Joseph Gilbert Totten

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Joseph Gilbert Totten
File:Joseph Gilbert Totten.jpg
Joseph Gilbert Totten
Born (1788-08-23)August 23, 1788
New Haven, Connecticut
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
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
Battles/wars 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 of Engineers and was regent of the Smithsonian Institution and cofounder of the National Academy of Sciences.

Early life and education

General Joseph G. Totten was born in New Haven, Connecticut to Peter Gilbert Totten and Grace Mansfield. He was one of only three cadets to graduate from the United States Military Academy as part of the class of 1805 and was the 10th graduate in the Academy's history. 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 Castle Williams and Castle 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, to which he was appointed in 1816, along with General Simon Bernard, he laid down durable principles of coast defense construction in a report to Congress in 1821.

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, entitled Brief Observations on Common Mortars, Hydraulic Mortars and Concretes.[2] [3]

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, the longest tenure of any Chief Engineer. 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 invented an iron reinforced embrasure for cannon which would better protect the gunners inside a fort. Known as "Totten shutters," the hinged swinging doors were installed on the cannon openings of the fort between the mortar and brick facade. Balanced to swing freely, the iron shutters would be forced open by the gasses expelled from the cannon, and then rebound shut immediately afterwards, shielding the gunners from incoming fire. First installed in American forts in 1857, the design was incorporated in such locations as Fort Montgomery, Fort Delaware, Fort John C. Calhoun (Fort Wool), and Fort Jefferson, Florida.[4]

File:Totten, JG Brief Observations on Common Mortars 1838 title page.jpg
Brief Observations On Common Mortars, Hydraulic Mortars, and Concretes[3]

Totten 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 military and civil locations have been named after General Totten.

The Civil War era Fort Totten was built as part of the Defenses of Washington, D.C. A few earthworks remain in Fort Totten Park, and the surrounding neighborhood, an apartment house development (Aventine Fort Totten),[5] and a Washington DC Metro station still bear the name.

The City of New York maintains a historic former US Army fort in New York City in Queens.

Fort Totten, North Dakota hosts Fort Totten State Historic Site, named for the General, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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, Florida) in 1850 for the Army Corps of Engineers under COL Joseph Totten. Lee named Totten Key just south of Caesars Creek for him.

Totten Street located on Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

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. 3.0 3.1 Totten, J.G. (1838). "Brief Observations On Common Mortars, Hydraulic Mortars, and Concretes" (PDF): 227–253. Retrieved January 18, 2014. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Preserving Fort Jefferson" (PDF). National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Retrieved January 18, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. . Retrieved December 28, 2011.

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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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