California and the Civil War
Ring Around The Golden Gate
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired)
    "In view of a possibility of a hostile force threatening this city I have desired the chief engineer, Colonel DeRussy, to submit to me a plan for temporary defensive works. I shall then throw up field-works to command the approaches, but we may be somewhat embarrassed for the want of a sufficient number of heavy guns. The forts at Fort Point and on Alcatraz Island have in position about one-half of the guns required for their complete armament. I deem it of importance that the balance of the armament for these forts should be sent out as soon as practicable."
    General George C. Wright to the Adjutant General of the Army, December 19, 1861.


With secession on the land, Pacific Coast fears of a Confederate invasion were centered on its most important harbor, San Francisco. But the priority was in the East. It was to take far more than the four years of Civil War to make San Francisco safe behind bulwarks and gun batteries.

In 1861 an inspection of the harbor's defenses was so dismaying that it was not made public; it showed much which should not be made public at this moment." The Bay was short at least 200 guns and the appropriate ammunition, needed at least 1,550 artillerymen to man its defenses, and most of the defenses still had to be built.

Eighty-nine guns were offered by the Navy at Mare Island, but these had shipboard mounts and would require new carnages. At Benicia Arsenal the only available carriages had been used by a New York Regiment in 1846 and they were considered obsolete at that time.

And in the city, there was open talk of taking sides with the South or of setting up a Pacific Republic. The San Francisco Bulletin might editorialize that before this came about, "There are 100,000 men in California who would have to be put to the sword," but still it took mass parades and completion of the intercontinental telegraph line before the Legislature would pledge its allegiance to the Union.

Plans for the defenses were sent to Washington. Action was so slow that General Wright wrote bluntly to the adjutant general. "I fear greatly the masterly inactivity system and the time consumed in planning and deliberating as to the best points for our batteries, and then going to work with our permanent fortifications, slowness may be fatal," he complained. "While we are meditating some morning, the first thing we shall know will be the enemy's guns thundering against the city."

It was feared that the privateer could use fog as a cover to steal past the defense lines and imperil the city. The fear was well founded. The Confederate privateer Shenandoah, 25 sinkings and five captures to her record, planned to do just this. The surrender at Appomattox was the most effective single reason this did not come about.

The slow fortifying of San Francisco had one advantage. Bancroft's History of California says: "Vast sums have been saved by the neglect, for such has been the improvement in war vessels and heavy ordnance that expensive changes must have been made every few years."

Plan for San Francisco's Harbor Defense, 1863
Plan for San Francisco's defenses was submitted in this fashion in 1863 by 73-year old Colonel Rene E. DeRussy, builder of many east coast forts and superintendent of San Francisco harbor throughout Civil War. Most of the defenses ultimately were adopted, but long after DeRussy's death. His plan as it appears in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.
This page was reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West, published in 1965


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Updated 8 February 2016