State Military Department
- The California
State Military Museum
- Preserving California's
- Historic California
- Camp Yerba Buena
- (Military Post
at Goat Island)
- This 116 acre island,
nicknamed Goat Island, situated in San Francisco Bay, about two
and a quarter miles northeast of the city, was originally intended
for the installation of artillery batteries in defense of the
bay. Established in 1868, it served however as a regular Army
camp until 1880, when the island and the improvements built on
it by the Army were transferred to the Navy Department.
- by Colonel Herbert
M. Hart, USMC (retired)
- Executive Director,
Council on America's Military Past
- Although it always seemed
to be in the middle of things whenever schemes for the defense
of San Francisco were devised, Yerba Buena Island finished the
Civil War as nothing more than a paperwork fortress.
It was in 1861 that the first recommendation for garrisoning
the island was made, and by the Navy rather than the Army. Fearing
that a ship could sneak by Fort Point and Alcatraz in San Francisco's
fogs, the Mare Island Navy Yard commandant recommended "earthworks
be thrown up on Yerba Buena Island and a battery of guns planted
on Point Rincon to bring a cross fire on any vessel that got
past Alcatraz on the city side."
The Army engineers agreed. They included this plan in their recornmendations
in 1862, proposing a gun on the island would "command the
anchorage and protect the city.
When the final engineer plan was submitted a year later, spurred
on by rumors of a Confederate plan to invade the harbor, two
batteries were recommended for Yerba Buena Island. One would
be on the eastern shore mounting heavy guns, the other on the
southern shore for eight 32-pounder guns. "A temporary redoubt
or block house to protect the rear of the two batteries"
was proposed for the northern portion.
San Francisco businessmen provided $20,000 so that work could
start immediately there and at Rincon Point, and an official
request for $100,000 was dispatched to Washington. On August
11, 1863, orders directed the immediate preparations "for
constructing temporary quarters near the works about to be established
on Yerba Buena Island. The command will consist of one field
officer and four companies. It is desirable that work should
be done as rapidly as possible."
No sooner had this decision been made than a telegram was received
from Washington: "works on Rincon Point and Yerba Buena
Island will not be constructed at present," ordered General Henry W. Halleck, himself a veteran of the 1850's
in San Francisco.
The reason for the cancellation: both points "are of too
secondary importance to justify their construction while the
external lines are incomplete." And, besides that, by the
time a vessel came within reach of their guns, it could fire
on the anchorage and the city, and the defenses would be useless.
Rincon Point was dropped without much argument. Engineers had
noted that a battery there would have meant tearing down a dozen
buildings Any practice firing would have toppled a warehouse
and a hospital below the proposed earthworks.
But Yerba Buena Island was another matter. When General Irvin
McDowell took command in 1864, the deposed hero of the Army of
the Potomac reopened the battle. He mentioned Rincon Point again,
but was particularly positive regarding the island.
"I wish some of the same enlightened judgment in this matter
which gave us such a number of heavy guns for our Eastern works
may do the same for the harbors of the Pacific coast, where they
are more needed than on the Atlantic," he summarized his
feelings. Remembering that previous recommendations had been
vetoed by boards in Washington, he asked for permission to start
at once and "require them to be carried with as much dispatch,
consequently as little reference back to Washington as possible."
It was not until three years after the war that McDowell's plan
was approved. A company of engineers were sent to the island
and a post began to take shape on a low plateau near the eastern
edge, the only area level enough for a camp. In the peacetime
era, progress was slow. Two years later the camp still was "in
an unfinished condition," the surgeon reported.
After an uneventful career as a "sometimes Army post"
the island was turned over to a most appropriate occupant. Considering
that its use had first been suggested by the Navy, it was to
this service that ownership was passed and the Army days ended.
- By the 1870's Camp Yerba
Buena Island had been completed as is shown in this view by pioneer
San Francisco photographer Edward J. Muybridge. Photograph matches
ground plan exactly. Lighthouse was on point beyond camp. Although
the parade ground appears level, actually there was a 30 foot
difference in elevation between its center and officers' row.
Muybridge titled this stereo view "Military Post at Goat
Island," name given island in 1841 when a half dozen of
the quadrupeds were placed here and quickly multiplied like goats.
- Called both a "post
and depot" when this ground plan was made, Yerba Buena had
facilities for four officers and 150 men. Barracks were two buildings
connected by walkway, each 95 by 30 by 16 feet, "built of
rough boards, set upright and battened . . . ventilated by the
ridge, each lighted by 10 windows and warmed by coal-stoves,"
the surgeon reported in 1870. "They are furnished with iron
bedsteads, and give 750 cubic feet of air space per man of average
occupancy, considerably more than the 600 cubic feet considered
by Army to be minimum for health of soldiers. Each barracks had
first sergeant's room and washroom partitioned from main dormitory.
Except for the officers' quarters, all traces of these buildings
have disappeared; a few pilings remain to show location of wharf
at which government boat stopped every other day in 1870's. (Redrawn
from plate in National Archives.)
| BOAT H
|| Boat House
|| Mess Hall
|| Guard House
|| Officer Quarters
|| Store House
- To find out more about
the Yerba Buena Island, visit the Marcia Edwards Boyes web page,
Legend of Yerba Buena Island
- Need directions to the Yerba Buena Island?
- Recommended reading on the history of
the harbor defenses of San Francisco:
- This page was
reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West,
published in 1965
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