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Joseph Gilbert Totten
Joseph Gilbert Totten
Born (1788-08-23)August 23, 1788
Died April 22, 1864(1864-04-22) (aged 75)
Place of birth New Haven, Connecticut
Place of death Washington, D.C.
Place of burial Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1805–1806, 1808–1864
Rank Brigadier General
Brevet Major General
Commands held Corps of Engineers

War of 1812

American Civil War
Relations James Totten (brother)
C. A. L. Totten (nephew)
Joseph K. Mansfield (cousin)

Joseph Gilbert Totten (August 23, 1788 – April 22, 1864) fought in the War of 1812, served as Chief Engineer and was regent of the Smithsonian Institution and cofounder of the National Academy of Sciences.

Early life and education

He was born in New Haven, Connecticut and was one of the three people to graduate from the United States Military Academy as part of the class of 1805. He was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers on July 1, 1805.

He resigned in March 1806 to assist his uncle, Major Jared Mansfield, who was then serving as Surveyor General of federal public lands. Major General Joseph K. Mansfield, who died at the Battle of Antietam, was his cousin.

Military career

Totten re-entered the Corps of Engineers in February 1808 and assisted in building Fort Williams and Fort Clinton in New York harbor.

During the War of 1812, he was Chief Engineer of the Niagara frontier and Lake Champlain armies under General Stephen Van Rensselaer. At the Battle of Queenston Heights, he fought alongside Winfield Scott, who used Totten's cravat as a white flag to signal the American surrender.[1] He was brevetted lieutenant colonel for gallant conduct in the Battle of Plattsburgh. As a member of the first permanent Board of Engineers, 1816, he laid down durable principles of coast defense construction.

From 1825 until 1838, Totten oversaw the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. Fort Adams was the second largest construction project attempted by the Army in the 19th Century exceeded only by Fort Monroe in Virginia. Totten employed recent graduates of West Point as assistant engineers at Fort Adams where they learned advanced engineering techniques. Totten's apprentices included John G. Barnard, George W. Cullum, Pierre G. T. Beauregard and Alexander D. Bache all of whom earned distinction during the Civil War. While at Fort Adams, Totten conducted experiments with various mortar compositions and published a paper of his findings.[2]

In 1833 Totten purchased the Francis Malbone House on Thames Street in Newport. At that time, it was the most opulent house in Newport. He lived there for the remainder of his time in Newport.

Totten was appointed Chief Engineer of the United States Army in 1838, and served in that position for 25 years until his death in 1864. As Chief Engineer he was intimately involved with every aspect of the Army Corps of Engineers activities from fortifications to harbor improvement. Beginning in 1844, Totten was involved with the construction of Fort Montgomery on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. During this period, Totten also invented an iron reinforced embrasure for cannon which would better protect the gunners inside a fort, a design which he incorporated in Fort Montgomery, Fort Delaware and Fort John C. Calhoun (Fort Wool).

He was greatly admired by General Scott, for whom he directed the siege of Veracruz as his Chief Engineer during the Mexican-American War. He later served as a Civil War Union Army general, being brevetted as a US Army Brigadier General in 1847 and receiving his permanent appointment in 1863.

One of Totten's most significant achievements was the design and construction of the Minot's Ledge Light near Cohasset, Massachusetts. Previous efforts to build a lighthouse on the small ledge of rock had failed but Totten conceived a plan whereby the lighthouse would be pinned by its own weight to the ledge making it able to withstand the harshest extremes of weather. It stands to this day flashing a distinctive 1-4-3 light pattern which has been interpreted to mean "I LOVE YOU".

Totten served most of his time as Chief Engineer in the rank of Colonel but was promoted to Brigadier General on March 3, 1863. He died of pneumonia in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 1864, having served almost 60 years in the Army.

Totten was promoted to Brevet Major General the day before his death and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C..


Several places have been named after General Totten, including: the Civil War Fort Totten built to defend the federal capital—while this fort no longer exists, the surrounding neighborhood, an apartment house development (Aventine Fort Totten),[3] and a Metro station still bear the name—as well as a fort in New York City and Fort Totten, North Dakota.

Tottenville, Staten Island was named for the family of an older relative of General Totten who was one of three "Captain Tottens" that supported the Loyalist cause during the American Revolution. See "Who was Who in America" and "American Bibliography" for more information.

Robert E. Lee surveyed Biscayne Bay (Miami)in 1850 for the Army Corps of Engineers under COL Joseph Totten. Lee named Totten Key just south of Caesers Creek for him.

See also


  1. John Robert Elting (1995), Amateurs to Arms: A Military History of the War of 1812, New York: Da Capo, p. 48.
  2. Ann Johnson, "Material Experiments: Environment and Engineering Institutions in the Early American Republic," Osiris, NS 24 (2009), 53-74.
  3. . Accessed 2011 December 28.

This article contains public domain text from "Brigadier General Joseph Gilbert Totten". Portraits and Profiles of Chief Engineers. Archived from the original on April 4, 2005. Retrieved May 14, 2005. 

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Charles Gratiot
Chief of Engineers
Succeeded by
Richard Delafield

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