Ohio History Journal

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California Letters of Major General

James McPherson, 1858-1860





Alcatraz Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay was two thousand miles from

Sandusky County, the Ohio home of James Birdseye McPherson, Second Lieutenant,

Army Engineers. The West Point-educated Lieutenant arrived in California late in

1857 on the wooden side-wheeler Golden Gate. His assignment was to supervise

construction of fortifications on rocky, windy Alcatraz. None foresaw then that in

five years he would be a Major General in the Union Army. He had been first in his

class at the Military Academy, having overcome difficulties of an irregular earlier

education that he feared would prevent him from attaining an appointment at all.

The tall and friendly McPherson had already had three years of practical experience

in building harbor fortifications around New York City and Wilmington, Delaware,

before he started his new task.1

Alcatraz had been acquired as federal property under questionable circumstances

in 1849 by the flamboyant Military Governor John Charles Fremont. The island

squatted in the bay's waters three miles from the opening of the Golden Gate and a

mile and half from the growing city of San Francisco. It and massive brick Fort Point

at the Golden Gate were to be important sites for harbor defenses. Construction

details had started work in 1853. Some $850,000 had been appropriated for the

fortifications. In addition to a three-storied barracks, there were to be brick and

stone guardhouses, gun batteries, three bomb-proof magazines, a furnace to heat

cannon balls, and a lighthouse. On the southeast corner of the island was a fog bell

regulated to strike every fifteen seconds in bad weather. McPherson's work force on

the island varied from forty to two hundred men and was composed in the main of

civilian laborers.2

San Franciscans were impressed with Lieutenant McPherson's engineering skill,


1. The Golden Gate was a three-decked steamer built for the Pacific Mail Steamship Com-

pany at a cost of $482,844. It entered service between the Pacific Coast of Panama and San

Francisco in November 1851. John Haskill Kemble, The Panama Route 1848-1869 (Berkeley,

1943), 228. George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S.

Military Academy at West Point, N. Y. (Boston and New York, 1891), II, 515-519. See also

Whitelaw Reid, Ohio in the War (Columbus, 1893), 561-563.

2. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California (San Francisco, 1884-90), VI, 632; Robert

W. Frazer, Mansfield on the Condition of the Western Forts, 1853-54 (Norman, Oklahoma,

1965), 121-122, 134; "From San Francisco to Sacramento City," Hutchings' California Magazine,

IV (July 1858).


Mr. Strobridge is a Colonel in the United States Army and is presently stationed in the Wash-

ington D. C. area.