1 Goltikazahn

Essayons Academics Meaning

The U.S. Army Engineer Museum presents a chronological history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Today, the oldest unit in the United States Army is the 101st Engineer Battalion of the Massachusetts National Guard established in 1636. Although the history of American military engineering goes back more than three hundred and fifty years, the heritage of military engineering reaches back to the earliest beginnings of organized armies. On the battlefields of ancient Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, skilled Military Engineers laid the groundwork for the role of their modern descendants. During Europe's middle ages, the French coined the term "genie" to represent the Engineers. Over the years, "genie" evolved into the old English word "enginator" meaning one who operates the engines of war, such as siege towers, battering rams, catapults and the like. With the support of professional French Military Engineers, our young Army Corps of Engineers was created during America's War for Independence. Today, that French heritage is still seen within our Engineer Corps. The language of the Engineer - "abatis," "gabions," "fascines" and "pontons" -- has its roots in 18th century France. Even the motto of the American Engineers, "ESSAYONS," is French for "Let us try."

There are 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.

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 motto Essayons.

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 button.

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 Corps.

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 uniform.

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 of 1839.

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 Office.

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 printed address:

"JOHN SMITH FRASER
CLOTHING WAREHOUSE
122 and 124
BROADWAY, CORNER CEDAR ST.
NEW YORK"

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Leave a Comment

(0 Comments)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *