Aerial view of fort

Imperial Spain was upset when the Russian-American Company founded its Californian outpost Fort Ross. Local Spanish officials always stayed cordial with the Russians, though. Both sides were remote colonies, and a confrontation between them could be mutually destructive. The Spanish military in California anyway had insufficient men and materiel to mount a threat. The capital Monterey was destroyed in 1818 by just two ships acting on behalf of Argentina.

The fort consists of buildings inside a redwood palisade on a high coastal bluff. It was staffed by 25-100 Russians plus 50-125 native auxiliaries. There was a freshwater spring and iron and copper smithies. It initially received 10 bronze and 15 iron cannons [Farris, So Far From Home, pp. 84]. Small towers in two corners housed some of them. To reach the shipyard and port was a day's ride or a few hours in a skin boat. I'm not at all sure how long it could afford to be besieged.

Spain considered and declined mounting an attack on Fort Ross. Diplomatic implications in Europe made it less attractive. The two emperors Alexander I and Ferdinand VII had signed a treaty to collaborate in Europe, but that didn't seem to foreclose the military option in California. Whether Spain was deterred more by the cost of an attack or its side effects is interesting, but I want to know about Spain's projected successful attack on the fort: the one the Company built up its defenses to prevent, and Spain decided not to undertake.

To take Fort Ross, how big would that expeditionary force have to be? Was it expected to breach the stockade right away, or rather to maintain a siege? Could any Spanish approach cause the fort to surrender without a fight?

  • 1
    Wood palisade forts were usually more of an anti-raid measure, chiefly designed to protect occupants from natives. They resist small arms fairly well, but as Pieter pointed out below, wouldn't stand up long to actual artillery fire.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 26, 2018 at 13:56
  • I'd want compare the cost of buying off the Russian's native auxiliaries vs the cost of bringing artillery to bear.
    – AllInOne
    Jun 26, 2018 at 19:34

1 Answer 1


Note first that the stand of trees in your photograph, as to be expected, did not exist when the fort was in use

enter image description here

Then, note that to our left and due east of the fort is first an overgrown ravine, then a sloping hill about 30 feet higher than the fort. Artillery here would have quickly demolished the wooden stockade, and had a clear view of the entire fort as well as the small community west of it.

enter image description here

The coup de grace would then be done by infantry advancing down the peninsula to the fort, and possibly also from the point south west of the fort.

For the garrison as listed, and assuming no great difficulty trekking overland to the fort, then an infantry battalion, two artillery batteries, and a squadron of dragoons should not have difficulty investing and capturing the fort with modest casualties.

The more interesting problem is if the assault must be done amphibiously. As "A ship's a fool, to fight a fort", it would be necessary to find a suitably close location for disembarking out of range of the fort's guns. I'll leave that for tomorrow.

More thoughts

The wooden stockade and towers, more than a century post-Vauban, are clearly not intended to defend against a serious assault, or capable of doing so. They are sufficient only to protect against a coup de main and force an assault of some sort. They are a delaying tactic; intended only to buy sufficient time for stronger defensive forces to assemble and arrive.

Assault force Assumption

  • Naval: 1 Frigate, 2 sloops/brigs, 1 transport
  • Land: 1 infantry battalion (~600 men), 1 dragoon squadron (~120 men), 2 9/12-lb field batteries (~50 men), ship's marines from crews above (~80 men), additional ship's guns as needed. (most commonly 12-lb, but possibly 18-lb)

From the Point North of the Fort

  • Blue Beach, right in front of the fort, will be too well covered by the fort guns to be usable until they have been suppressed. However the threat of landing here is usable to suppress sorties from the fort attempting to interfere with a landing at Red Beach. The two brigs/sloops and the combined ships' marines will stand off here, out of fort range, making this threat.
  • Red beach, ~1200m WNW of the fort, will be the primary landing zone - but look at those breakers. The frigate and transport will disembark here using skiffs, covered by the frigate's guns. -Gun emplacement A overlooks the fort by about 15-20 feet, at a range of ~400m; just out of effective canister range. Once your guns are setup here you request, and will receive, honours of war. It is very unlikely that a wooden stockade, outnumbered 4-1, will defend to the death once opposing guns are emplaced here. The defenders will not be fanatical patriots such as at the Alamo.

The Details - Emplacing the guns

Outnumbering the defenders 4-1 with the advantage of greater artillery and cavalry, advancing across a flat plain devoid of significant features is not a challenging military operation. The brigs are still standing off Blue Beach threatening a coup de main against the forts' guns if the garrison attempts a significant sortie. There will be casualties, but my expectation is about 30-40.

The biggest challenge will be being patient enough to wait for suitable wind, tide, and waves. This looks to be a lee shore, and a rushed landing could result in loss of one or more vessels on those rocks. The fort is well situated, defending the friendliest landing beach for miles around. However once landing conditions are suitable, I suspect that less than 36 hours would be needed to entice a surrender with Honours of War.

My guess is that thee were originally plans for a larger fort on the larger point, which might have been a truly formidable structure, but economics never became justified.

enter image description here

Realities of War

In an actual scenario, the assault force will not be quite the one listed above. The infantry battalion will have the grenadier company, and maybe one fusilier company, detached for another operation. Only one brig will be available in the requisite time frame, and the frigate will be a small 32-gun frigate with only 9-lbers instead of the desired 18-lbers. A commander must make do with what he has got. The garrison is probably under-strength somewhat as well. Accomodation must be made, and time frames may slip a bit in consequence. That is the reality of war. Perhaps a spy has been slipped into the fort, and a night-time coup de main is in consequence conceivable at Blue Beach. Remember that the normal crew of a brig is half as numerous as the full garrison of the fort, and a brig is a very seaworthy vessel; in calm weather one could easily be overloaded briefly with 2 or 3 hundred soldiers. Have fun with this.

  • That adage is very appropriate. Where could the ground forces have landed? Jun 28, 2018 at 1:14
  • @AaronBrick: I can't say without a detailed topographical map and more detailed knowledge about the range and placement of the fort's artillery. There is a track up from the beach to the heights of the point north of the fort, but it is on the south side of that point rather than the north Perhaps skiff could hide under the guns while unloading due to the steepness and height of the cliffs, but I'm uncertain without a map. Garrison is only ~200 men, so landings could only be opposed by ~100 say. Jun 28, 2018 at 1:25
  • 1
    I'm not sure that the Russians could ever expect reinforcements. Maybe the (correct) presumption was that Spanish forces would never attack. Jul 23, 2018 at 4:21
  • 1
    @AaronBrick: Being just a wooden stockade, I believe the fort was designed solely to repel Amerindian attacks, not European attacks. Jul 23, 2018 at 5:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.