"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."
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
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
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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