On May 17, 1846, Commodore John Drake Sloat was informed that the United States and Mexico were at war.
Commodore Sloat was probably unsurprised by the news. Tensions between the two countries had been escalating for months over the annexation of Texas by the United States, and for just as many months the U.S. Navy had been sending ships on the 200-day journey around Cape Horn to protect U.S. interests in the Pacific Ocean.
Sloat was commanding four U.S. Navy vessels which were anchored off the coast of Mazatlán, Mexico. The Mexican military forces in Alta California were spread thinly and the British had their eye on the territory. The Commodore knew that with Mexico’s resources occupied by a war with the United States, California would be up for grabs. His orders were to get there first.
Sloat dispatched his flagship, the frigate USS Savannah, and the sloop USS Levant to Monterey, the capital of Alta California. They arrived on July 2, 1846, joining the sloop USS Cyane which was already there. Sure enough, a squadron of British ships was there as well. Five days later, Sloat learned that the British man-of-war HMS Collingwood had arrived at Monterey Bay and this tipped the scales of his decision. The British had superior forces in the bay and it was now or never.
Commodore Sloat issued his orders, and 225 men commanded by Captain William Mervine of the USS Cyane landed in Monterey. The California soldiers had already left the town’s defenses and gone to Los Angeles, and Mervine’s force was able to capture the town unopposed.
With California’s capital taken, the rest of the towns in Alta California surrendered quickly and the territory belonged to the United States. Three years later, a constitution was drafted in Monterey’s Colton Hall and California was on its way to U.S. statehood.
The monument to Commodore Sloat was constructed in 1910. It stands at the top of a hill overlooking Monterey Bay next to the site where Sloat’s men established a fort, named Fort Mervine after the captain who led the landing force. The fort no longer exists but its location is demarcated by a V-shaped earthwork surmounted by four cannons.
The area is part of today’s Presidio of Monterey, an active U.S. Army installation, and the nearest military buildings are visible some distance behind the monument. Access to the rest of the Presidio is tightly controlled but the monument’s location is open to the public. Pictures are permitted, but with such close proximity to a military installation, this American hero’s monument is remarkably un-free in terms of photography.
The Presidio of Monterey is the home of the Defense Language Institute/Foreign Language Center (DLI/FLC), the US Department of Defense’s foreign language school. Student lore is that if a virgin ever graduates from DLI, the Sloat Monument granite eagle will fly away.