In mid-August 1859, a growing contingent of U.S. Army troops on San Juan Island was confronted by three British warships mounting 70 guns. The Americans had lugged ashore eight naval guns from the USS Massachusetts, and had several field pieces at their disposal.
The general took Casey at his word and on August 16 dispatched to San Juan Island a 10-man detachment (called a sapper team) of Company A, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commanded by 2nd. Lt. Henry Martyn Robert. Robert was to report to Casey, who would place him in charge of creating a fortification for the naval guns, as per Harney’s instructions, which had been relayed by the department’s acting Adjutant General, Capt. Alfred Pleasanton (later to achieve fame as a Union cavalry officer in the Civil War). “...Have platforms made for your heavy guns, and cover your camp as much as possible by entrenchment, placing your heavy guns in battery on the most exposed approaches...select your position with the greatest care to avoid fire from the British ship(s).”
Casey already had taken delivery of large quantities of lumber “fit for gun platforms,” which the British Capt. Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, RN, noted was being stockpiled on the beach. Hornby commanded the 31-gun steam frigate HMS Tribune, anchored in Griffin Bay for nearly two weeks. The naval guns had been wrestled into place on the ridge overlooking Griffin Bay, while the camp had been moved from the exposed prairie above South Beach to just north of the Hudson’s Bay Company farm.
Image Courtesy of William J. Schultz, MD
Capt. James Prevost, RN, commander of HMS Satellite, reported that the new camp “is very strongly placed in the most commanding position on this end of the island, well sheltered in the rear and on one side by the Forest, and on the other side by a Commanding eminence.”
Casey said “...I shall put my heavy guns in position to bear upon the harbor, and also on vessels which might take a position on the other side. Shells from shipping may be able to reach us, and we may not be able to protect the camp from them; but I shall try.” The sight of these preliminary works alarmed Hornby enough to dash off a dispatch to his superior, Rear Adm. R. Lambert Baynes, RN, commander of the British Pacific Station squadron based in Victoria.
“Six of their heavy guns are placed on the ridge of the hill overlooking the harbour; and by throwing up a parapet they would command the harbour; even in their present position they would be difficult to silence,” Hornby wrote. As the son of an Admiral-of-the-Fleet and an experienced 19th-century military man in his own right, Hornby recognized how construction of a formal field work could alter the situation on San Juan Island. He knew that a fortress not only provided a means of last ditch defense, but sited in a strategically dominant position, would permit a smaller force -- even with inferior troops -- to resist a larger one long enough for more substantial resistance to be mounted. Once dug in, the Americans might never be uprooted and the island would be lost, politically as well as militarily.
Robert and his crew landed on August 21 and almost immediately went to work, supplemented by details from Casey’s infantry and artillery companies. According to the diary of William A. Peck, Jr., one of Robert’s soldiers, the fort was “laid out of an irregular form 425 feet long above the natural ground; ditch 20 feet wide, not less than 8 feet deep.”
As Captain Prevost reported, “...the hill south of the American Camp, has been marked out for fortifying, in several places it has been leveled, and working parties have lately been employed in throwing up earthworks.” The British Colonist estimated that at least 100 men were designated for the task, including one British subject who had been apprehended for liquor selling. It all was done with pick and shovel, which presented a challenge for the men, who had to clear enormous rocks left in the wake of glaciers that had receded thousands of years before.
Did You Know?
Belle Vue Sheep Farm, founded in 1853 on San Juan Island, was a classic HBC sheep station with two rows of tidy log houses, heavy-duty fencing for sheep pens and an English-style, double-bay barn. Its establishment created tensions that nearly brought war with the United States. More...