Totten, Joseph G.
Born: 1788-08-23 New Haven, Connecticut
Died: 1864-04-22 Washington, D.C.
Joseph G. Totten was a U.S. Army officer, scientist, and pioneer in the field of military engineering. Raised by a maternal uncle following the death of his mother and the appointment of his father to a post in the Caribbean, Totten entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1802. He graduated in 1805, and the War Department commissioned him second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He resigned his commission within a year to serve as his guardian's secretary when he became surveyor general of the Northwest Territory. Returning to the Army and the Corps of Engineers with the rank of second lieutenant in 1808, Totten became assistant engineer of the harbor defenses of New York City. In 1810, he earned promotion to first lieutenant, and in 1812, received promotion to captain. During the War of 1812, Totten served as chief engineer of the army in campaigns in 1812 and 1813 on the Niagara front. In June 1813, he was breveted major for meritorious services, and in September 1814, he was breveted lieutenant colonel for gallantry at the Battle of Plattsburgh. After the war, he continued work on coast, harbor, and river defenses in New York and New England. In 1816, he married Catlyna Pearson, with whom he would have seven children. He received promotion to major in 1818 and lieutenant colonel in 1828. In December 1838, the War Department promoted him to colonel and appointed him chief engineer of the U.S. Army. He also became inspector of the U.S. Military Academy. He would hold both these positions until his death.
During the Mexican War, Totten was chief engineer of the army commanded by Winfield Scott and directed engineering operations during the siege of Vera Cruz. He was breveted brigadier general for his meritorious service during the siege. During the Civil War, Totten continued to command the Engineering Corps and serve as the head of the Engineering Bureau. In March 1863, he received promotion to brigadier general, and in April 1864, he was breveted major general for his long service to his country.
In addition to his military career, Totten was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution from its inception in 1846 to his death. He was one of the incorporators of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the Lighthouse Board, responsible for the organization of lighthouses, and he made a major technical contribution by developing a system of higher intensity lighting. He was harbor commissioner for New York and Boston during the Civil War, and he did groundbreaking work in harbor preservation and improvement. He wrote several treatises on national defense, and contributed articles on mineralogy and conchology (study of shells) to scientific journals.
Gravestone, Congressional Cemetery, Washington, DC; Edward Hagerman, "Totten, Joseph Gilbert," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21:764-65; George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, 3rd ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891), 1:63-64.