California and the Mexican War
Occupation of San Diego and the Founding of Fort Stockton
by Justin Ruhge
Colonel John C. Fremont sailed from Monterey with his battalion of about 150 men in the Cyane on July 26, 1846. He reached San Diego on the 29th and landed there and raised the flag without opposition. After a week of preparations, the battalion started northward on August 8 leaving a garrison of 13 men under Lieutenant Ezekiel Merritt. These were soon joined by John Bidwell and his men who had been left by Fremont to garrison the San Luis Rey Mission. They at first abandoned San Diego but decided to return and retake the town. Two of the brass cannon at Fort Guijarros that were spiked by the crew of the Alert in 1842 were cleared and dragged to the old town by the men. The firing of the guns and the attack of the Americans drove the Mexican troops out. Merritt sent for help to San Pedro where the Navy ship Savannah was located. The U. S. Navy chartered the whaler Magnolia, of New Bedford, Mass. Lt. George Minor, two midshipmen, including Robert C. Duval, and thirty-five sailors and fifteen Volunteers were ordered to San Diego to aid Merritt. This party arrived on October 16 at San Diego.
Duval kept a log of the actions at San Diego as a part of the log of the ship Savannah. "The first two or three weeks were employed in getting guns from the old fort and mounting them in our barracks which was situated in the west end of the town on the edge of the bank bounding the plane and convenient to water, our forces being weak to admit of being divided, in occupying the hill or east end of the town, the enemy frequently visiting that end of the town by night and appeared to be content to appear on the hill and firing into us at long distance, especially when our flag was hoisted and lowered, but always avoiding our efforts to engage them and as they were mounted, of course, the distance allowed between us was left entirely to their own wishes, in addition to our barracks we carried adobes from the town and built two bastions at the two corners commanding the town and the plane in the rear, in which we mounted six brass nine pounders from the old fort." From this narrative, we learn that the cannon that had been abandoned by the Mexicans in the sand at Fort Guijarros were removed from that location and moved to a redoubt at the edge of "old town". These Americans defended the San Diego location for about 40 days before receiving new reinforcements. In that time about 100 Mexican mounted lancers and sharpshooters, under the command of Captain Santiago E. Arguello, harassed them. This enemy was camped behind the ruins of the old abandoned Presidio buildings.
This situation changed for the better when on October 31, the ship Congress under the command of Commodore Stockton, rounded Point Loma and landed Captain Gillespie with forty Marines and California Volunteers. At this point the Mexicans attacked the Barracks before the reinforcements could arrive but were driven off. Stockton ordered that a fort be constructed on the hill above the ruins of the Presidio where a redoubt had been started in 1838 when San Diegans prepared for an offensive from Los Angeles during the civil conflict between the forces supporting Juan Bautista Alvarado and those backing Carlos Carrillo. The American fort was called Fort Stockton. Midshipman Duvall again takes a description of these events from the log of the Savannah: "The Commodore now commenced to fortify the hill which over looked the town by building a Fort constructed by placing 300 Gallon casks full of sand close together, 30 yards by 20 square throwing a Bank of earth and small gravel up in Front as high as the top of the casks and running a ditch around the whole. In the inside a ball proof house was built out of plank lining the inside with adobe, on top of which a swivel was mounted. A strong gate having a drawbridge in front guarded the entrance; the whole fortification was completed in about 3 weeks. Guns mounted and everything complete not withstanding the plank, etc. had to be carried by the men near a mile and the ditch cut through a solid strata of gravel and rock, with but indifferent tools to do it with. It is a monument of the most excessive hard labor our forces have as yet performed and notwithstanding they were on short allowance of beef and wheat for a time without bread tea sugar or coffee, many destitute of shoes but few complaints were made." The cannon from the Barracks, earlier from Fort Guijarros, were hauled up to Fort Stockton.
The construction of this Fort and the arrival of more Marines helped to calm the Mexicans in Old Town San Diego. An added inducement was "Stockton's band" composed of thirty-seven Italians paid for by the Commodore and sailing with him on the frigate Congress. Every evening they placed themselves around the flagstaff on the plaza in Old Town and played and supplied the music for the "Bandini bailes". This was the first time that the Mexicans in San Diego had heard a band perform.
The Mormon Battalion under Lieutenant Cooke with its 500 men arrived at San Diego in late January 1847. General Kearny assigned the San Diego Fort and surrounding area to the Mormons with their headquarters at the Mission buildings. This was followed by Military Order No. 3, from Lieutenant Cooke dated March 15, 1847. Captain Jesse D. Hunter in command of Company B of the Mormon Battalion marched on that day to San Diego to garrison the town and provide all the defenses of the surrounding area.
Upon his leaving for Monterey in February, Commodore Stockton ordered the dismantling of Fort Stockton. The cannon were to be dropped into the deepest part of the bay. However, there is evidence that this did not happen or not right away. Moving cannon is no easy task and unless it was sternly pursued, it probably would not happen. We know from Bigler's Diary notes that five cannon were fired on the Fourth of July, 1847. Apparently, they were not yet in the" deepest part of the bay." When or if the Fort was dismantled is not known.
The Mormons were replaced at discharge with Company I of the New York Volunteers, under the command of Captain Shannon on December 28, 1847. This group remained until the end of the war when they were mustered out on August 25, 1848 thus ending the military occupation of San Diego.
References: Midshipman Duvall's Log of the Savannah, 1846-7, San Diego Historical Society Library; History of California, Vol. V, Hubert H. Bancroft, 1886; Clark's Point, Ann Clark Hart, 1937; The History of San Diego, Silver Dons, Richard F. Pourade, 1963.
An artist's rendering of the construction of Fort Stockton in 1846 on the hill above the ruins of the Spanish Presidio. From The History of San Diego, Silver Dons, pg. 93, by Richard F. Pourade. From the Collection of The James S. Copley Library, La Jolla.
The San Diego Mission became the Headquarters of the American Army in 1847 with the occupation by the Mormon Battalion. Sketch probably made by H. M. T. Powell. From the Continent Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of the San Diego Historical Society, San Diego. Photo No. 81:9208.
Note the reference to Fort Stockton, top, and center, in this 1850 survey map of San Diego U.S. Military Depot, established at New San Diego. National Archives.

1853 Survey Map of San Diego showing the Old Town. Fort Stockton is still noted as an active site. There are no known records as to it actually being dismantled. Also note ruins of the old Mexican Presidio to the north of Fort Stockton. A Detail of the original National Archives drawing.


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Updated 8 February 2016