California State Military Deptyment
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Historic California Posts:
Presidio of San Francisco
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired)
Executive Director, Council on America's Military Past
Back in 1849, the arrival of 86 soldiers, "all fine looking and in good discipline," was good news indeed to the new commander of the Presidio of San Francisco, Captain Erasmus D. Keyes, 3rd Artillery. But '49 was the year of the Gold Rush. When "We began having dress parades, and doing garrison duty strictly according to Army regulations," Keyes found that within a week he had lost two-thirds of his men.

Desertion to the gold fields turned out to be one of the major problems facing the military installations in San Francisco. For Keyes, it almost wiped out his entire command.
"One night the whole guard, including the corporal, went off," he wrote in his memoirs. An officer was sent in pursuit, overtaking the guard 15 miles away, "shot a couple, but brought back only one wounded soldier, as all his escort joined the deserters."

William T. Sherman, a young lieutenant at the time, also was stationed in California. His Memoirs note that pursuits of deserters had to be composed wholly of officers because the enlisted men were more apt to join the deserters.

The reason for desertions was that a man could earn more in a day at the mines than in a month as a soldier. Prices were so high that when the Headquarters for the Department of the Pacific were set up in San Francisco, an old adobe custom house was used as an office. The commanding general and his wife lived aboard the USS Ohio as guests of the commodore.
Sherman was Adjutant General to the commander, General Persifor T. Smith. Smith succeeded Colonel Richard B. Mason who had asked to be relieved because the war with Mexico was over and, "The soldiers nearly all deserted." Even his cook had left and the colonel had to prepare his own meals.

The Smiths found themselves in the same situation. All but one of their servants disappeared and, to quote Sherman "The general, commanding all the mighty forces on the Pacific coast, had to scratch to get one square meal a day for his family. ...Breakfast would be announced any time between ten and twelve, and dinner according to circumstances." Finally the married officers gave up and sent their families back to the East.

To make ends meet, and, as Keyes noted, "The garrison being too much reduced for proper military service, the officers were allowed by General Smith to do something to increase their pay." Keyes took up surveying and real estate and within a year was receiving $1,000 a month in rentals. In 1856, Congress authorized additional pay for officers and men stationed in California.

Lieutenant H. W. Hollyhock, an associate, also invested in city property, Sherman rejected a suggestion that he buy, too. "I felt actually insulted that he should think me such a fool as to pay money for property in such a horrid place," Sherman noted in his Memoirs.

This "horrid place" had a military history that dated back to 1776 when a 63-man expedition of Spanish soldiers, priests, and settlers arrived to establish a presidio. They brought with them the authority of Spain, in answer to English and Russian overtures from Canada and Alaska. At the same time, Father Junipero Serra established a mission nearby, calling it San Francisco de Asis. Later it was known as Mission Dolores.

The primitive palisaded Presidio was not designed to fend off Indian attacks, because the Indians were considered friendly. As time passed and adobe replaced the rough stick and stone construction, it became obvious that it was not even designed to ward off the changeable San Francisco weather. Throughout the period of pre-American occupation, the Presidio was in a state of continual construction. As fast as new adobe would be built during the dry season, it would be attacked by the rain and atmosphere in the rainy season. Twenty-five years after work started, the fourth wall still had not been completed.
Original Presidio construction Involved both troops and Indians; in 1797 natives who assaulted mission workers had to work "on Presidio in shackles for a month or two," according to Bancroft. In 1800, two soldiers caught breaking into a trunk were sentenced to work on the Presidio for a year.

Thirty soldiers founded the Presidio. Twenty years later, a detachment of 35 more arrived. Patrols and escorts, plus a guard at the mission, usually left the Presidio almost vacant and the small garrison was unable to cope with the deterioration of the post. In 1800 the magazine was covered by drifting sand while a hurricane tore off several roofs. By this time, most of the available labor was being directed to Castillo de San Joaquin, on the future site of Fort Point at the Golden Gate.

Isolated from Spain, there was no hesitancy about changing allegiance to Mexico when the garrison heard about independence in 1822. The Presidio continued in operation, but the deterioration could not be prevented when the garrison was reduced to seven artillerymen in 1835. A year later, all regular troops were recalled. A few retired soldiers and their families remained at the ruined forts.

The United States moved in with little effort in 1846. The decrepit defenses offered no resistance when Marines of the USS Portsmouth landed at Yerba Buena and raised the American flag. Yerba Buena soon was renamed San Francisco, and the plaza of the flag raising, Portsmouth Plaza. In the latter years of a wide open city, the Plaza was to be a vice center.

Above the principal landing, in 1846 the Navy placed "a couple of Navy guns," Sherman remembered. He said the site was named the Battery and, from that, the street received its name. Marines manned the Presidio at the same time.

A few months later, a regiment of
New York Volunteers relieved the Marines at the Presidio. Two companies were designated to repair it. Stores and ordnance were landed at the city wharf, but the heavy guns, mortars, and carriages had to remain at the docks for several years because they could not be moved across the sand hills.
An 1854 inspection was critical of the place. "The quarters for the soldiers were miserable adoby (sic) buildings, the leavings of the Mexican government," it said, "but were kept in good police and order." A temporary wooden barracks was added. With desertions and frequent demands for special details, it was difficult to pursue the matter of construction effectively. When Richard Henry Dana visited the post in 1856, he commented, "The walls stand as they did, with some changes made to accommodate a garrison of United States troops. It has a noble situation."

Devices to minimize desertion included General Bennett Riley's shift of his command to Monterey where they would be farther from the gold fields. The Navy, having lost several crews, took no chances when USS Oregon arrived. She was anchored alongside USS Ohio and her entire crew sent aboard as prisoners until ready to sail. San Francisco owed her early buildings to crew desertions. In 1849, the Presidio saw 549 vessels pass by and within the next five years the harbor had more tonnage than any other port in the world. In 1851, desertions had resulted in the abandonment of 148 ships in the mud along shore. As these were tightly closed in by sand, they became business houses and residence. The sailing ship Apollo became the Apollo saloon; the Euphema was bought by the city as a jail and was moored next to the Apollo on the spot now occupied by the Federal Bank Building.

The expansion of the city brought with it squatters on government lands. Captain Keyes led one "expedition" to clear squatters and, though successful, was brought to court and sued for doing his duty. Presidio troopers also were called out to preserve law and order in the days of Vigilance movements.
These problems stepped to the background in 1861 when a flag of secession was raised for a few moments in San Francisco. Doubts about the status of General Albert. S. Johnston were relieved when General Edwin V. Sumner arrived on April 24, 1861. "I hereby assume command of this department," he proclaimed. "All concerned will govern themselves accordingly."

Sumner found 500 troops in San Francisco, 115 at the Presidio. He made all three Bay posts independent -Presidio, Point, and Alcatraz- and pushed completion of the fortifications. For good measure, he renamed the quartermaster's brig the General Jesup, after the Army Quartermaster General, instead of its previous name honoring John Floyd, former Secretary of War who had gone south. During the Civil War, as it did in later conflicts was the command post for t e Bay. As the inspection report of 1854 stated the Presidio site was "the only spot about here suitable for a command of troops, either for the forts or for instruction, and is ample and convenient."

San Francisco's Oldest Building
The oldest building in San Francisco, this is the original Presidio's Commandants quarters, now used as Officers' Club. It was built between 1776 and 1778, remodeled in 1850, altered again in 1900, 1912 (when electricity was installed), 1915, and in 1934 when it was restored to original architecture. Vancouver visited it in 1792, later gave this description: "The apartment in the commandant's house into which we were ushered was about 30 feet long, 14 feet broad, and 12 feet high; and the other room, or chamber, I judged to be of the same dimensions, excepting its length, which appeared to be somewhat less. The floor was of the native soil raised about three feet from its original level, without being boarded, paved, or even reduced to an even surface; the roof was covered in flags and rushes, the walls on the inside had once been whitewashed; the furniture consisted of a very sparing assortment of the most indispensable articles, of the rudest fashion, and of the meanest kind; and ill accorded with the ideas we had conceived of the sumptuous manner in which the Spaniards live on this side of the globe."
The front wall of Commandant's house includes about 75 percent original construction, but with alterations from 1792 Vancouver description. He said that walls are a sufficient security against inclemency of the weather yet the windows, 'which are cut in the front wall, and look into the square are destitute of glass, or an other defense that does not at the same time exclude the light." He suggested that buildings "in winter, or rainy seasons must at the best be very uncomfortable dwellings."
Captain Vancouver's Visit to the Presidio, 1792
When he visited San Francisco in 1792, English Captain George Vancouver was permitted to visit Presidio. He found it "a square area, whose sides were about 200 yards in length, enclosed by a mud wall, and resembling a pound for cattle. Above this wall the thatched roofs of their low small houses just made their appearance. On entering the Presidio, we found one of its sides still uninclosed by the wall, and very indifferently fenced in by a few bushes here and there, fastened to stakes in the ground... It is about 14 feet high, five in breadth, and was first formed by uprights and horizontal rafters of large timber, between which dried sods and moistened earth were pressed as close and as hard as possible; after which the whole was cased with earth, made into a sort of mud plaster) which gave it the appearance of durability. ...Houses were along the wall, within the square, and their fronts uniformly extended the same distance into the area." He said the church was small, whitewashed with a lime made from crushed sea shells, and extended deeper into the parade ground. He added that the Presidio was incapable of making resistance against a foreign invasion," its only cannon being a three pounder mounted on a carriage that was beginning to fall apart. When Vancouver's visit was discovered by Spanish authorities, commandant was reprimanded for permitting too close all inspection of the place. (Redrawn from plate in Bancroft's History of California; north arrow is as shown in Bancroft but it actually points west.)
 GH  Guard House
 B  Barracks
 COQ  Commanding Officer Quarters
 SGTQ  Sergeant's Quarters

The Presidio Hospital
The Presidio Hospital, 1887
The Hospital Building was built in 1854, is oldest Army construction at Presidio. Its brick foundations and pine and hemlock girders were shipped around Horn. Inspection 1866, although critical of remainder of the Presidio, found, "The hospital was in all respects in good condition " In 1870, surgeon reported hospital was arranged for 50 beds with average occupancy of 17, and the sick list had been mostly composed of venereal diseases contracted in San Francisco." His statistics showed 141 cases out of mean strength of 319.5 men in 1869.
The city's notoriety was mentioned in President U. S. Grant's Memoirs, In 1853 he found "Eating, drinking and gambling houses were conspicuous for their number and publicity. They were on the first floor with doors wide open. At all hours of the day and night in walking the streets, the eye was regaled, on every block near the waterfront, by the sight of players at faro."
In 1854 he noticed, "Gambling houses had disappeared from public view. The city had become staid staid and orderly." This was disputed by General Busling's 1866 visit to Barbary Coast. "Here in narrow, noisome alleys are congregated the wretched Chinese women, that are imported by the ship-load, mainly for infamous purposes," he wrote in Across Arrierica. "They are not more immodest, than those of our own race, who ply the same vocation in Philadelphia and New York . . . San Francisco owes it to herself-to obliderate, to stamp out this plague spot." The San Francisco Call had this to say of the Barbary Coast at the time: "That sunk of moral pollution, whose reefs are strewn with human wrecks, and into whose vortex are constantly drifting barks of moral life, while swiftly down the whirlpool of death go the sinking hulks of the murderer and suicide . . . The coast where no gentle breezes blow but where rages the sirocco of sin" The reform movement of 1917 ended the vice reign in San Francisco.

The Presidio in the 1870's through 1890's
The Presidio in the 1870's matches ground plan. Triple-story bachelor officer quarter is on right, original Presidio building is left of center in picture (behind horse-drawn wood cart). Alcatraz is at the right edge of the picture in this view to north-northeast down center of the parade ground. At the right of the flag pole is the hospital, dating from 1854 and still at the original site. Post was inspected in 1866 when it had 1,156 officers and men in 16 companies, 14 of them preparing for duty in Arizona. Brevet Brigadier C. A. Whittier; the inspector, had few good comments to make. He noted regarding drill "Movements not known to the Regulations of the Army or the approved tactics were being continually ordered by the commanding officer. The review so far as it depended upon simultaneous movements of an the troops was a failure and would have been discreditable to a first sergeant commanding. He found quartermaster records a mess. Condition of the post indicated, "little or no attention being paid to policing," with no toilet facilities in guardhouse huts occupied by 59 prisoners. The quarters of men being mustered out were "very dirty." His recommendation was to remove or reassign post commander who had "almost complete lack of knowledge of the fort and who is incompetent."
A parallelogram, 550 yards by 150, was shape of the Presidio by 1870, completely swallowing up original site. Barracks at southwestern corner of parade ground was original commandant's house. Officers quarters included 12 31- by 18-foot story-and-a-half frame cottages and one three-story frame building, 114 by 32 feet plus a 44- by 30-foot wing, that had 39 rooms for bachelor officers. Barracks for 900 men included nine frame buildings; laundresses and their families lived in the adobe barracks. Because of strong winds from Golden Gate that blew into front of officers' row, a lattice screen of lath, 12 feet high, was built across front of row. Picket fence surrounded entire post on city side. (Redrawn from plate in Surgeon-General Circular No. 4, 1870.)
 B  Barracks
 BK  Bakery
 BLK  Blacksmith
 H  Hospital
 OQ Officer Quarters
 SH  Storehouse
 ST  Stables
By 1890, frontier version of Presidio had been replaced by this permanent brick construction. At this time, post included six artillery batteries, a cavalry troop, and two companies of infantry. It could accommodate 39 officers and 562 enlisted men. In 1889 it was scene of one of Army's first boards to examine officers for promotion. Thirty-three were tested and "It was a very lively and, I think, an efficient board, commented Anson Mills, a member. A canteen was established at Presidio in 1889 when annual admission rate for alcoholism was 114.05 per 1,000 men; by 1891 rate had dropped astoundingly to 8.68.
Known Units at the Presidio:
World War II
Fourth Army and Western Defense Command*
Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 44th Ordnance Battalion (Supply and Maintenance)*
Company B (Light Maintenance), 67th Quartermaster Battalion*
Ninth Corps Area (After 1942, 9th Sevice Command)*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1900*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1901 (Recruiting Service)*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1902 (National Guard Sergeant Instructors)*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1903 (Reserve Officer Training Corps)*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1904 (Organized Reserves, 1st Military Area)*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1923 (CCC Installations [NCA])*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1927 (Station Complement)*
Corps Area Service Unit (After 1942, Service Command Unit) 1929 (Bakers and Cooks School)*

To find out more about the Presidio of San Francisco, visit the National Park Service's Presidio Website
Need directions to the Presidio? CLICK HERE
Recommended Reading on the history of the Presidio of San Francisco:

This page was reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West, published in 1965

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