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Joseph Gilbert Totten
[[Image:File:Joseph Gilbert Totten.jpg|center|200px|border]]Joseph Gilbert Totten
Personal Information
Born: August 23, 1788(1788-08-23)
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: April 22, 1864 (aged 75)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Nickname: {{{nickname}}}
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: United States Army
Union Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: Brevet Major General
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Commands: Corps of Engineers
Battles: American Civil War
Relations: James Totten (brother)
C. A. L. Totten (nephew)
Joseph K. Mansfield (cousin)
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

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 first people to graduate from the United States Military Academy. He was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers on July 1, 1805.

He resigned in 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 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. 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.[1]

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 into Fort Montgomery.

He was greatly admired by General Winfield 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 Minots Ledge lighthouse 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 in 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 posthumously promoted to Brevet Major General 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 and Metro station still bear the name—as well as a fort in New York City, Fort Totten, North Dakota, and Tottenville, Staten Island.

Please note ... 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. Also, General Totten was taken prisoner during the "Battle for Queenston Heights" during the War of 1812. "Who was Who in America" and "American Bibliography" both contain a fair bit on General Totten.

See also[]


  1. Ann Johnson, "Material Experiments: Environment and Engineering Institutions in the Early American Republic," Osiris, NS 24 (2009), 53-74.

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

External links[]

Template:Start box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #CF9C65;" | Military offices

|- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
Charles Gratiot |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Chief of Engineers
1838–1864 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
Richard Delafield |- |}