Where did the Corps' castle come from?

By Dr. Anthony Turhollow, Los Angeles District historian


     The origins of the turreted castle as a symbol of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately, the official records of the Corps, housed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. disappeared in 1838 as a result of a fire that destroyed the building that contained these records.

     As a consequence, many speculative stories about the origins of the engineers have been advanced.

     One theory traces a French connection. During the American Revolution, the Continental Army filled its necessity for trained military engineers by either borrowing them from France or having French engineers volunteer for service in the Continental Army. Because of the French connection, storytellers credit these French engineers for the castle origins.

     In particular, they cite Gen. Louis du Portail, Chief Engineer of the Army from July 22, 1777, to Oct. 10, 1783, for a design based on a castle-style fortification in Verdun, France. But the French engineers disappeared from the scene before the castle design appeared in the young American Army.

     While there is some truth in the French connection, the origins are better attributed to Col. Jonathan Williams and a member of his staff, Col. Alexander Macomb.

     Williams, grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, assisted Franklin during his tenure as envoy to France during the American Revolution. After the war he adopted engineering as a profession.

     In 1801 he was a major, a Corps artillerist engineer, and inspector of fortifications.

     The following year President Thomas Jefferson appointed him commander of the newly-created Corps of Engineers and the military academy at West Point, which Congress established on March 16, 1802. Thus, he was the first Chief Engineer and first superintendent of West Point in the Corps.

     During the period 1807-1812, Williams designed and constructed a castle to defend New York Harbor. The gateway to that castle-style fortification bore an eagle over the center. Other examples included Castle Pinkney in Charleston, S.C. and Castle Clinton, which also defended New York Harbor.

     Col. Alexander Macomb, an assistant on his staff, was Chief Engineer from June 1, 1821 through May 24, 1828, the year he was elevated to commanding general of the U.S. Army.

     In 1807, he made the earliest known drawing of the engineer button, which featured a castle motif. This was the button sewn on the uniforms of the West Point cadets during the War of 1812.

     Another engineer officer and academy superintendent, Col. Richard Delafield, in 1838 added the turreted castle to the 1812 design of the West Point cadet uniform.

     The castle was also a major element in the architectural design of the buildings at West Point, as was typified by the old library.

     Delafield had supervised the design and construction of the buildings destroyed by the 1838 fire, as well as the old library, which lasted from 1841 to 1961, when it was torn down.

     From the evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that Williams and Macomb, both familiar with French military tradition and heraldry, designed not only the Corps castle emblem but also the Essayons button.

     Although Macomb's design appeared in 1807, the authoritative description of the button appeared in February 1840 in General Orders 7: "An eagle holding in his beak a scroll with the word 'Essayons,' a bastion with embrasures in the distance, surrounded by water, and the rising sun, the figures to be of dead gold upon a bright field."

     While the designs of the emblem and the button changed, the castle remains a distinctive emblem of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the persons who designed them were American military engineers.

# # #


Mobile is an unofficial publication authorized under provisions of AR-360-81. It is published bi-monthly by the Mobile District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Public Affairs Office, CESAM-PA, P.O. Box 2288, Mobile, Ala. 36628-0001. The phone number is (334) 690-2506. Views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Army Corps of Engineers or the Department of the Army. Circulation is 2,500.