The Civil Engineer Corps, like all branches of the Navy and indeed all branches of the Armed Forces of the United States is governed by mammoth amounts of regulations concerning every bit of minutiae imaginable from ship to shore. For example, is it really necessary to include “Don Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus” (“Doff” is also included separately) in the “Task Statements” for a Sailor serving in the Damage Controlman rating?

This type of highly detailed documentation stands in contrast to the founding of the Navy Civil Engineer Corps (CEC): Trying to nail down precisely when the CEC was officially “in business,” so to speak, depends on one’s perspective because the wording of legislation and rules that birthed the Corps is rather vague.

Although the Bureau of Yards and Docks was established in 1842, it had only one commissioned officer on its staff, and he was a line officer rather than a civil engineer. In the meantime, different Navy yards across the country had, on their own, hired civil engineers to carry out work under William P. S. Sanger’s direction; Sanger was the official civil engineer at the Bureau of Yards and Docks. In 1850, the Federal government created a framework for civil servants to work for the government, and those engineers became part of that “civil establishment.” Eight years later, Sanger wrote up regulations regarding their specific responsibilities and duties—but they were still civil servants, not Navy officers.

It wasn’t until two years after the end of the Civil War that Congress passed legislation specifying that the Navy’s civil engineers were to be appointed by the President. The day of the bill’s passage—March 2, 1867—has become the de facto “birthday” of the Civil Engineer Corps, but the fact of the matter is that the language used in the bill was so vague and unclear that no one could reasonably point to it and say that it established a new staff corps in the Navy. But the boosters of this date point to the fact that officers in the U.S. Navy receive their commissions from the President, while civil servants do not.

Whatever Congress meant in its heart of hearts with the legislation, the years following the passage of this bill saw the evolution of what walked and talked like a staff corps. The Navy Register published the list of civil engineers in January 1869; since that publication had previously only listed all the commissioned and warranted officers in the Navy, one could only assume that these engineers were also officers. A year later, Congressional legislation establishing the annual pay of naval officers including civil engineers in the breakdown, further evidence that these Presidential appointees were indeed officers.

But it wasn’t until February, 1881 that President Rutherford B. Hayes gave Navy Civil Engineers “relative rank,” and some months later the officers in the CEC were authorized to “don” the uniform of a Navy staff corps officer. Whether or not the Corps was established in 1867 can be debated, but there’s no doubt that it was most certainly in place by the end of 1881.

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