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Camp Yerba Buena Island
(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.
 
 
 
History
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.)
 
 
 BAK  Bakery  LAUN  Laundry
 BOAT H Boat House  MH  Mess Hall
GH  Guard House  OQ  Officer Quarters
 H Hospital  SH  Store House
 K  Kitchen  SUT  Sutler
 

To find out more about the Yerba Buena Island, visit the Marcia Edwards Boyes web page, The Legend of Yerba Buena Island
 
Need directions to the Yerba Buena Island? CLICK HERE
 
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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