Claudius Crozet the Engineer

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Col. Edwin Dooley
Col. Edwin Dooley

Col. Edwin Dooley of Virginia Military Institute, co-author with Robert Hunter, an historian at VMI, of a 1989 biography of Claudius Crozet, spoke at the Crozet Library soiree Nov. 13, recounting the life of the town’s namesake and stressing his impact on Virginia’s transportation network and on engineering education in America.

“Crozet is one of Virginia’s most important historical figures, but he’s little known by most Virginians,” said Dooley. “His contributions to transportation continue to this day because roads and railroads follow routes surveyed by Crozet. He brought the practice of engineering according to science to the U.S.

“The origins of modern technical education trace to France and the Ecole Polytechnique, the leading scientific school in France, the model for West Point and for VMI. Crozet was the main link between the schools. He introduced descriptive geometry to engineering schools.” Descriptive geometry was the new way to accurately depict three-dimensional forms in two-dimensional drawings. Today we refer to it as mechanical drawing.

Crozet was born on Dec. 31, 1789 in Villefrance in the Rhone. Crozet’s father was a wine merchant. Dooley said he visited the town and met many people with the Crozet surname. He suggested that our town in Virginia and the one in France should have a “sister-town” connection.

“It’s clear he had a thorough education in mathematics,” said Dooley. “He could also produce elegant drawings.”

“Napoleon gave the Ecole Polytechnique a military character, put students in barracks and into infantry corps. He stressed practicality for army engineering needs rather than the theoretical work the school was known for. Crozet’s teachers there also wrote the textbooks.

“The instructional practice at the Ecole was copied at West Point and VMI. It stressed recapitulation of earlier lessons and more practice. With the Enlightenment stress on measurements, students began to be given numerical grades.

“Crozet went on to artillery school and was made a second lieutenant in 1809. He went to Holland where he studied waterworks. He was in Marshal Ney’s division in the invasion of Russia. He was captured at Borodino and was a prisoner for two years.” Dooley said he thinks Crozet may have been in the home of a Russian nobleman where he taught French and math.

“With the return of Napoleon, he went to Waterloo, but his artillery got bogged down and couldn’t get through to the battle. He married Agatha Decamp in 1816 in Paris. In 1817 he was appointed to West Point as an instructor in military and civil engineering. He changed the curriculum there to resemble the Ecole Polytechnique’s, translated his teachers’ textbooks, and introduced the use of blackboards and chalk to classrooms. In 1821 he wrote a textbook on descriptive geometry. French was considered the language of science in that day.

Claudius Crozet
Claudius Crozet

“He felt unappreciated at West Point, where he also taught grand strategy and tactics and artillery. He was a real republican,” said Dooley, meaning an anti-monarchist and democrat as the label was understood in the era of the French Revolution. “He organized the West Point faculty against the superintendent and the superintendent had him arrested.

“In Virginia his work was mainly west of the Blue Ridge [before West Virginia was formed]. He mapped Rt. 60, started canals, and became an advocate of railroads. He was opposed by investors in the James River Canal. It’s incredible what he did. The canal side won and he went to Louisiana to be state engineer where he also came up against vested interests. He returned to Virginia and found that a favorable view of railroads had come in. In 1848 he was appointed to build the Blue Ridge railroad and four tunnels. When it was completed, the Blue Ridge tunnel was the longest in the U.S. It was extraordinary and immensely dangerous given the means they had. The power of their mathematics was incredible. When they holed through, the shafts were right together. That they completed the tunnel at all is amazing.

“He was elected the first president of the VMI Board of Visitors and his next eight years were dedicated to VMI. He did not teach there, but he designed the course of studies and the regulations of the school. He was always keenly interested in VMI until his death in 1864.

“Crozet was described as ‘intolerant of quacks, especially in his own profession.’ He was considered irritable. He detested Napoleon, and kings and rank. He abhorred war. He was a man of the people and a protector of their rights.

“Crozet truly loved Virginia and Virginia made him one of their own.”

Dooley said he is one of a very few people who has actually seen Crozet, because he was present when his grave at VMI was opened and the cast-iron casket was accidentally punctured. He casket also had a glass window. “He was only bones,” said Dooley, “but his clothes were in good condition. He was dressed in a black jacket, a striped vest, slippers and a bow tie.” VMI also has a hat and watch fob of his.

The bones were examined at the Smithsonian Institution and showed Crozet had rheumatism and arthritis. He was reburied across from the mess hall, which bears his name. Dooley said that it would have better to name the engineering building for him.

In answers to questions from the audience, Dooley said it appears that Crozet’s father may have come to America once and that may have influenced him to emigrate. He may have had relatives in Louisiana.

“He mastered English very quickly,” said Dooley. “U.Va. has correspondence between Crozet and Jefferson. Crozet tried to get an engineering job at U.Va. but Jefferson had to turn him down because the University wasn’t ready yet.

“VMI owns a desk that belonged to Crozet and a secret drawer was found in it that had proof of his time at the Ecole Polytechnique. State archives are full of his correspondence. A book could be written about him as a mapmaker.

“We have very little evidence about his personal life, not even hints. A son and daughter died before him. Envelopes were found with their hair and baby teeth in them.”

Dooley acknowledged an observation by Dan Burke, a researcher with Clann Mohr, who noted that Crozet’s letters show him to be a gentleman. “He tried to be,” agreed Dooley.

“What we don’t realize is that he was constantly on the go, traveling, and he had to supervise other projects, too. He was a man on horseback. He was on the move all the time, but he had periods where he was ill. He was bushwhacking his way through west Virginia in his 60’s.”

Asked about Crozet’s view of slavery, Dooley said, “He did not believe in it, but he lived in Virginia and he accepted it. He resisted hiring slaves for the tunnel work. He did have one or two personal slaves who were with him.

“He volunteered for the Virginia army [when the Civil War started] but he was told to go home. He was too old. He had no direct involvement in the war.”

The Valentine Museum in Richmond has Crozet’s officer’s uniform and sword, Dooley said. It’s a red artillery uniform.

“Crozet is too little known. We need to keep his name up. He did a tremendous amount of work for Virginia.”

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