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US Army Corps of Engineers Reflects on Its Historic Legacy This Independence Day

New York District
Published July 2, 2024
Updated: July 2, 2024
American light infantry storm Redoubt 10 while sappers, bottom right, use axes to hack through the log palisade. Painting by H. Charles McBarron.

American light infantry storm Redoubt 10 while sappers, bottom right, use axes to hack through the log palisade. Painting by H. Charles McBarron.

As the United States celebrates Independence Day, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) New York District takes this moment to reflect on its storied history and enduring mission to serve the nation through military engineering, construction, and civil works.

The history of the USACE dates back to the American Revolution. On June 16, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the establishment of a "Chief Engineer for the Army," marking the beginning of the Corps' long-standing commitment to engineering excellence. Colonel Richard Gridley was appointed as the first Chief Engineer by General George Washington, tasked with constructing fortifications near Boston, including those at Bunker Hill.

Throughout its history, the Corps has played a vital role in major conflicts and national development projects. During the Civil War, USACE officers, many of whom were West Point graduates, contributed significantly to the Union's success by constructing bridges, fortifications, and supply lines. Notable figures such as Union generals George McClellan and George Meade, and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, were all part of this distinguished group.

One of the Corps' most significant undertakings was the construction of the Panama Canal, completed under the supervision of Army Engineer officers in 1914. This monumental project not only showcased the Corps' engineering prowess but also facilitated global maritime trade, solidifying the Corps' reputation as a leader in large-scale engineering projects.

As the nation celebrates its independence, it’s important to remember the pivotal role the USACE played in the American Revolution, particularly in the Battle of Yorktown. General George Washington led the fledgling United States to victory over the British in October 1781. The Army Heritage Trail commemorates the American and French triumph with the Redoubt 10 exhibit. Redoubt 10 was part of British General Charles Cornwallis' defenses ringing Yorktown during the battle. Manned by British troops, it was assaulted by Continental soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.

The scale replica of Redoubt 10 features many of the same defensive works as the original, including dirt-filled gabions, timber palisades, and a ditch leading to the steep sides of the fortification. The exhibit contains several period artillery pieces, including two eighteen-pounder cannons with a commanding view of Interstate 81 and two twenty-four-pounder mortars.

In late September 1781, the American and French troops under General Washington finally gained the upper hand on Lord Cornwallis' British Army. After spending the summer of 1781 raiding Continental Army logistics throughout Virginia, Cornwallis decided to settle in Yorktown, Virginia, to defend against possible American counterattacks. He chose Yorktown because its deep harbor allowed for reinforcements to arrive via ship from General Sir Henry Clinton's forces stationed in New York. Unfortunately for the British, Admiral Thomas Graves, who was supposed to deliver the reinforcements, was defeated by Admiral Comte de Grasse, the French naval commander, in the Battle of the Capes, trapping Cornwallis.

The Continentals and the French, numbering over 16,000 troops, secretly moved away from New York, where they were expected to attack, and marched 450 miles south, approaching Cornwallis' stronghold before the British could finish the series of entrenchments around the town. The 8,000 British soldiers retreated to their innermost defenses, including two of ten redoubts near the town. Washington took up positions in the abandoned earthworks and began the siege that would set the stage for the conclusion of the American Revolution.

The struggle for Yorktown lasted until October 16, when the embattled and surrounded Cornwallis finally succumbed and surrendered to the American and French forces. To achieve victory, the allies built a series of trenches and earthworks around the British defenses to position their men close enough under the enemy artillery to be able to storm the town itself.

The British soldiers were in poor spirits as they watched the Americans and French dig a trench two thousand yards long that ran between six hundred and nine hundred yards from the town's defenses. The British received only meager supplies from small ships that ran the tight French blockade into Yorktown's port. With their stores dwindling, the British tried to defend the town as the Americans began constructing another, closer trench line.

On the evening of October 14, two assault parties formed to attack the two redoubts, designated "Redoubts 10 and 9." A French band under Major General Baron De Viomenil began their attack on Redoubt 9, while Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton commanded the Americans attacking Redoubt 10. Both forces numbered 400 men, and neither had loaded weapons. Instead, the troops fixed their bayonets and followed teams of sappers to the bases of the redoubts. Each redoubt was surrounded by an abatis, or sharpened tree branches tangled together similar to modern-day barbed wire, which required the sappers to tear down. The soldiers, now under heavy musket fire from the British, dropped fascines (bundles of sticks tied with yarn) into the ditch surrounding the redoubt and placed ladders to climb the sides of the fortification.

The fighting within the redoubts digressed into violent hand-to-hand combat. Washington reported on the assault, simply stating the allies "advanced under the fire of the Enemy without returning a shot and effected the business with bayonet only." The French captured one hundred and twenty British and Hessian soldiers in thirty minutes, while the Americans captured seventy in Redoubt 10.

The next morning, the second line of trenches included the two redoubts, allowing the Americans and French to bombard the British incessantly. The British commanders realized there were no reinforcements coming and supplies were running dangerously low. Finally, on October 17, Cornwallis sent a drummer boy and an officer to discuss the terms of his surrender.

The capture of Redoubts 9 and 10 was the final straw in the defeat of Cornwallis' army. However, redoubts were not new to the American Revolution. They served as defensive positions through centuries of warfare. In fact, most officers in the French, British, and American armies used the same field fortifications manual, John Mueller's 1746 book entitled Elements of Fortification, to build such defenses as redoubts. The text, along with Louis Lochee's Elements of Field Fortifications in 1783, and Clairac's The Field Engineer in 1773, offered commanders a variety of shapes and types of defenses to mix and match to any situation.

A redoubt was not complete without defensive armament. The redoubts at Yorktown carried several types of defensive artillery, plus the muskets and bayonets of the defenders. The scale replica of Redoubt 10 on the Army Heritage Trail has two 18-pounder cannons mounted on ship's carriages and fired much like guns on the deck of a man-of-war. The cannons were effective at firing directly at opposing earthworks being built by besieging forces, but to fire directly into opposing trenches, the redoubt's garrison used mortars. The replica redoubt has two 24-pounder mortars positioned in deep pits which fired steep trajectories so the explosive rounds would fall directly on the enemy's head.

Today, the USACE continues to fulfill its mission of delivering vital public and military engineering services. The Corps is organized into eight permanent divisions and numerous districts, each responsible for a specific geographical area. The New York District, part of the North Atlantic Division, plays a crucial role in providing engineering solutions for the region, from flood protection to infrastructure development.

As the nation celebrates its independence, it’s important to remember the pivotal role the USACE played in shaping the country’s history. Lieutenant General Scott A. Spellmon, Chief of Engineers, stated, "This Independence Day, we reflect on our heritage and the enduring values that guide us. Our legacy of service and commitment to the nation is a source of pride and inspiration for all of us at the Corps."

For more information about the USACE New York District and its history, visit