U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS OFFICER'S CEREMONIAL BELT

Authorized for wear with the Army Service Uniform, the Corps of Engineers ceremonial belt (sometimes called a sabre belt) is manufactured in the branch colors of Scarlet and White (cable numbers 65006 and 65005) bordered by gold braid. The colors were officially established to represent the Corps of Engineer branch in 1872.
 
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Few civilians are aware that the United States Military Academy at West Point was originally established in 1802 as a school for the Army’s Corps of Engineers. Until 1866, in fact, the school Superintendent was designated by statute to be the “principal Engineer” of the Corps. This explains why so many officers in both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War came from the Corps of Engineers.

What obscures this to some degree is the fact that a goodly number of these Engineers stepped outside their branch to become “generalists”—i.e., generals—and earned their fame devising battlefield strategies and tactics and inspiring the troops under their command. Unquestionably, the most famous of these was Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who had served as an aide to Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War and had been awarded a distinguished service commendation.

Although Lee had been promoted as high as Colonel in the United States Army in the months leading up to the Civil War, his decision to follow his home state of Virginia in seceding from the Union led to his being named one of the Confederacy’s full generals at the outbreak of the war. In his first battle as a general, Cheat Mountain, he was defeated by a smaller Union force, thanks in part to sub-par performances by his subordinate officers.

But the Confederate press placed the full blame for the loss on Lee, and he was subsequently sent to organize the Confederacy’s coast defenses in North Carolina and Georgia. Here, Lee’s background as an Engineer proved invaluable: the defense-in-depth system he devised helped the critical port of Savannah remain open until it fell to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infantry forces in December, 1864.

Lee is most renowned for his bold battlefield tactics and his flair for fighting a war of maneuver, but some of his most impressive achievements can be attributed to the training he received in the Corps of Engineers. One of these was the defensive trenches he had ordered constructed around Richmond and Petersburg when he assumed command of the Army of Virginia (which he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia). Derided as the “King of Spades” by the soldiers who labored in digging the trenches and erecting breastworks, these same trenches held back the vastly superior forces of Union General Ulysses S. Grant for nine months near the war’s end.

Lee’s career is arguably surpassed only by Douglas MacArthur in the Honor Roll of Generals who came from the Corps of Engineers, but perhaps it is only fitting that another General from the Corps dealt him his crushing defeat. General George Meade, victor at the Battle of Gettysburg, graduated from the United States Military Academy and served in the Corps of Topographical Engineers before he was named a brigadier general in the Union Army in 1861.
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