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War Alcatraz History
For thousands of
years before the Civil War, Alcatraz was a rugged rock inhabited by sea
birds. Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into San Francisco
Bay in 1775 and mapped prominent landmarks. He named one island "Isla de los
Alcatraces" (Island of the Pelicans) because of their being so plentiful
there." This name was shortened, anglicized, and attributed to what we call
Alcatraz Island today.
Gold was discovered
along the American River in 1848, and California was changed forever. The
land formerly belonging to Spain and then to Mexico, was claimed as United
States territory. As word of vast riches in California spread quickly,
hundreds of ships filled with gold-seekers from around the globe arrived in
San Francisco Bay. San Francisco's population exploded from 300 to 30,000 in
just a few years. Suddenly San Francisco was the center of world attention.
The United States
government needed to protect the land and its mineral resources from seizure
by other countries. In 1850, California became a state, and President
Fillmore issued an Executive Order reserving certain lands around San
Francisco Bay for military use.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY
A "Triangle of
Defense" was designed by Army engineers to guard the entrance of San
Francisco Bay, with forts at Alcatraz Island, Fort Point, and Lime Point.
The landowner of Lime Point and the government could never agree on a price,
and that fort was never built. In 1853, construction began on Fortress
Alcatraz, which was built atop the sandstone island, and Fort Point, a
traditional casemate fort built at water level after massive excavation of
the bluff. Alcatraz was completed first and became the most powerful of all
Pacific Coast defenses. (map of SF Bay)
"Nature seems to
have provided a redoubt for this purpose in the shape of Alcatrazes Island
-- situated abreast the entrance directly in the middle of the inner harbor,
it covers with its fire the whole of the interior space lying between Angel
Island to the North, San Francisco to the South, and the outer batteries to
the West....A vessel passing directly to San Francisco must pass within a
mile." the Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast , 1852
topography of Alcatraz was incorporated into the defense plan of the island.
Blasting at the rock and laying brick and stone, laborers created steep
walls around the island. Behind the walls, smooth-bore Columbiads were
placed at the north, south, and west sides to provide gunfire at incoming
enemy ships. Eventually 111 cannon almost encircled the island, and the gun
batteries were named for prominent Civil War Union officers. North and south
caponieres, masonry towers jutting out from the island midway between gun
batteries, held smaller Howitzers to protect the sides of the island.
Crowning the island near the lighthouse was a defensive barracks called the
The citadel was the
final defense if the island was attacked. Constructed of sturdy brick walls
with rifle-slit windows, the two upper stories provided living quarters, and
the basement rooms were kitchens, dining halls, and storage of food, water
and ammunition. Soldiers entered the citadel by crossing a drawbridge over a
deep dry moat that surrounded the building. The citadel could hold 100 men
during peace time and double that number under attack. By rationing
provisions, troops could withstand a four month siege.
Due to the high
walls, the island was accessible only from the dock. From the dock to the
citadel, attackers had to get through the guardhouse. The guardhouse had
Howitzers aimed toward the dock from each side room, and rifle slits for
shooting enemies at close range. A dry moat and drawbridge, and heavy iron
studded wooden doors blocked the road and prevented attackers from reaching
the rest of the island.
slowly on the fort. Finding laborers was difficult because newcomers to
California were more interested in acquiring wealth through mining or
establishing businesses rather than working for wages. Good quality building
materials were hard to find. Many batches of brick were rejected before the
citadel was built. Sandstone was quarried on nearby Angel Island, but much
of the granite was imported from China.
By December 1859,
the fort was ready. Captain Joseph Stewart and 86 men of Company H, Third
U.S. Artillery took command of Alcatraz Island.
The fort on Alcatraz
took on a new role during the Civil War. As the rumblings of discontent on
the East Coast erupted into gunfire in April 1861, Alcatraz defended the
Union state of California from possible seizure by Confederates.
California's population included both Union and Confederate supporters, and
tensions ran high. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston faithfully did his duty to
calm the threat of war locally and protect San Francisco until he resigned
his command. After returning to the South, Johnston accepted a commission in
the Confederate Army and died at the battle of Shiloh.
replacement immediately ordered all military forces around San Francisco Bay
to be on full alert. With many new enlistees, the military personnel on
Alcatraz increased to over 350 by the end of April 1861. New troops arrived,
underwent training, and departed for other assignments, some to battlefields
on the East Coast.
The first threat to
California's security occurred in March, 1863. The government learned that a
group of Confederate sympathizers planned to overtake San Francisco Bay. The
plan was to arm their schooner, the J.M. Chapman, and use it to capture a
steamship which would raid commerce in the Pacific. They wanted to blockade
the harbor and lay siege to the forts.
plans were thwarted when their ship captain bragged about their scheme in a
tavern. On the night the Chapman was to sail, the U.S. Navy seized the ship
and arrested the crew. The Chapman was towed to Alcatraz, where an
inspection revealed cannons, ammunition, supplies, and 15 men hiding. One of
these men, a prominent San Franciscan, had papers signed by Confederate
President Jefferson Davis ensuring him an officer's commission in the
Confederate Navy as a reward for this daring plot.
Rather than becoming
Confederate heroes, the three ringleaders were arrested as traitors. They
were confined in the Alcatraz guardhouse basement during the investigation.
After a quick trial and conviction for treason, they were later spared ten
years imprisonment on Alcatraz by a pardon from President Lincoln. The
Unionists in San Francisco were shocked by the incident and feared that
other Confederates were plotting in their midst.
In October 1863, an
unidentified armed ship entered San Francisco Bay. Because there was no
wind, the flag hung limp and men in rowboats towed the ship. The ship did
not head toward the San Francisco docks. Instead, it traveled toward Angel
Island to the North Bay, toward the army arsenal and the navy shipyard. The
commanding officer at Alcatraz had a duty to ensure that no hostile foreign
warship entered the bay.
Winder ordered the Alcatraz artillery to fire a blank charge as a signal for
the ship to stop. The rowboats continued pulling the ship. Winder then
ordered his men to fire an empty shell toward the bow of the ship, a
challenge to submit to the local authority. The ship halted and responded
with gunfire, which Winder confirmed was a 21-gun salute. Through the smoke,
the Alcatraz troops could finally see the British flag waving on the H.M.S.
Sutlej, flagship of Admiral John Kingcome. Alcatraz responded with a return
Soon messages were
exchanged rather than gunfire. As Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in
the Pacific, Kingcome wrote that he was displeased at his reception in San
Francisco. Captain Winder explained his actions by saying, "The ship's
direction was so unusual I deemed it my duty to bring her to and ascertain
her character." The U.S. Commander of the Department of the Pacific
supported Winder and replied that Kingcome had ignored the established
procedures for entering a foreign port during war. Winder later received a
letter of gentle reminder to act cautiously. Some San Franciscans thought
Winder may have saved the day, considering that Great Britain favored the
BRADLEY AND RULOFSON
Capt. Winder found
himself in an awkward situation the next summer when he authorized
commercial photographers Bradley and Rulofson to take photos of Fortress
Alcatraz. Prints of the 50 photos were to be sold to the public to offset
the photographers' expenses. The War Department in Washington, D.C. did not
commend Winder for his initiative and pride in his post, but rather
questioned Winder's motives because his father was an officer in the
Confederate Army. The Secretary of War ordered all the prints and negatives
to be confiscated as a threat to national security. Later, Captain Winder
humbly requested a transfer to Point San Jose, a small defense post on the
As the Civil War
lingered on and the Union seemed likely to win, the U.S. Army was willing to
devote more resources to the Pacific Coast. In 1864, the first 15-inch
Rodmanís were mounted on Alcatraz. After the war ended, noted photographer
Eadweard Muybridge was allowed to photograph neatly dressed military
personnel posed around these mighty cannon. (photo)
quarters called a "bomb proof barracks" were approved. This two-tiered brick
casemate building would hold 22 cannon to guard the dock. The upper tier
would house 500 men, and the lower tier would hold four months of
provisions. Excavation began in 1865, but because of lack of funds and
obsolete design, only one tier of casemates was completed and the cannon
were not mounted.
POST CIVIL WAR
The end of the Civil
War in April 1865 marked the end of Alcatraz as an effective harbor defense.
Although there were over one hundred cannon on the island, these smooth-bore
cannon were obsolete. New rifled-bore artillery had a longer range, and were
more accurate and powerful against masonry forts. As if signaling the end of
an era, the Alcatraz gun batteries fired the official mourning salute during
San Francisco's honorary funeral procession for President Lincoln. The old
guns were gradually removed from Alcatraz, and by 1891 there were only seven
The island endured
another topography change as new low-profile earthwork defenses were
attempted. Army engineer Major George Mendell's "Plan of 1870" designed new
defenses which could withstand the impact of rifled projectiles. Cliffs
behind the old gun batteries were cut down, and rock was dumped in front of
the walls. Pairs of Rodman cannon were separated by traverses, rocky hills
covered with dirt and grass. The traverses contained powder magazines and
tunnels to allow access to ammunition and other gun emplacements. Only
initial excavation work was completed for the earthwork batteries, but some
of the imported soil was used for flower gardens around the officers'
quarters. At the same time, the south end of the island was leveled into a
military Parade Ground.