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Secrets of a Master Builder | Article

Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, 1810-1883

National Archives

In December 1862, at the Civil War battle of Fredericksburg, a young Union officer wrote: "I do like to see a brave man, but when a man goes out for the express purpose of getting shot at he seems to me in the way of a maniac." The officer was writing about Brigadier General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. The battle was Humphreys' first real military engagement.

Fredericksburg was a blood bath. It has gone down in history books as one of the Union's most ill-conceived and poorly conducted battles. Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee were positioned on high ground behind a stone wall. The Union troops under General Ambrose Burnside were ordered to charge at them. Column after column of men were mowed down under Confederate fire or driven back. When it came to Humphreys' turn, he ordered the youngest, most inexperienced men in his command to keep pace with the rest of his troops and then he charged up the hill in front. He loved the bloody mayhem. In a letter to his wife he described the thrill of battle: "as the storm of bullets whistled around me, and as the shells and shrapnel burst close to me in every direction with hissing sound, the excitement grew more glorious still. Oh, it was sublime!" In a letter to a friend he said, "I felt like a young girl of sixteen at her first ball … I felt more like a god than a man."

Within ten or fifteen minutes, by his own reckoning, Humphreys had lost 1,000 men, a fifth of his command. But that didn't seem to disturb him. Nor did the deaths of thousands more of his troops in subsequent battles. In his letters home, Humphreys never mentioned those losses. What concerned him was establishing his reputation as a military leader. "It is acknowledged throughout this army," he explained to his wife, "that no officer ever did as much with troops of short term of service as I did. …"

The need to establish a reputation, to revel in glory, drove Humphreys throughout his career. Extremely bright, but also vain and arrogant, he stuck by his opinions no matter how much evidence piled up to contradict him and no matter what the consequences were for the Army Corps of Engineers, for whom he worked. Humphreys' uncompromising attitude served him well for most of his life. But it led to his undoing at the height of his influence, when he butted heads with his most obstinate and determined adversary: the civilian engineer James Buchanan Eads.

Eads and Humphreys came from different worlds. Eads was a self-made man. What he knew about engineering he'd taught himself. What he knew about the Mississippi River, he'd learned from years of backbreaking salvage work along a thousand of miles of the waterway. He'd clawed his way up from a childhood of poverty selling apples on the street.

Humphreys, on the other hand, was born to privilege. His father was a Chief Naval Constructor and a prominent member of Philadelphia society. As a teenager, Humphreys was wild and uncontrollable. He played truant and ran away from his tutors. In an effort to steer his son towards a respectable career, Humphreys' father secured the sixteen-year-old Andrew a place at West Point. Young Humphreys wasn't ready for discipline. He earned demerits for not obeying the rules and ended up graduating 13th out of a class of 33.

Humphreys' early career in the military was equally undistinguished. He was assigned to a post in Provincetown, Massachusetts -- at that time a remote fishing village of 1500 people -- where he found his duties boring. Wanting to return to his studies he wrote, "my labor [is] a dull, uninteresting task and I go to it with disgust." Later when he was sent to fight the Seminole Indians in Florida, he became so ill that he was forced to resign from combat.

It was over the next 20 years that Humphreys' career began to flourish. He made important contributions to a series of engineering projects in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and in 1850 he found an opportunity to really make his mark. In September of that year, Congress appropriated funds for a survey of the lower Mississippi. Lawmakers wanted to know what caused the river to flood and why sandbars were habitually forming at the mouth of the Mississippi, effectively blockading the port of New Orleans for months on end. It was an important assignment, one that would influence the future development of the entire Mississippi valley, and Humphreys desperately wanted it.

He got the job, but it wasn't what he expected. The Secretary of War, under congressional pressure, decided to split the appropriation between two men. Humphreys would write a report for the Army Corps of Engineers. At the same time, a prominent civilian engineer, Charles S. Ellet Jr., would conduct his own independent investigation. Humphreys was furious. "I shall be crippled in my operations by this division of the appropriation," he wrote a colleague. By splitting the task between two men Congress created an intense rivalry.

Ellet got to work right away; he collected very little data and completed a report within a year that was based largely on intuition. Humphreys, on the other hand, mounted a huge investigation composed of three teams that together collected a mountain of data. In 1851 Humphreys was directed by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to head the Pacific Railroad Survey Office, which oversaw the surveying of potential railroad routes from the East to California. It was several years before he returned to the Mississippi project -- he didn't reopen his survey office until 1857 -- and several more years passed before he completed his report. Humphreys felt he needed to write a masterpiece, one that would determine once and for all the superiority of Army engineers over their civilian counterparts. The 500-page document he finally produced was, indeed, one of the most influential engineering reports ever written. It was exhaustive in its methodology and forceful in its opinions. Humphreys' solution to flooding was the construction of levees along the river. He recommended dredging at the mouth of the Mississippi to solve the problem of sandbars.

In 1866 Humphreys was appointed Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers. He was finally in a position to influence federal spending on navigation projects and to implement some of the suggestions outlined in his report. This effort, however, would throw him into a bitter and angry conflict with Eads.

The two men already disliked each other intensely. Their first fight had been over Eads' bridge in St. Louis. In 1873, in support of steamboat owners who claimed the bridge posed an obstacle to navigation, Humphreys insisted Eads build a canal around the bridge. Eads was outraged and looked to President Ulysses S. Grant for support. Grant sided with Eads and the canal was never built. Humphreys was left smarting from the encounter.

Meanwhile, Eads had already involved himself with the navigation problems at the mouth of the Mississippi. After years of dredging with little success, the Army Corps of Engineers, with Humphreys' support, was pushing for the construction of a canal from below New Orleans out to the Gulf of Mexico that would bypass the mouth of the river. Eads thought the idea was ludicrous. Motivated in part by the conflict with Humphreys over the St. Louis Bridge, he suggested instead that lawmakers contract with him to build jetties. Humphreys was enraged. As the author of the definitive report on the Mississippi, Humphreys felt Eads was encroaching on his territory.

Eads' plan was to build jetties, or underwater walls, at the point where the Mississippi meets the Gulf, narrowing the channel into the sea. The jetties would create a narrower channel that would speed up the water running between them. The faster water was made to flow, the more sediment it would carry. Eads claimed the extra force would be enough to carve out the sandbars and carry the sediment into the Gulf. Humphreys vehemently disagreed. He argued his massive Mississippi River survey had proved jetties simply wouldn't work. The jetties, he said, would simply move the sandbar out into the Gulf. The task of continually extending the jetties into the ocean, as the sand bar moved further out to sea, would never end.

If Humphreys was arrogant, Eads was more so. The two men both waged intense lobbying efforts in Washington. In a letter to a business associate, Eads wrote: " I have been engaged in a much bigger fight here than I at first expected, and for the last 30 days I think I have worked harder than ever before in my long lifetime of almost incessant toil."

Eads not only won the contract; he also won the argument. After four years of construction, the jetties were finally completed in 1879. They created a channel 30 feet deep; one that ensured ships could get into and out of New Orleans. The port, once the ninth largest in the United States, became the second largest, after New York. The defeat crushed Humphreys. It effectively undermined both the public respect he had commanded and the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers. Shortly afterwards it turned out that Humphreys was right about one thing: the jetties did contribute to increased sand deposition at the mouth of the river. To overcome this, parallel jetties -- known as the inner jetties -- were built in 1884-86.

Disillusioned by this defeat and by congressional acts that limited the Corps' authority, Humphreys resigned from his post. The bellicose Civil War veteran lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity.

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