In 1851, the War Department established a Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast. The Board recommended casemate fortifications for a pair of works at the Golden Gate, and barbette batteries on Alcatraz Island. The construction of a fort on the southern shore was the highest priority, and a state-of-the-art fortification at Fort Point was perceived as "the key to the entire Pacific Coast [from] a military point of view." 1
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on Fort Point in 1853. Plans specified that the lowest tier of artillery be as close as possible to water level so cannonballs could ricochet across the water's surface to hit enemy ships at the waterline. Workers blasted the 90-foot cliff at the construction site, down to 15 feet above sea level. The structure was protected by 7-foot thick walls and had multi-tiered casemated construction typical of Third System forts. While there were more than 30 such forts on the East Coast, Fort point was the only one of its type built on the West Coast.
Although work began in 1853, the completion of Fort Point was delayed because of the cost and complexity of building multi-storied tiers of arched brick casemates, which would also need to withstand the severe storms of the Pacific Ocean. By 1860, the fort had been raised to the barbette (top) tier and could accommodate ninety cannons yet to be installed.
Civil War Era
In 1861, with war looming on the eastern horizon, the Army mounted the first 55 guns at the fort. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Pacific branch of the Army, prepared the defenses of the Bay and ordered the first garrison for Fort Point. Kentucky-born Johnston then resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army (he was later killed at the battle of Shiloh in 1862). Fort Point never had to fire its guns in defense during the Civil War; the war came and went, without the Confederate Army ever launching an assault on the Bay. Although the Fort never came under attack, its mere presence created a deterrent that would have weighed heavily in the minds of those who sought to undermine the Union's grip on the Pacific Coast.
Post-Civil War Era
Severe damage to brick forts on the Atlantic Coast during the war - Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pulaski in Georgia - challenged the effectiveness of masonry walls against rifled artillery. Troops soon moved out of Fort Point, and the Army never again continuously occupied it. However, in 1870 some of the fort's cannon were moved to East Battery on the bluffs nearby, where they were better protected. The fort nonetheless remained important to the Army. Because the land on which the fort stands was cut down to within 15 feet of the water, a seawall was needed for protection. This 1,500-foot-long wall is an impressive engineering feat. Granite stones were fitted together and the spaces between them sealed with strips of lead. Completed in 1869, the seawall held fast for more than 100 years against the Golden Gate's powerful waves, until it began to give way in the 1980s. The National Park Service rebuilt the wall and placed boulders seaward to deflect the force of the waves.
Design and Construction
Fort Point stands as an example of Third System fortification architecture. The fort had three tiers of casemates (vaulted rooms housing cannon), and a barbette tier on the roof with addition guns and a sod covering to absorb the impact of enemy cannon fire. The Civil War showed the vulnerability of masonry forts, like Fort Point, to rifled cannon. Thus, not long after completion, Fort Point became virtually obsolete. In the 1870s, East Battery, an earthwork fortification just to the south east of Fort Point, was constructed to bolster the defensive capabilities of the now obsolete fort.
Artillery and Hotshot
Fort Point never mounted the 141 cannon that its planners envisioned. By October 1861 there were 69 guns in and around the fort, consisting of 24, 32, and 42-pounders, as well as 8 and 10-inch Columbiads. After the war, the Army installed powerful 10-inch Rodman guns in the lower casemates; these could fire a 128 pound shot more than 2 miles. At its greatest strength, the fort mounted 102 cannon. In addition, the fort had "hotshot" furnaces, which allowed iron cannon balls to heated red hot, loaded into a cannon, and fired at wooden ships to set them ablaze.
During the Civil War, as many as 500 men from the 3rd U.S. Artillery, the 9th U.S. Infantry, and the 8th California Volunteer Infantry were garrisoned at Fort Point. Stationed several thousand miles from the major theaters of combat, the men spent their days in a routine of drills, artillery practice, inspections, sentry duty, and maintenance chores. Enlisted men bunked 24 to a casemate on the third tier; officers had single or double quarters on the floor below. To supplement coal fuel, soldiers gathered driftwood from the shore to stay warm.