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Mike Vouri: The Guns of August...1859

  • Written by Mike Vouri

 “The United States troops are landing eight 32-pounder guns from the steamship Massachusetts as if for the purpose of fortifying themselves!”

                           — Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, H.M.S. Tribune, Aug. 14, 1859

So wrote Hornby from his quarterdeck on Griffin Bay, as he sounded the alarm to Pacific Station commander Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes. It was a Sunday morning. Church services aboard had concluded and his crewmen were engaged in the weekly “make and mend” activities common in all branches of Her Majesty’s armed forces throughout the Empire.

For more than two weeks, Tribune and two other warships under Hornby’s command had been keeping tabs on American soldiers who, in Britain’s view, did not belong on San Juan Island. Initially, the force had seemed so small and ineffectual that it had been easy to engage in passive vigilance and await a diplomatic solution. Even the American commander, Captain George E. Pickett, had considered his command “no more than a mouthful” to the British.


In photos (top to bottom): The Redoubt’s profile even today underscores the excellence of the army engineers’ work with a nearly flat rampart sloping to the ditch with glacis sloping down to the prairie; the two bottom view offer a contrast between the fortification when it was being commemorated in 1904 and today. Note the scatter of glacial rocks in the left foreground.

Not so anymore. The arrival of the naval guns, reinforcements and the subsequent construction of a formal earthwork, which came to be misnamed “The Redoubt,” nearly kicked off the armed confrontation that Hornby and Pickett had earlier avoided. It would require the forbearance of a seasoned British admiral and the arrival of one of the United States’ most skilled peacemakers to bring a stand down.

Today the Redoubt is a perfect spot to stargaze, find wildflowers, view a 180-degree mountain tableau and watch the prairie grasses turn milky in the moonrise. Visitors may not consider its origin unless they read the exhibit posted between its ramparts, which also describes the engineering and hard labor required for construction. As sound and recognizable today as it was the day the army abandoned it, the Redoubt is the only tangible reminder of that intense summer on San Juan Island.

Four days before the naval guns appeared, Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey had arrived in the bay on the steamer Julia Barclay. (1.) The swift little sternwheeler was a common and inoffensive sight on Puget Sound and the Northern Straits since her completion at Port Gamble the year before. But she had suddenly been “requisitioned” into a troop and munitions carrier to deliver more than 170 soldiers and three field pieces (to go along with Pickett’s three guns) on South Beach hours before depositing Casey, lumber and ammunition on the dock.

From the start of the incident, Hornby had been a strong advocate of British naval doctrine, which prescribed “deterrence through possession of overwhelming force and the protection of British commercial interests.” This despite having been ordered by Provincial Governor James Douglas first to forcibly eject Pickett’s initial force, then to land an equal number of Royal Marines and finally to forbid them from reinforcing and fortifying. The first two points he met with refusal, the latter equivocation. However, having two broadsides worth of 32-pounders of his own on Tribune, Hornby was fully aware of the impact of of weapons that could hurl solid shot, grape or shell more than a mile.

When he saw where Casey had positioned his guns he fired off another note to Baynes.

“Six of their heavy guns are placed on the ridge of the hill overlooking this harbour, and by throwing up a parapet they would make them inaccessible to us, whilst they would command the harbour,” Hornby wrote. “Even in their present position they would be difficult to silence. The other two guns are placed to defend their camp...they seem to me, therefore, not only to be prepared to defend themselves, but to threaten us.”

But that wasn’t all. They were landing supplies enough to indicate every symptom of their occupation being permanent. “...By allowing them to occupy and fortify at will we have allowed them “every sovereign right to the island.”

This is precisely the seed that U.S. Brigadier General William S. Harney, who orchestrated the crisis, wanted to plant.

“The English ships could not remain in the harbor under a fire from the 32-pounders, but would be compelled to take distance in the sound, from whence they could only annoy us by shells, which would be trifling,” Harney wrote U.S. Army commander Lieutenant General Winfield Scott on August 30. “The English have no force that they could land which would be able to dislodge Colonel Casey's command as now posted.”

Baynes was so alarmed by Hornby’s state of mind that his reply of August 16 to his favorite officer was swift, specific, and firm:

“In my memorandum to you of the 13th of August I desired you by every means in your power to avoid a collision with the troops of the United States,” he wrote. “It is now my positive order that you do not, on any account whatever, take the initiative in commencing hostilities by firing on them or any work they may have thrown up… Should the troops of the United States commit any aggressive act by firing on the Tribune or any of Her Majesty’s ships or boats, you are at full liberty to resent the insult by adopting such measures as you think [desirable] informing me of the circumstances as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, Casey had problems of his own. Thanks to a pre-arrival warning of Douglas’ views regarding reinforcements and fortifications, the 52 year-old Rhode Islander was reticent about prematurely revealing the guns for the very reasons cited by Hornby and Harney. There were also logistics to consider. The guns were probably 1845 models manufactured at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. At 10 feet long and nearly four tons apiece, not including the solid oak naval carriages that were reinforced with iron bands, the total package stood about four feet high on four wooden wheels.

“With our present appliances (no oxen, mules or horses and the attendant tack) I find them rather difficult to manage,” Casey lamented.

Moreover, the guns had been mounted aboard the steamer U.S. Propellor Massachusetts (2.) during a recent refit to provide frontier protection. Since 1856, the ship had been serving as a kind of floating battery to interdict Northwest Coast Indians raids into the territory. But that had been against war canoes. There was no way the painfully slow Massachusetts, a converted Atlantic packet, was going to boldly steam into the bay and unload her guns among the British warships. Instead, the cannon were transshipped by derrick aboard the 80-foot scow/schooner General Harney (3.), hired from Whatcom co-founder, Captain Henry Roeder. The 80-foot, 100-ton vessel would then shuttle into the harbor and land them on the beach or dock.

Once ashore, the guns were placed “... in ‘due form’ upon the ridge of the peninsula,” according to an August 17 report to the New York Times. By due form, the writer probably meant “aligned” in battery or shipboard at the intersection of today’s Cattle Point Road and Pickett’s Lane.

A question remains. If Hornby had been ordered to prevent the Americans from fortifying why did he allow these huge guns to be landed under his nose, knowing as he did that the number of soldiers encamped on the prairie was growing exponentially? The answer may be he was fully prepared to contest the landing if the Americans pushed too hard, which is why he sought Baynes’ endorsement, despite having backed off initially. In an earlier letter to his wife, he had expressed a desire to “…bundle these fellows off neck and crop.” Fortunately Baynes was in charge and he was eventually knighted for making peace, not war.

Then as now, the bare, wind-swept landscape giving onto Griffin Bay at American Camp was not conducive to clandestine activity as Casey was, or any off-leash dog walker is, well aware. “Owing to the peculiar circumstances of the case, we have none of the advantages which a case of actual war would confer, as regards keeping any action secret from the enemy,” he pointed out to Harney. “Our every maneuver is closely observed, and I have considered it best to act with circumspection lest a conflict should be forced upon us prematurely.”

(Left) Henry M Robert as a West Point cadet. (Right) Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby,

But before he could do anything, he said, he would need an engineering detachment to site and construct a fortification. Harney quickly responded through adjutant, Captain Alfred Pleasonton, who assured Casey that the detachment, headed by Second Lieutenant Henry M. Robert (4.), was on its way from Fort Steilacoom. Casey was to find the right location.

“Cover your camp as much as possible by intrenchment, placing your heavy guns in battery on the most exposed approaches,” Pleasonton wrote. “Select your position with the greatest care to avoid the fire from the British ships. In such a position your command should be able to defend itself against any force the British may land.”

Casey’s immediate inclination was to establish his camp out of range of the British warships, a tactic that Pickett could never quite figure out. Both of Pickett’s camps fronted the beach, where they could easily be swept by grape from offshore. By contrast, Casey initially chose a site some four miles from the harbor as the crow flies. This would have placed him roughly on the plateau fronting Little Mountain in San Juan Valley, far away enough to avoid “the shells of the ships-of-war,” but cut off from his naval guns overlooking the harbor and his troops on the prairie. He thought better of it.

H.M.S. Satellite’s 8-inch guns could do terrible damage to anyone or anything within range, so Silas Casey chose the heights for the final U.S. camp and his own naval guns.

“In view of all these circumstances, I have taken up a position near the Hudson's Bay establishment, and shall put my heavy guns in position to bear upon the harbor, and also on vessels which might take position on the other side,” Casey wrote. “Shells from the shipping may be able to reach us, and we may not be able to protect the camp from them; but I shall try.”

The permanent locations for the American Camp parade ground and Redoubt were thus established for all time—the camp on the slope of a hill running down from Belle Vue Sheep Farm, the earthwork on a rise overlooking the bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey was the U.S. Army’s second commander on San Juan Island and was largely responsible for siting the Redoubt and the permanent location of the American Camp parade ground.

The engineering detachment arrived on Monday, August 22, and disembarked from the Massachusetts amid the British warships in Griffin Bay, where H.M.S. Satellite’s ship’s band serenaded them “for dear life” with a rousing version of “Yankee Doodle.” Three days later the detachment was engaged in “laying out the works for a fort all day.” Because dray horses or oxen were still not available to the Americans, the engineers were forced to supervise the line infantry and artillery troops, who grudgingly sweated with pick and shovel “...in soil consisting of heavy gravel, intermixed with large granite boulders, “ according to one report. A few line sergeants threatened mutiny rather than take orders from lower ranks, so Casey dragooned a few prisoners. One of them was William Moore, a British subject caught selling liquor to the enlisted men. Others included the “private property owners” Pickett had come to protect, who had agitated a little too vociferously about the incursion of the federal government.

Lieutenant Robert was a native South Carolinian whose father walked away from a prominent plantation family to become an educator and abolitionist in Ohio. Graduating fourth in the West Point Class of 1857, Robert was assigned to Company A of the U.S. Corps of Engineers based at West Point. It was from this unit that “sapper” detachments such as Robert’s were dispatched throughout the states and territories as a precursor of the Corps we know today.

Utilizing skills learned from professors such as Dennis Hart Mahan, Robert took advantage of the site’s natural features. Over the next two months, he laid out his gun platforms and ramparts with precision and supervised construction when he wasn’t breaking up fights over the next two months. The work featured “...a steep precipice, and its guns when mounted, will command the prairie slope to the bay, the view on the canal side, as well as the slopes from the high headlands (Mount Finlayson), some mile and half distant,” wrote a reporter from the Daily Alta California, who visited in October. The ramparts and mounds had taken shape by then, though only three platforms had been installed.

When the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft visited the Redoubt (5.) in 1887, he measured the work and jotted down essentially the same dimensions as today: 350 feet on the west side, 100 on the southeast and 150 on the northeast. Five gun platforms were eventually completed. Three of them were located at the east corners and two more facing south, with the parapet seven feet above the interior and dropping 25 to 40 feet on the exterior. A ditch at the base spanned from three to five feet across.

The British officers, who by then were freely circulating among the Americans, were impressed. They knew how a formal fieldwork could alter the situation on San Juan Island. A fortress not only provided a means of last-ditch defense, but properly sited, also would also permit a smaller force—even with inferior troops—to resist a larger one until help arrived.

“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,” wrote the Satellite’s Captain James Prevost. “The hill...has been marked out for fortifying, in several places it has been leveled, and working parties have lately been employed in throwing up earthworks.”

By October, the Massachusetts’ guns had been heaved up the road that still runs about a quarter-mile from the Redoubt to the entrance of Casey’s new camp, which was named for George Pickett. He was the first on the scene and his company had provided most of the dimension lumber for the few buildings nestled amidst tall trees that even then were under assault from the soldiers’ axes.

At least three guns had been mounted by late October, but the only shots ever fired were a 13-gun salute to Winfield Scott when he visited the bay on November 7. The 72 year-old commanding general, who had traveled from Washington at the behest of both nations, had resolved the crisis that very day after receiving a note from Governor Douglas. Scott endeared himself to the laborers by ordering that work on the Redoubt be stopped immediately. In exchange, Tribune weighed anchor and sailed home to England a few weeks later.

The nascent U.S. Army camp sited out of range of the British guns by Silas Casey. The conical Sibley tents could sleep 18 men each. The photo was probably taken from the vicinity of today’s garrison flagpole at American Camp.

Once the redoubt work was squared away, the guns, ammunition, and other equipment were hauled from the edifice and lugged back by way of the Hudson’s Bay track to the San Juan Village dock. With nothing left to do, the soldiers endured the endless gray, the wind and rain and the occasional hailstorm day after November day:

“These are really halcyon days of our soldiering, utterly idle, a thing unknown to an Engineer Soldier,” one private wrote. “... but we are kept busy at nights in a vain effort to keep warm.”

The crisis had cooled, the island was cold and the guns were gone. But the engineers had forever left their mark on the landscape of San Juan Island.


1. The Julia Barclay’s name was soon shortened to Julia. She held the distinction of being the first steam vessel built in Puget Sound, but ended her days as a pigsty on a riverside farm somewhere near Portland.

2. After two unprofitable Atlantic crossings the 160-foot U.S. Propellor Massachusetts was sold to the U.S. Navy and served as Winfield Scott’s flagship during the siege of Vera Cruz during the Mexican-American War. By 1859, her worn-out engines could only generate three to four knots and she had to await the tides before steaming through Admiralty Inlet. The captain’s orders were to travel under sail when possible.

3. The General Harney was the first schooner built in the Northern Straits and had only recently been completed in 1859 when called into service to transship the naval guns. In December, she was once more contracted to haul Pickett’s company gear back to Fort Bellingham when a Northeaster blew up and grounded her on the beach near Old Town Lagoon. Most of the gear was lost, including the unit’s rifles. One that was salvaged is held in the collection of the San Juan Historical Museum. The Harney sank off Goose Island in 1885.

4. By now, most San Juan Islanders known that Henry Martyn Robert is renowned for writing Robert’s Rules of Order, a primer on parliamentary procedure still in use throughout the world. Largely because of this book, he is the only individual to be honored with a plaque in the national park. He also enjoyed a long career in the Corps of Engineers, retiring as a brigadier general in command of the Corps in 1903.

(5.) A redoubt is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "…a temporary or supplementary fortification, typically square or polygonal and without flanking defenses." The derivation is from the Medieval Latin, reductus, or "concealed place.” The term came into common Western military usage from the works designed by the French engineer Sébastien LePrestre de Vauban (1633–1707), who served under King Louis XIV. As the San Juan fortification is not fully enclosed, it is technically a “lunette,” because it is open on one side, much as a quarter moon. But it seems unlikely that anyone here will ever say, ”I’ll meet you at the Lunette.”

For further reading:

36th Congress, 1st Session, Executive Document No. 10; British Foreign Office, Correspondence Relative to the Occupation of San Juan Island by United States’ Troops, October 29, 1859; Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay by Mike Vouri; The Fourth Corner by Lelah Jackson Edson; and Images of American: The Pig War by Mike Vouri.

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.  

Last modified onSaturday, 19 September 2020 00:59

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