Civil War at Fort Mason
The National Park Service is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (1861 – 1865.) We acknowledge this defining event in our nation’s history and its legacy in continuing to fight for civil rights, or as Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, “that this nation….shall have a new birth of freedom.” To learn more about the National Park Service’s Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Civil War, please visit The Civil War: 150 Years.
Point San Jose
In 1848, the U.S. Government took over California as a result of the Mexican War, and a joint Army and Navy commission was appointed to select points of defense for California. This commission identified the former Mexican battery called Bateria de Yerba Buena located at the sandy hill overlooking San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island as an ideal site for fortification. Here the army established Point San Jose Military Reservation, now known as Fort Mason, for its strategic value. On December 31, 1851, when California was finally a state, President Millard Fillmore signed an executive order that also established other military reservations in the Bay Area. The U.S. Army took possession of the 1,450-acre Presidio and the Castillo San Joaquin (now known as Fort Point.)
While the army legally established the Point San Jose military reservation, they did not maintain any military presence on the land. Known to locals as “Black Point” because of the hill’s dark laurel trees, this appealing location offered stunning views of Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate, and the Marin Headlands. Because of confusing property title laws and the city’s crushing housing shortage, a few San Francisco citizens began to move onto the unoccupied military land; soon private citizens were illegally ‘squatting’ in the area. Taking advantage of the legal confusion, prominent San Francisco real estate developers Leonidas Haskell and George Eggleton constructed at least five large, private homes at Point San Jose by 1855. Haskell claimed that he never knew the land was army property, and sold the five houses repeatedly during the 1850s. These fine homes with a view attracted the city’s newly emerging middle class and over the next few years, Black Point became a preferred location for San Francisco’s well-educated bankers, merchants and literary figures. This important civilian period in Fort Mason’s history represents a crossroads between local and national history, as a chapter of the national anti-slavery movement was written at Black Point.
John and Jessie Fremont
John Charles Fremont, knicknamed “the Pathfinder,” was known for his exploration of the West. He had led the Bear Flag Rebellion in 1846, fighting on the American side against Mexican forces in the soon-to-be state. Fremont allegedly was the one to name the narrow entrance of the San Francisco Bay the “Golden Gate” after the Golden Horn in Constantinople. John’s wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, was quite influential herself. The daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Jessie Benton Fremont was a sophisticated, well read, and opinionated woman and held a deep disdain for slavery.
In the late 1850s, California played an important role in the years leading up to the Civil War. Much like the rest of the nation, California’s population was politically divided. In San Francisco, the Democrats divided themselves into two camps: one in favor of slavery and the other against it. The first group, made up largely of Southerners, was known popularly in San Francisco as the “Chivalry,” due to the South’s old-fashioned genteel values. The “free-soilers” were transplanted Northerners who were opposed to the extension of slavery and active supporters of the “Shovelry” faction of the Democratic Party (their popular nickname in San Francisco was the “Shovelry,” since they often appealed to the working class.) Of all the issues that divided those two factions, slavery became the most important.
Jessie Benton Fremont used her home, known as "Porter’s Lodge”, as an intellectual salon, where active and bright people could gather. The people who met at her home were openly opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories newly acquired from Mexico. People who visited “Porter’s Lodge” included politicians, like Edward Baker, future U.S. Senator from Oregon for whom Fort Baker was named, noted writers like Herman Melville, wealthy merchants, and influential public figures such as Reverend Thomas Starr King. Many of these individuals were active in anti-slavery politics.
Senator David C. Broderick
David C. Broderick, son of an Irish stonecutter, was a New Yorker who achieved success in politics. In 1857, he was elected as a Democrat to the United State Senate at a time when the Democratic Party of California was sharply split between the pro-slavery group and the “Free-Soil” advocates. Broderick was staunchly opposed to the expansion of slavery and worked closely with his political friends, including Leonidas Haskell, to support the anti-slavery movement. In 1859, Broderick’s political opponent, California State Supreme Court Chief Justice David S. Terry, a vocal advocate of slavery expansion in California, gave a searing speech attacking Broderick and his antislavery stance. Tempers flared between the two politicians and Terry challenged Broderick to a duel. Tragically, Terry mortally wounded Broderick in the duel. Friends rushed Broderick to Leonidas Haskell’s home at Black Point. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, he died in Haskell’s house three days later, reportedly saying “They killed me because I am opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt administration.” The Broderick-Terry duel drew national attention and Senator Broderick’s death turned him into a martyr for the anti-slavery movement. Political opponents accused Terry and his southern sympathizers of assassination. The duel, reflecting the nation’s larger and more violent divisions, pushed the country further towards a civil war.
Reverend Thomas Starr King
Along with Jessie Benton Fremont, Leonidas Haskell was very politically active and well-connected as a “free-soiler.” As one of the real estate developers of the Black Point neighborhood, he helped shape and direct the political leanings of this civilian community. The little neighborhood of fine houses on Black Point became home to a small but influential group of residents who were openly hostile to secession and slavery and as a San Francisco neighborhood, it became a focal point in the growing conflict over slavery in California.
Military Use during the Civil War
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 changed Black Point forever. John Fremont returned to military service as commanding general of the Department of the West; his wife Jessie moved with him to St. Louis. The Fremont’s neighbor and longtime friend, Leonidas Haskell, accompanied them to serve as his chief of staff. In 1863, San Francisco hummed with worrisome rumors of Confederate warships lurking in Pacific waters, preying on California gold shipments. In response, Army officials called for construction of a new fortification at Black Point, to supplement the two recently completed fortresses at Alcatraz Island and Fort Point.
On October 13, 1863, the military took formal possession of Black Point, reestablishing the area’s original name, Point San Jose. The army constructed two batteries at the northern tip of the point, destroying Fremont’s house in the process. By May of 1864, construction was complete and soon the West Battery mounted six 10-inch Rodman cannons, while the East Battery held six 42-pound rifles. To accommodate the new officers and soldiers, the military constructed a post headquarters, hospital and barracks, clustered around a rectangular main parade ground.
To learn more about Civil War historical events that took place at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, please visit the Civil War at Golden Gate page.
To learn more about Fort Mason and its history after the Civil War, please visit the Fort Mason history page.
To take a self-guided walking tour of historic Fort Mason, please download “A Reflection of San Francisco Through Time; A 19th Century Army Post on a San Francisco Bluff” (PDF file, 2.4 MB)
Last updated: March 19, 2015