The Mexican War and California
The Two Forts of Fort Hill
The Siege of Los Angeles and Fort Moore
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
It is a fact not generally known that there were three fortifications and two forts planned, the first only partially constructed, on what has been called Fort Hill.
The Siege of Los Angeles
Fort Hill was a prominent hill overlooking the pueblo of Los Angeles. Its commanding view of the city made it a strategic location.

One of the historical fictions that appears in most of the "write ups" of Fort Hill is the statement that Fort Moore was built by Capt. Archibald H. Gillespie, USMC. In all fairness, the first fortification on Fort Hill was indeed established when Capt. Gillespie moved to erect a temporary barricade of earth-filled sacks and mounted his cannon during the siege upon the Americans at Los Angeles.

On August 11, Stockton had begun his march on Los Angeles. He took with him a battery of four guns. Col. Fremont, who had been sent to San Diego with his battalion of 160 men, had begun his march to join Stockton on August 8. He took with him 120 men, leaving about 40 to garrison San Diego. Fremont's troops joined Stockton just south of the city, and at 4:00 P.M. on August 13, the combined force, numbering nearly 500 men, entered the pueblo of Los Angeles without opposition. With the city of Los Angeles in their possession, Commodore Stockton appointed Capt. Gillespie military commandant of the southern department, with headquarters at Los Angeles, and assigned him a garrison of fifty men. He left Los Angeles on September 2d. Fremont, with the remainder of his battalion, took leave of the place a few days later.

Nearly all historians who have written upon this subject lay the blame for the subsequent uprising of the Californians and their revolt against the rule of the military commandant, Gillespie, to his petty tyrannies. Bancroft states:

"Gillespie had been left by Stockton as military commandant of the south, with a garrison of fifty men at Los Angeles. His instructions were to maintain military rule in accordance with the commodore's proclamation; but he was authorized to grant exemption from the more burdensome restrictions to quiet and well-disposed citizens at his discretion; and a lenient policy in this respect was recommended. From a purely political point of view, Gillespie's task was not a difficult one; that is, there was no disposition on the part of the Angelinos to revolt against the new regime. . . . Gillespie had no special qualifications for his new position; and his subordinates were still less fitted for their duties. They were disposed to look down upon Californians and Mexicans as an inferior race, as a cowardly foe that had submitted without resistance. . . ."

Scarcely had Stockton and Fremont, with their men, left the city before trouble began. Within two weeks from the time Stockton sailed from San Pedro hostilities had begun and the city was in a state of siege. Bancroft concludes: "The result was an actual revolt; and there can be little doubt that Gillespie and his men were largely responsible for this result.

Gillespie, writing in the Sacramento Statesman in 1858, thus describes the first attack:

"On the 22d of September, at three o'clock in the morning, a party of sixty-five Californians and Sonorenos made an attack upon my small command quartered in the government house. We were not wholly surprised, and with twenty-one rifles we beat them back without loss to ourselves, killing and wounding three of their number."

Gillespie left the government house and had taken position of Fort Hill, where he erected a temporary barricade of sacks filled with earth and mounted his cannons. Besieged by the Californians, Gillespie's situation was growing more desperate each day. Eventually, 600 indignant local citizens completely surrounded his forces. Finally, Gen. Flores issued his ultimatum to the Americans –surrender within twenty-four hours or take the consequence which might have resulted in the massacre of the entire garrison.

Articles of capitulation were drawn up and signed by Gillespie and the leaders of the Californians. On September 30, the Americans marched out of the city with all the honors of war, the fortification abandoned.

Most historians who have written upon this subject have incorrectly associated this first fortification by Capt. Gillespie as one of the two forts built on Fort Hill. The fortification on Fort Hill was just that –a fortified position. The first fort would not be established until Los Angeles was recaptured by Stockton and Fremont.
The Unnamed (Emory) Fort
The first of these two forts was actually designed by Lieut. William H. Emory, topographical engineer of General Kearney's staff, and its work was begun under his direction by order of Commodore Stockton. At the time, reports led Stockton to believe that Gen. Flores' army was encamped in the neighborhood of the city and was making plans to retake it, so Stockton decided to fortify the city.

We learn from Lieut. William H. Emory, from his "Notes of a Military Reconnaissance," that on January 11, Stockton had ordered Emory "to select a site and place a fort capable of containing a hundred men. With this in view a rapid reconnaissance of the town was made and the plan of a fort sketched, so placed as to enable a small garrison to command the town and the principal avenues to it. The plan was approved."

The fort referred to by Emory is that of the first. The second fort, Fort Moore, appears to have been established on the same location, but some three months after the first. A main purpose of the fort was to prevent rebellion so its principal embrasure commanded church and plaza, most probable rallying points. One hundred men were planned to garrison it.

Emory's notes continue:

"January 12. —I laid off the work and before night broke the first ground. . . . It was therefore desirable to establish a fort which, in case of trouble, should enable a small garrison to hold out till aid might come from San Diego, San Francisco or Monterey, places which are destined to become centers of American settlements."

Bancroft confirms this by simply stating "Emory broke ground for his fortifications on the 12th. . . ." Emory goes on to state:

"January 15. —The details to work on the fort were by companies. I (Emory) sent to Capt. Tilghman, who commanded on the hill, to detach one of the companies under his command to commence the work."

Capt. Tilghman furnished a company of artillery (from the ship CONGRESS). As progress was being made on the fort, Col. John C. Fremont, with his battalion of 450 men, arrived in the city from Cahuenga.

On January 18, Kearney, having quarreled with Stockton about who should be governor of the conquered territory, prepared to leave for San Diego, taking with him Lieut. Emory and the other members of his staff, and the dragoons. Stockton appointed Col. Fremont governor, and Col. Russell, of the battalion, secretary of state, and then took his departure to San Diego, where his ship, the CONGRESS, was lying. The sailors and marines departed on the 20th for San Pedro to rejoin their ships, and work on the fort was abandoned.

Lieut. Emory concludes:

"Subsequent to my leaving the Ciudad de Los Angeles, the entire plan of the fort was changed, and I am not the projector of the work finally adopted for defense of that town."

This first fort, never completed by Lieut. Emory, was thereby disbanded and never named.

Fort Moore
A second plan for a fort, Fort Moore, much like the first, was located on what was earlier called Fort Hill. Planned by Lieut. J. W. Davidson, of the First U.S. Dragoons, it was built primarily by the men of the Mormon Battalion and named Fort Moore.

Benjamin D. Moore, after whom the fort was named, was captain of Company A, First U.S. Dragoons. He was killed by a lance thrust in the disastrous charge at San Pasqual.

On March 17, the famed Mormon Battalion under Col. Philip St. George Cooke had arrived in Los Angeles. Three months after work had ceased on Emory's fort, on April 23, the construction of the second fort was begun. The work on the fort was predicated upon rumors of an approaching of the enemy. On May 3, Col. Cooke writes:

"A report was received through the most available sources of information that Gen. Bustamente had cross the gulf near the head in boats of the pearl fishers, and at last information was at a rancho on the western road 70 leagues below San Diego."

Col. Stevenson's regiment of New York volunteers had arrived in California, and two companies of the volunteers had been sent to Los Angeles. The report that Col. Cooke had received large reinforcements and that the place was being fortified, was supposed to have frightened Bustamente into abandoning the recapture of Los Angeles. The scare, however, had but one effect –completion of the fort.

The old fort was located along the easterly line of Fort Street (what is now Broadway). It began near the northerly line of Dr. Wills' lot and extended southerly to the fourth lot south of Fort Moore Place, a length of 400 feet. It was a breastwork with bastions and embrasures for cannon. The principal embrasure covered the church and plaza. It was a strong position for two hundred men.

In the rear of the fort was a deep ravine which ran diagonally from an old cemetery to Spring Street just south of Temple. A road to the cemetery led up this ravine. The place was known as the Canada de Los Muertos (meaning "the canon of the dead").

The material for the fort was obtained from timber in the San Gabriel mountains, with the volunteer Mormon battalion doing most of the work.

On May 13, Col. J. B. Stevenson succeeded Col. Cooke in command of the southern military district. As the fort approached completion, Col. Stevenson's attention turned to finding a suitable flagstaff as there was no tall timber in the vicinity of Los Angeles. The colonel wanted a flagstaff that would be an honor to his field works –nothing less than a pole 150 feet high. A local Californian, Juan Ramirez, claimed to have seen some trees in the San Bernardino Mountains that were "mucho alto" –very tall –just what was needed for a flagstaff. Ramirez, with a small army of Indian laborers, under an escort of ten soldiers from the Mormon battalion departed for the headwaters of Mill Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains. Within the month Juan Ramirez's cavalcade and its Mormon escort emerged with "two tree trunks, one about 90 feet and the other 75 or 80 feet long." The carpenters among the volunteers spliced the two pieces of timber together and soon fashioned a beautiful flagstaff a hundred and fifty feet in length. The flag pole was raised near what is now the southeast corner of North Broadway (known then as Fort Street) and Fort Moore Place (which runs parallel to Hill Street).

By the first of July work had so far progressed on the fort that Col. Stevenson decided to dedicate and name it on the 4th. He issued an official order for the celebration of the anniversary of the birthday of American Independence at Los Angeles.

"At sunrise a Federal salute will be fired from the field work on the hill, which commands this town, and for the first time from this point the American standard will be displayed. At 10 o'clock every soldier at this post will be under arms. The detachment of the 7th Regiment, New York Volunteers, and 1st Regiment, U.S. Dragoons (dismounted), will be marched to the field work on the hill, when, together with the Mormon battalion, the whole will be formed at 11 o'clock A. M. into a hollow square, when the Declaration of Independence will be read. At the close of this ceremony the field work will be dedicated and appropriately named; and at 12 o'clock a national salute will be fired. The field work at this post having been planned and the work constructed entirely by Lieut. Davidson of the First Dragoons, he is requested to hoist upon it for the first time, on the morning of the 4th, the American Standard. It is the custom of our country to confer on its fortifications the name of some distinguished individual who has rendered important services to his country either in councils of the nation or on the battlefield. The commandant has therefore determined, unless the department of war shall otherwise direct, to confer upon the field work erected at the port of Los Angeles the name of one who was regarded by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance as a perfect specimen of an American officer, and whose character for every virtue and accomplishment that adorns a gentleman was only equaled by the reputation he had acquired in the field for his gallantry as an officer and soldier, and his life was sacrificed in the conquest of this territory at the battle of San Pasqual. The commander directs that from and after the 4th instant it shall bear the name of Moore."

On July 4, 1847 a great ceremony took place as planned. Capt. Stuart Taylor was selected to read the Declaration of Independence in English, and Stephen C. Foster read it in Spanish. The day's festivities ended with a fandango (dance) where both Mormon and Mexican, native and soldier, met in a mixing of cultures, as the conquerors from the US Army garrison, and the Californios who had just a few months before, fought bravely for their independence, met in peace and reconciliation. At its close, even the locals were known to shout "Viva Los Estados Unidos!" (Long live the United States.)

Fort Moore was officially dedicated on July 4, 1847, and remained in service only until 1853, when it was decommissioned. In later years Fort Moore was leveled and became a public playground.

Today, on the site where Fort Moore once stood, a memorial honors the troops who helped too win the Southwest. The memorial is located on Hill Street, between Temple and Ord Streets, and overlooks the Civic Center, and consists of an artificial waterfall and a series of decorative friezes. It was here that the flag of the United States was raised on July 4, 1847 by United States troops at the first Independence Day celebration held in Los Angeles.

In closing, another of the historical fictions that appears in most of the "write ups" of old Fort Moore is the statement that it was built by Fremont. There is absolutely no foundation for such a statement. As has been shown, Gillespie's fortification established no fort; Emory's fort was begun before Fremont's battalion reached Los Angeles, and work ceased on it when Stockton's sailors and marines left the city; and Davidson's fort, Fort Moore, was begun while the battalion was at San Gabriel, a short time before it was mustered out. Fremont left for Monterey shortly after the Mormon battalion began work; and when it was completed, or rather when work stopped on it, he had left California.
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Updated 8 February 2016