
In 1894 this was changed to metal (silver). The castle appeared on the
buttons and the shako of the engineer soldiers from 1846 to 1851, and on the forage cap
plate from 1846 to 1902, when a "regulation" device was adopted.
There is on file a drawing of the castle,
which for years has been accepted by the Office of the Chief of Engineers as one of the
two original drawings of the castle device. On the back of this drawing, in the same
handwriting as on the face of the drawing, is the following notation, "Original sent
to John Smith, with a section (vertical) thru the wall uniting the towers, and an
elevation of the central tower. Jan. 8th 1840."
A strange coincidence occurred shortly
after the writer first came upon the old drawing of the castle now in the Engineer files
and believed to have been copied from the original which was noted as having been sent to
"John Smith" in January 1840. A letter was received from Mr. Burton
Schwartz, of Brooklyn, New York, stating that an old drawing of the castle had come into
his possession. He advised that this drawing had once belonged to Maj. William D.
Fraser, an officer of the Corps of Engineers. Mr. Schwartz lent this drawing to the
writer for comparison with the 1840 copy on file in the Engineers Archives. Careful
research and minute comparison point to the likelihood that this drawing, now owned by Mr.
Schwartz, is the original mentioned as having been sent to "John Smith" on
January 8, 1840.
This old drawing is reproduced here.
[Original Official Drawing of the Castle Device]
It is one of the most treasured items in the Engineers Archives. An
interesting sidelight is the existence in the files, of a small box containing a pattern,
apparently made for use in manufacturing one of the earliest castle ornaments. The
outside of the lid is marked "Engineer Department," and bears the following
"JOHN SMITH FRASER
122 and 124
BROADWAY, CORNER CEDAR ST.
On the inside of the lid to this box
containing the metal pattern of a castle device, is the following writing in old by
clearly readable ink:
Pattern for die Sinker, to be
returned, as it is the only one belonging to the Engineer Office. The castle on the
forage cap of engineer soldiers is to be like this but yellow. The door and windows
pierced through showing the cloth.
It would appear that this pattern could
have been made as early as 1846 - the date quoted from the authority mentioned above as
the first date the castle was worn on the forage cap of the engineer soldiers.
In designing a heraldic device, whether a
badge or coat of arms, the requirements are the commemoration of something noteworthy,
simplicity of design, and practicability. These all were apparent in the design of
the Turreted Castle insigne.
The earliest important work of the Corps
was concerned with the construction of the castle-like fortifications along the Atlantic
Coast. Many of the them even being named "castles" - such as Castle
Williams and Castle Clinton in New York Harbor; the works on Castle Island, in Boston
Harbor: and Castle Pinckney, in South Carolina. The selection of a castle as the
badge was, therefore, most appropriate, and the actual castle design fully meets the
requirements of simplicity and practicability.
THE SEAL OF THE CORPS
The official Seal of the Corps, reproduced
here, is sometimes referred to as the Coat of Arms. [The
Seal of the Corps of Engineers] It was adopted shortly after the Civil War
to commemorate the consolidation of the Corps of Topographical Engineers with the regular
Corps of Engineers established in 1802. The Topographical Corps had been an offshoot
of the older corps since its establishment in the 1830's, and the consolidation of the two
Corps had taken place in the midst of the Civil War.
Over the years, various Chiefs of
Engineers have adopted and changed seals at their pleasure. What appears to have
been the original Seal of the regular Corps of Engineers is said to have been adopted in
1829. It carried the basic device appearing on the Essayons Button. Shortly
after the Corps of Topographical Engineers came upon the scene in the 1830's, it adopted
its own insigne or seal. This was a red, white, and blue shield, with the letters
"T" and "E" displayed prominently to indicate Topographical Engineers.
Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, who had been a
distinguished member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers before the Civil War, is
given credit for adopting, or at least ordering, the use of the present Corps of Engineers
Seal - or Coat of Arms. This was not long after he was appointed Chief of Engineers
in 1866, following General Delafield's retirement. The first dated print of this new
device which the writer has been able to find bears the inscription, "Engraved in the
Engineer Department, 1867."
The significance of the design as
commemorating the achievements of both the Corps of Engineers and the Corps of
Topographical Engineers is plain to be seen. The larger shield is divided into three
horizontal sections, of which the top usually is represented in solid blue color; while
the bottom is divided into vertical (red and white) stripes. The center section
shows the interesting original shields of the two historic corps; the Dexter shield being
a reproduction of the basic device of the Engineers' oldest insigne, the Essayons Button;
the Sinister shield showing the Corps of Topographical Engineers red, white, and blue
shield between the letters "T" and "E". The eagle and the motto
Essayons dominate the overall design, as they originally did in the decorative sections of
the Macomb maps of 1806 and 1807.
This Seal was not adopted officially by
the Corps until Gen. John M. Wilson, as Chief of Engineers, promulgated his order of April
6, 1897. [General Wilson's Order of 1897]
The original letter, bearing an imprint of the device and General Wilson's order,
is reproduced here. The reproduction of the Seal is made from a tracing of the original.
The origin of the various forms of
Engineer insignia has been a matter of wide interest and much speculation among engineers
for a long time. Several articles on various phases of the subject have appeared in The
Military Engineer. Some of these were admittedly based on legend and the
imagination of the writers and others on such records as were available. While there
are still some links in the chain of evidence not yet found, it is believed that this
article covers, in an orderly fashion, the facts which are known and includes the names of
the officers who had the greatest part in the development of the insignia. Also, of
particular importance are the authentic reproductions of the official devices which
accompany the article.