William Luther Sibert (1860-1935) was a civil engineer involved in several of the ambitious construction projects undertaken by the U.S. government, including the Panama Canal, the Soo Locks on the Great Lakes, and the Hoover Dam in the American Southwest. He also oversaw the construction of the Alabama State Docks at Mobile in the mid-1920s. In addition, Sibert is known as the "father of the Chemical Corps," having been the first commander of the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. Throughout the course of his almost 40-year military career, Sibert earned a reputation as a skilled manager of large-scale and complex projects.
Sibert was born on a farm near Keener, Etowah County, on October 12, 1860, to William J. and Marietta Ward Sibert. Sibert's grandfather, David, had come to Alabama from South Carolina in 1819 and purchased the family's property from the Cherokees in the area. Sibert's father served briefly in the Confederate Army, suffering a wound in the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia that left him unable to make a living at farming. The family then moved to Gadsden in 1867.
Sibert attended primary school but left before high school. He entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, in 1878 after a single year of preparatory work with a tutor. His scholastic performance won him a scholarship for his second year, and in 1880 he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Sibert distinguished himself as a student and graduated as one of the top cadets in his class in 1884. During post-graduate training at the Engineer School of Application at Willets Point, New York, he met and married Mary Margaret Cummings, with whom he would have seven sons and one daughter. Two sons died in infancy, but several others would have distinguished careers in the military, serving in World Wars I and II and the Korean War.
Sibert was appointed a second lieutenant in 1887 and was assigned to oversee improvements in the lock and dam system on the Green and Barren Rivers near Bowling Green, Kentucky. Four years later, he was assigned to the ambitious project to construct a new lock in a lock-and-dam system near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which enables ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes. (Originally named the Sault Locks, they became known as the "Soo Locks" for the French pronunciation of "Sault.") Sibert was a key assistant on the portion of the project that extended from the lower end of Lake Huron to the upper end of Lake Erie. His performance earned him an independent command in charge of the River and Harbor District at Little Rock, Arkansas, just two years later. With the outbreak of the Philippine-American War in 1899, Sibert was assigned to the Eighth Army Corps as its chief engineer. His primary responsibility during the conflict was overseeing the rehabilitation of the key Manila-Dagupan Railroad.
Sibert returned to the United States in 1900 and was placed in charge of rivers and harbors in the Louisville District in Kentucky for a short time. Reassigned to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he supervised improvements on the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. His tasks included the construction of a series of locks and dams and the destruction of a dam on the Allegheny River to prevent the inundation of Pittsburgh during the flood of 1905, earning him a commendation from Congress.
In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt tapped Sibert, by then a major, to be part of the Isthmian Canal Commission charged with building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. As the head engineer of the Atlantic Division, Sibert was placed in charge of the design and construction of the extremely large and complex Gatun Locks. He also oversaw the building of the Gatun Dam on the Chagres River, the largest earthen dam ever built when completed in 1913. The resulting Gatun Lake was the largest man-made body of water ever created up to that time, comprising more than 40 percent of the Panama Canal's navigational channel. In addition, Sibert directed construction of the breakwater in Colón Harbor and the excavation of the seven-mile-long channel from Gatun to the Caribbean Sea during his time on the project. Sibert's work was aided by fellow Alabamian and U.S. Army physician William Crawford Gorgas, who oversaw efforts to combat mosquito-borne illnesses in the region.
Sibert returned to the United States in 1914 and then spent several months working on flood mitigation preparedness in China with the Red Cross. On March 15, 1915, Sibert was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. Also in 1915, Sibert's wife died; he married Juliette Roberts in 1917, and she died 15 months later. Following the outbreak of World War I, he was named the first commanding general of the First Infantry Division, known as the "the Big Red One." Sibert oversaw the unit's combat training and led them to France in 1917. (The division would go on to participate in many important actions.) He returned to the United States in January 1918 to become the commanding general of the Southeastern Department of the Army at Charleston, South Carolina.
Later in 1918, Sibert was advanced to the rank of major general and in June was named the commander of the newly formed Chemical Warfare Service (CWS). The unit was created at the recommendation of Gen. John J. Pershing and encompassed several previously existing units, including the Gas Service Section, which he had taken over in May, and the Chemical Service Section, both of which were created in response to the use of chemical weapons in World War I. Sibert oversaw the training of countermeasures to protect soldiers from this new type of weaponry as well as the research and development for their use by U.S. forces. Sibert was later awarded the U.S. Army's Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Honor from the French government for his work organizing and administering the Chemical Warfare Service during the war. In early 1920, the Army came very close to eliminating the CWS, and Sibert resigned from active duty that April after testifying before Congress about the continuing need for the unit. The Chemical Warfare Service was made a permanent branch of the regular Army by the National Defense Act of 1920. (In 1946, it was renamed the Chemical Corps.)
In 1922, he married Evelyn Clyne Bairnsfather of Edinburgh, Scotland. The couple retired to a farm near Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Sibert enjoyed foxhunting. In 1923, however, he returned to Alabama to lead the construction of the $10 million Alabama State Docks project at Mobile. The project was spurred in part by a desire on the part of Alabama business interests to capitalize on the surge in maritime trade brought about by the completion of the Panama Canal. In his five years as director of the Alabama State Docks Commission and chief engineer of the project, Sibert oversaw the creation of a 500-acre site that integrated modern port facilities with pre-existing railroad lines.
In 1928, Congress appointed Sibert chairman of an advisory board to investigate and report on the construction of Boulder Dam on the Colorado River. (The project was later renamed Hoover Dam.) Sibert then returned to retirement at his Kentucky farm. He died on October 16, 1935, and 2,000 troops took part in the military honors at his burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1942, the Army established Camp Sibert in Etowah County to house its first Chemical Warfare Center. The site, the first
large-scale chemical agent training area in the United States, was deactivated in 1945. A military camp near Boulder City,
Nevada, established in the early 1940s was also named in Sibert's honor, although the name was later changed to Camp Williston.
That facility closed in 1944. In 1961, Sibert was inducted posthumously into the Alabama Hall of Fame. The U.S. Army Chemical
Corps presents the Major General William L. Sibert Award (Sibert Award), established in 1988 to the best chemical company
on active duty, in the Army Reserve, and in the National Guard.
Brophy, Leo P. and George J. B. Fisher. The Chemical Warfare Service: Organizing for War. 1959. Reprint, Washington D.C.: The Center of Military History, United States Army, 1989.
Clark, Edward B. William L. Sibert: The Army Engineer. Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company Inc., 1930.
Sibert, William Luther and John Frank Stevens. The Construction of the Panama Canal. New York: Appleton and Company, 1915.
C. J. Schexnayder
Published December 6, 2012
Last updated December 6, 2012