By George Ruhlen
Colonel, U. S. Army, retired
Military camps of the United States Army first appeared in Southern California with the advent at San Diego of Brig. Gen. S. W. Kearny’s “Army of the West,” Dec. 12, 1846. The Mormon Battalion, under command of Lt. Col. Philip St. G. Cooke, made camp at San Diego Mission Jan. 29, 1847, and for a decade thereafter the mission was an army post.
San Francisco was the army’s source of supply on the Pacific Coast. The increase of military garrisons in Southern California was brought about by the need for military escorts to accompany the Boundary Commission, then establishing the boundary line between the United States and Mexico under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and for the protection of travelers and settlers against hostile Indians. Supplying small contingents from San Francisco was expensive, slow, and often uncertain; a distribution center closer to the activities involved was needed. The Army Quartermaster’s Department had erected a building at La Playa, on Point Loma, but this being insufficient, plans were made to augment the storage space at San Diego.
In 1850 William Heath Davis and Andrew B. Gray, surveyor for the Boundary Commission, with their associates, formed a partnership for the purpose of developing a townsite which became known as New San Diego. Before papers were signed, however, a vessel arrived at La Playa with materials for the construction of an army warehouse, in charge of 2d Lt. Thomas D. Johns, 2d Infantry. Realizing that the location of the government buildings at La Playa would make it difficult to attract population to their townsite, they prevailed upon Lt. Johns to reship the materials from La Playa, across the bay to the new townsite. Johns evidentally joined the syndicate, for he received one of the 18 shares and was one of those who deeded land for the military reservation which became New San Diego Depot. (1)
The land embraced in the reservation was conveyed to the government Sept. 12, 1850, by warranty deeds for a nominal consideration, by Gray, Johns, George F. Hooper, Davis and wife, Jose Aguirre and wife, and the heirs of Miguel de Pedrorena. The deeds, eight in number, were not placed upon record with the recorder of San Diego County until Jan. 17, 1870. (2)
Originally, the reservation consisted of the whole of Blocks 31 and 39, and one-half of Block 18, New San Diego. Blocks 31 and 39 are each 200 by 300 feet. The first, known as “barrack block,” later was occupied by barracks, officers’ quarters, offices, storehouses, shops, etc.; the second, known as “corral block,” by stables, hay houses, etc. The other lands in Block 18, 75 by 1500 feet, partially covered by water at high tide, were intended for wharf purposes. Part of the wharf block now is occupied by the Municipal Court and Police Headquarters buildings. The “barrack block” was bounded by the present Market, G, California Streets, and Kettner Boulevard. The “corral block” was bounded by Union, State, F, and G Streets, and now is occupied by the U. S. Custom and Court House. (3)
In 1909 the Treasury Department and the War Department exchanged tracts of land in San Diego. In exchange for Block 39, the War Department received lots E and F in Block 44 (southwest corner of India and F Streets), and Block 156 in Middletown lying between Kettner Boulevard, California, Vine and Walnut Streets. These tracts later were sold and not used by the government. (4)
The first building was erected on the “barrack block” in 1850 and later was used for enlisted men’s barracks. Smith, in his Story of San Diego, states that the frame of the structure was brought around Cape Horn from Maine. (5) Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, 2d Infantry, was constructing quartermaster in charge of the erection of the depot buildings. He became celebrated during the Civil War, rising to the rank of brigadier general. It is recorded that it was mainly by means of his activity and judgment that Missouri was held in the Union. The Union victory at Boonville, on June 17, 1861, “decided the fate of the state in favor of the Union.” General Lyon was killed Aug. 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson’ Creek (Springfield), Missouri. For their gallantry and distinguished services at this victory, he and his command received the Thanks of Congress. (6)
Lyon celebrated the completion of the supply building with a baile, attended by guests from the army and the community, augmented by the fair sex assembled from the ranchos, Old Town, and Los Angeles, which latter places were noted in early times for their attractive women. It required only an event of this nature to bring from far and near those seeking a good time; distance meant little, even in those times. (7)
As part of the agreement with his partners, Davis was to build a wharf where the old Santa Fe wharf afterwards was built, at the foot of Market Street. The wharf and several buildings were erected in 1851. It was “L” shaped, 600 feet long, and cost $60,000. Military supplies for the depot were unloaded from ships onto the wharf and then transported by pack or wagon train to Fort Tejon, Fort Yuma, Fort Mohave, San Luis Rey, Chino, Santa Ysabel, San Bernardino, and other places. A line of pack trains across the desert was successfully established in 1851 by Wm. H. Hilton, who carried supplies from San Diego to Fort Yuma for some time, under contract. (8)
The new town built around the army supply depot thrived for only a short time. Army officers built homes about the place and two hotels were built, the San Diego at State and F Streets, and the Hermitage on State between Market and Island Streets. The first store was at G and California Streets, owned by George F. Cooper; it was over this store that the first San Diego newspaper, the San Diego Herald, was published Aug. 29, 1851 – a four page, four column weekly, edited by John Judson Ames, a new arrival from Boston. There was a lumber yard and three stores. Fresh water was hauled from the San Diego River. (9)
In the meantime, Old Town being the county seat, La Playa the center of population and New Town the center of governmental activities, a desperate three-cornered struggle went on between them. New Town was referred to at home and abroad as a wild, speculative boom; for years after it was known as “Davis’ Folly.” In 1853, New Town and La Playa were compelled to yield to Old Town supremacy. Business and residential buildings were moved bodily to Old Town; the government buildings were left practically alone. (10)
In May 1858, the Pacific Slope Indians went on the warpath in Washington Territory. An expedition was fitted out, under command of Col. George Wright, 9th Infantry, for the purpose of chastising them. The only remaining company at San Diego Mission, Company D, 3d Artillery, Capt. Francis O. Wyse, which had arrived Feb. 1, 1858, was ordered north in June to join Col. Wright’s expedition. (11) The departure of the soldiers created considerable consternation in San Diego, as it left the southern border exposed to Indian depredations, or worse, to pillage by desperados of every nation, whose crimes had forced them to seek refuge in the unsettled territory south of the line. The citizens were called upon to hold themselves in readiness to lend assistance to the local corps of state Guards. (12) The departure of Company D ended the use of San Diego Mission as a military post. The Washington Indians were signally defeated in three successive battles fought near the present city of Spokane, early in September, 1858. The rifle-muskets of the soldiers, which had recently been issued, mowed down the Indians before they could get within range with their smooth-bore weapons; they never went on the warpath again. (13)
On Dec. 6, 1858, Company G, 6th Infantry, Capt. W. S. Ketchum commanding, moved into New San Diego Depot which now became a garrisoned post. The company had just completed a 2000-mile march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Benicia Arsenal, California. (14) The San Diego Herald reported that New San Diego had taken on an animated appearance since becoming the headquarters of the Southern Division of the U. S. Army of the Pacific. The buildings, which for the past few years had been the dwelling places of owls and “ould” Indians, had been converted into officers’ quarters and barracks. The storage depot also had undergone changes, and instead of being piled full of flour and commissary beans, was the abode of Uncle Sam’s soldiers. (15)
For several years much of the water for the post was hauled from the San Diego River. A large cistern was put in at the barracks, and after being filled by rains furnished good drinking water until the barracks -were taken down. A well was put down in New Town at F and State Streets about 1851, and another well was installed about a block from the Court House in 1868. (16)
Upon the promotion of Captain Ketchum to major in June, 1860, command of the post devolved upon Brevet Maj. Lewis A. Armistead, of Gettysburg fame, who was killed at the head of his brigade on Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s charge.
The outbreak of the Civil War caused the transfer of most of the regular army troops on the Pacific coast to the eastern theater. Early in November, 1861, Captain T. L. Roberts with Company E, lst Infantry, California Volunteers, relieved the regular troops at San Diego who departed shortly afterwards by steamship for the east. (17)
During the winter of 1861-62 an unusual rainfall of thirty inches occurred in San Diego County. The grounds around the barracks became a quagmire and travel by wagons was almost impossible. Fuel gave out, there being no way of replenishing the supply by hauling, and deeming it a matter of survival and military necessity, the soldiers proceeded to demolish Mr. Davis’ wharf and use the lumber for fire-wood. After the war Davis submitted a claim before Congress for reimbursement for damages to his property. Years of wrangling followed until finally the claim was settled for $6,000, about one-tenth of what Davis thought was owed him. (18)
Late in January 1861, Captain Roberts was ordered to march his company to Warner’s ranch. That capable officer informed Colonel West, his commander, that it would be impossible to move a wagon over the roads for two months; however, if the trail were passable the company would make Warner’s in two and a half days, even if they had to swim at some places. The march was successfully made in February. Later, Captain Roberts distinguished himself in a fight with Indians at Apache Pass, Arizona, July 15, 1862, while in command of an escort conducting a supply train of the California Column from Tucson to the Rio Grande. (19)
Company D, Capt. Wm. H. French, and Company H, Capt. Sylvester Soper, both of the 5th Infantry, California Volunteers, occupied the post of New San Diego in February and March, 1862. The latter organization was ordered away shortly afterwards and Captain French’s company was transferred in November, being replaced by Company G, 4th Infantry, California Volunteers, Captain Grant. Captain Grant remained in charge of the post until August, 1865, when he and his company were moved to La Paz, Arizona. Captain Grant returned to San Diego after the war and served as Clerk for San Diego County. (20)
The post was vacated in June, 1866, the barracks and other buildings remaining empty of military personnel for years. (21) Davis, in a letter dated Oct. 23, 1869, states that the barracks building was in use as a public school. The post was reoccupied from Dec. 1869 through June 1871, chiefly as a supply depot, and was again abandoned. (22)
On Jan. 2, 1876 Company G, lst Cavalry, Capt. R. F. Bernard, reactivated New San Diego Post. Several times during the summer they went to Campo as a result of trouble from Mexicans and Indians from south of the border. On one occasion a band of Indians from across the line had been living on cattle belonging to a Mr. Larkins. Larkins asked the alcalde to do something about this, and was advised by him to gather a party and clean out the Indians; Larkins and 14 armed men moved on the Indian camp with the intention of seizing six of the ringleaders and shooting them. A fight ensued at the camp; the ringleaders escaped, but one Indian was killed. The Indian chief, Pedro Blanco, asked protection of the alcalde, who immediately assembled a party of Mexicans and drove all of Larkin’s cattle south of the line. Upon hearing of the approach of the U.S. cavalry the Mexicans and Indians dispersed and abandoned the cattle. (23)
Indian troubles in Idaho caused the transfer of Company G, which departed June 27, 1877, being replaced by Company H, 8th Infantry, on Nov. 17, 1877. The Bannock Indian outbreak in Oregon on June 15, 1878, called away Company H, which in turn was replaced by Company I of the same regiment. (24)
General Orders No. 2, Military Division of the Pacific, dated April 5, 1879, changed the designation of the post to San Diego Barracks. (25)
During the next decade various companies of the 8th and 9th Infantry regiments garrisoned the Barracks. Occasionally the company was called out when Indian troubles arose; sometimes it returned to San Diego, but again was replaced by another. The Barracks was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Arizona during this period, which afforded opportunities for rotating the stations of troops from the hot, windy, dusty and desolate wastes of Arizona to the more refreshing climate of San Diego. (26)
On Feb. 2, 1898, Battery D, 3d Artillery, Capt. Charles Humphries, which had been occupying the Barracks for a year or so, was moved to Point Loma where a new post, Fort Rosecrans, was under construction. Modern seacoast batteries were nearing completion and artillery soldiers were needed to finish the work of mounting the 10-inch seacoast armament; the approaching threat of hostilities with Spain tended to accelerate the task. Battery D remained to garrison the post as the work continued, thus becoming the first organization of the army to be stationed at Fort Rosecrans, as it was the last to serve at San Diego Barracks. The Barracks then became a sub-post of the new fort and continued in this status until its final disposition.
Activities at the Barracks increased and subsided as military operations developed along the border. It was in use from time to time as administrative headquarters for military units and as a focal- point for supplies when needs arose.
Orders were issued for its abandonment as a military post, in the interests of economy, and on Dec. 15, 1921, the place was vacated and the buildings dismantled. The city of San Diego acquired the property July 13, 1938.
During World War II the U. S. Navy was permitted to erect temporary buildings on the property which were used for the fleet post office. The property reverted to the city at the end of the war and, in 1946, was loaned to the state of California for use as a National Guard armory, for which purpose the buildings are now occupied. The site is marked by California State Historic Landmark No. 523, located on Market Street between Kettner Boulevard and California Street.
1. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego (San Diego, 1907), pp 317-18.
2. QMG, US Army, Outline Description of Military Posts and Reservations in the United States (Wash., 1904), P. 483.
4. Ibid, Revised edition, 1916, pp. 34-5. Now occupied by Century Lumber & Mill Co.
5. Walter Gifford Smith, The Story of San Diego (San Diego, 1892), p. 139.
6. Matthew F. Steele, American Campaigns (Wash., 1909), Vol. 1, p. 130. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Wash., 1903), Vol. I, p. 650.
7. William Heath Davis, Seventy-Five Years in California (San Francisco, 1929), p. 336.
8. H. C. Hopkins, The History of San Diego (San Diego, 1929), p. 185. Smythe, op. cit., pp. 318, 698.
For a more detailed description of the wharf and the buildings erected near the barracks see Andrew F. Rolle, William Heath Davis and the Founding of American San Diego, Cal. Hist. Soc. Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1952.
9. Smythe, op. cit., p. 318. Hopkins, op. cit., p. 188.
10. Smythe, op. cit., p. 318. Hopkins, op. cit., 165, 188-9.
11. Major George Ruhlen, The Third Coast Artillery (Ft. Monroe, Va., 1925), pp. 12-13.
12. San Diego Herald, July 3, 1858.
13. Ruhlen, op. cit., p. 13.
14. The Army of the United States, Historical Sketches, ed. T. F. Rodenbough and William L. Haskins (New York, 1896), p. 491.
T. H. S. Hamersly, Army Register of the United States for 100 Years (Wash., 1880), p. 146.
15. San Diego Herald, Jan. 15, 1857.
16. Hopkins, op, cit., p. 268.
17. War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Wash., 1897), Ser. I, Vol. L, pt. 1, p. 677.
18. Davis, op. cit., p. 335.
19. War. Reb. Ser. I, vol. L, pt. I, p. 387. Ibid. pt. II, pp. 128-132.
20. Ibid. pt. I, p. 874. pt. II, p. 222.
R. H. Orton, Records of California Men in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867 (Sacramento, 1890), p. 597.
Douglas Gunn, A Historical Sketch of San Diego (San Diego, 1876), pp. 11-12.
21. Mil. Posts and Res., op. cit., p. 483. Gen. James F. Rusling, Across America, A Journey Made in 1867-8.
22. Letter from QMG Office to author, 1 March 1954.
23. Reports of Secretary of War, 1876, (Wash., 1876), pp. 84-5.
24. Ibid, 1878, P. 113.
25. Mil. Posts and Res., op. cit., p. 483.
26. Reports of the Secretary of War, 1881 et seq.
Newest of the state’s historical societies is the Ventura County Society, which is starting off with some 200 members and has its headquarters at the Ventura County Pioneer Museum, 77 N. California Street. J. H. Morrison is curator, and they are planning to issue a Quarterly.