Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

THE FIRST FORTIFICATIONS, 1853-1863

Citadel and Guardhouse

The lieutenant's annual report of operations for 1858-1859 filled 12 pages with minute detail. Because the basement story of the Citadel still exists, his description of the building's construction is quoted here in detail, likewise his description of the still-standing guardhouse:

Defensive Barracks

The walls have been carried up from . . . above the basement floor to reference (43' 4-1/2"), the height of the interior crest of the parapet. 45 cast iron girders set and the brick arches turned and leveled up with concrete to receive the flooring strips--15,037 of sup. feet of 1-1/4" Georgia Pine flooring laid, the exterior walls and ceilings furred, partitions set up and lathed ready for plastering, and the (?) put on.

All the iron shutters for the windows have been made and hung, frames set up, and sash put in. The heavy Gak doors for the exterior and all the doors & door frames for the interior have been got out ready to put up as soon as the plastering is finished. All the slop sinks, kitchen sinks, etc. in the basement, and nine water closets in the officers’ quarters, with the water tanks, traps, pipes etc have been arranged, and three force pumps to supply the tanks with water set up.

The main stairs in the hall leading from the basement to the roof (all iron in the soldier’s barracks, and iron frame with wooden treads and risers in the Officers’ Quarters) have been finished, together with the private stairs leading from the basement to the 2d story in the small halls at the end of the officers quarters. The large sky-lights over the stairs and the small one for lighting the hall are well advanced and will be ready to put in a few days. The parapet and terreplein have been finished, requiring 421' 8" running feet of granite coping in the former and 5,599 sup. feet of asphaltic roofing to cover the latter. The area wall has been built to within 8" of its full height, the store-rooms and men's privy in rear wall built and arched over with brick, the roof surface being covered with asphalt. The bottom of the ditch paved, the cistern completed, except plastering the walls with hydraulic mortar, and an elliptical brick sewer opening . . . 20" x 30," constructed from the Barracks down the of the hill to the edge of bluff (reference 35') near the N.W. extremity of the S. battery, whence it will be carried to low water as soon as the summer winds abate [this sewer is shown on a map of that period].

Guard House and Defensive Walls

The heavy Oak doors closing the sally-port have been hung, the casemates finished, the iron traverse circles put down, and 3 24 Pdr flank Howitzers mounted [in fact, they were not mounted]. The iron ladder and trap door leading from the Casemate to the prison room have been made and put in place, 392 running feet of Sand Stone coping has been set in that portion of the Defensive Wall between the 10 Gun [North] battery and the Guard House and 372 running feet of Granite Coping on that portion between the Gd. House and the wharf, and the whole of it backed with brick masonry. A concrete slope 16" wide and 4" thick has been formed in advance of the latter portion to throw the water from the foundation. The bank in rear has been graded and the earth filled in behind the wall to within 4' 3" of the top, the banquette arranged and sodded and an open concrete drain formed. The bank on the left of the sally-port as you enter, between the different levels of the road leading to the S. Battery, has been cut down to a slope of about 450 and sodded, which makes a good finish.

Other accomplishments that year included putting in the machinery (less the weights) for the drawbridges at both the North and South caponiers; cutting stone steps to lead from the barracks counterscarp wall to the bottom of the moat; conversion of a number of wooden gun platforms to stone ones (McPherson was in no great hurry on this, the wooden platforms still being sound); mounting of four 42-pounders on the right face of North Battery and eight on West Battery; mounting of the two 8-inch columbiads on top of the caponiers; covering the roof of West Battery's magazine with earth and sodding it; escarping a portion of the cliff between the wharf and Three-Gun Battery; and repairing the temporary wharf.

Social Whirl

McPherson's days witnessed a fair share of social activities as well as work. When the Sixth Infantry Regiment arrived from the East, McPherson found several familiar faces from his West Point class. The reunion with old friends heightened his morale. In August 1858 he wrote that in a few weeks he would move from Alcatraz to the city. Meanwhile, he savored the fruits of country: "According to your taste you can get strawberries I raspberries, grapes, peaches, Pears I Apples, & melons I all the growth of this state, and the Peaches & grapes are very fine." New Year's 1859 brought a whirlwind of parties and balls: "Knowing that you [his friend Stotsenberg] are interested in the Ladies I must tell you that the hauties [smart set] of San Francisco were there, admired with more, than the Queen of Sheba, when she made her appearance at the Court of Solomon--am I right--ever desirous of--Silks & Satins, laces and head dresses, gas-light and diamonds, all tended to produce a most dazzling effect, from which I am happy to say I suffered no serious inconveniences.

Troops Arrive on Alcatraz

Despite the advanced state of the works as originally conceived; McPherson estimated that he needed $100,000 in additional appropriations to complete the fortifications. Of course, two or three new projects had come to mind, such as a permanent wharf, a fortified storehouse, and the recessed wall running from West to South batteries. But Congress felt differently. Alcatraz's appropriation for fiscal year 1860 was a drastic cutback, amounting only to $30,000.

McPherson did not have to debate for long about where to spend the money. Col. Newman S. Clarke, a hero of Vera Cruz and now commanding the Department of California with his headquarters at San Francisco, applied to the War Department for the authority to occupy the barracks on Alcatraz in the summer of 1859. McPherson learned of this in early September and promptly directed his resources to the barracks. Brick masons paved the moat. Plasterers finished their work. Carpenters installed the dumb waiters and the skylights. At the end of November, McPherson declared the barracks ready for occupation. He did not have enough funds to furnish cooking ranges, but he presumed the department quartermaster would supply them.

On December 1, 1859, a board of officers, headed by Lt. Col. Thomas Swords and accompanied by McPherson, inspected the barracks and found it to be built in the most substantial manner:

"The interior arrangements are admirably adapted to wants and convenience of occupants, and the buildings, as a whole reflect great credit upon the Engineer Officers under whose charge they have been erected.

On December 30, 1859, Capt. Joseph Stewart, with Company H, Third Artillery, occupied Alcatraz, beginning 77 years of military administration. McPherson, having only $328.28 left in the appropriation, dismissed the last of his work force, had the engineer sloop tied up in Benicia, and prepared to turn over officially the ordnance and the ordnance stores to Stewart. Much of his time in early 1860 he would devote to a survey at Lime Point and other tasks. Occasionally, he would have to send a carpenter or a plumber out to the island to make minor repairs or adjustments. In the spring of 1860 he would prepare detailed drawings of the magazine in West Battery, the chief engineer having discovered none in his files.

Totten Inspects

Entirely by coincidence, but quite appropriately, Colonel Totten himself paid a visit to San Francisco Bay just at the time that McPherson finished construction on Alcatraz. In July 1859, Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, commanding the Department of Oregon, precipitated an international crisis in the Pacific Northwest by arbitrarily dispatching troops to occupy disputed San Juan Island. A formidable British naval force dropped anchor off the island and tension mounted. When news of Harney's capricious behavior reached the nation's capital, President Buchanan dispatched the commander in chief of the army, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, to the Pacific Coast to calm the diplomatic waters. Colonel Totten also traveled to the West Coast, separately from the general, but to be of assistance to him, if needed, in Washington Territory, and to inspect Lime Point with the general at the Golden Gate.

Totten missed Scott at San Francisco, but he took the opportunity of his first and only visit to inspect the works at Alcatraz most thoroughly. In general, Totten approved of what he saw: flIts batteries, already completed in a very perfect manner, to the extent of 75 guns of heaviest caliber, will have a powerful effect upon any vessels. . . . But he thought the fortifications should be enlarged: "The guns should be increased in number at this position, until all the contour of the island that looks towards the entrance, and towards Angel Island, shall be occupied making an addition to its armament of some 25 or 30 guns." Later, back in Washington, Totten sent a detailed list of minor criticisms along with $500 from Contingencies of Fortifications to allow McPherson to make corrections. These defects included such things as a loose pintle or two, improper covers on ventilators, some leaks in the caponiers and the guardhouse, and the absence of weights on the drawbridges. Totten was concerned about the steep, rocky slopes behind the batteries. To prevent enemy fire from splintering this rock, he recommended planking the slopes with heavy timber. He also instructed McPherson to brick up the shot furnaces' openings to protect them until needed in wartime. Other criticisms were his observations that the stonework had "rather an unnecessary degree of fineness" about it and that the brick pavement on top of the platforms should not have been substituted for the concrete directed in the drawings. All told, McPherson must have felt good that his work fared this well from the critical eye of the Chief Engineer.

McPherson's annual report of operations for 1859-1860 was necessarily short, nearly all of it dealing with the barracks. One item of particular interest was his account of having built a brick sustaining wall against the cliff at the northeast end of the Citadel and installing a flight of 33 granite steps from the road up the side of this brick wall to the main entrance of the barracks. This handsome flight of steps still exists in this area, along with the wall.

Appropriations Reduced, 1860

Back in July 1859, McPherson had made an estimate of funds needed in fiscal year 1861 for the engineer operations at Alcatraz. In addition to the older projects not yet underway, such as a permanent wharf, he added the concept of a ten-gun battery to be constructed on the southwest side of the island, between North and West batteries. This would be in keeping with Totten's later observation that the fortifications should be enlarged. McPherson's estimate for the new fiscal year amounted to a total of $132,000. One has to imagine his chagrin when Alcatraz's appropriation for that year was announced as being $25,000. He proposed spending that small sum as follows:

Defensive barracks, including iron fence around counterscarp Weights for drawbridges Fort keeper's wages and forage for animals Office in San Francisco and employee wages Permanent storehouse Service magazine, left face, North Battery General repairs to wharf, etc.

A New Battery

About the time the lieutenant got some of these projects underway, he received from the chief engineer an elaborate set of drawings and instructions for a new battery to be located between North and West batteries. He was instructed to drop everything and to devote most of the $25,000 to this work. Instead of having ten guns, as McPherson had recommended, the new battery was to be a complicated affair having 18 guns, 2 large magazines, and 12 small service magazines at the guns for storing loaded shells. Starting at the northwest end of West Battery the first six guns were to be arranged like a gigantic staircase, because of the rapidly rising ground. At the rear of these emplacements a ramp would connect West Battery to the top of the hill. One of the large magazines was to be located near the bottom and the other at the top of this slope, the later magazine serving as a large traverse between these six and the rest of the guns. Between this traverse and North Battery was to be a "straight-face" battery of 12 guns with its crest at an elevation of 132 feet, or near to the height of the northwest hill, which it would be built against. The chief engineer ordered work to begin first on the 12-gun portion of the work. McPherson immediately reorganized his priorities.

By September 1860, his men were already excavating for the 12 guns. Before October ended, masons had begun work on the brick breast-height wall and on the foundations for columbiad platforms. The terreplein was more than half excavated by the last of November. The progress report for January 1861 stated that the breast-height wall and the brick retaining circles for the platforms were completed and the parapet shaped and ready for sodding.

During January McPherson learned that the U. S. Treasury could not send any additional funds. He called the workmen together "and explained the matter to them . . . finishing by telling them if they were willing to continue work and take the chance of being obliged to wait sometime for their pay, I should be pleased to have them do so." All the men agreed to remain. However, a few days later McPherson reconsidered this arrangement and decided to close down the work.

Civil War Stops the Work

Meanwhile, the great crisis in the East was rushing toward a climax and only days away the Confederate States of America would be formed. Even as McPherson suspended operations a letter was on its way to him from Totten: "Under instructions from the Secretary of War I have to direct that all operations of construction upon the works under your charge be at once discontinued and that no further liabilities be contracted except for objects- necessary for the preservation of the government property at said works, such as Fort Keepers etc." Upon receipt of this order, McPherson had the government sloop Brady painted and laid up in San Francisco and the small boats safely stored on Alcatraz, and he discharged the boat crews.

In February 1861, the department commander ordered 10,000 muskets, model 1855, their accoutrements, a supply of percussion caps, and 150,000 cartridges with elongated balls moved from Benicia Arsenal to Alcatraz for better safekeeping against any secessionists' raids. The arrival of the weapons caused McPherson to inform the chief engineer of the now-urgent need for a permanent storehouse. For lack of proper space the muskets had to be stacked in the officers' quarters in the Citadel, "filling the Hall and all the rooms except those in the Basement, and five rooms on the main floor."

In April and May 1861, the garrison on Alcatraz increased by the arrival of a detachment of engineer troops, recruits for the First Dragoons, and three additional artillery companies, bringing the total strength to 8 officers and 361 enlisted men. The number of pieces of heavy artillery on the island amounted to 86, still the only permanently mounted guns in San Francisco Bay. A young lieutenant, Edward Porter Alexander, who had arrived with the engineer detachment, was relieved of troop duty and assigned to •McPherson as his assistant. McPherson had hoped to command the detachment of engineers also and to employ the men on the works. However, the department commander insisted that these men were a part of the military force on the island, and they came under the command of Captain Stewart.

Ordinarily, the construction and maintenance of quarters was a concern of the Quartermaster Department, not the Engineer Department; but McPherson willingly assisted the post commander in finding space for these additional troops. He turned over his mechanics I barracks to the engineer detachment and he prepared plans and estimates for a new temporary frame barracks that would accommodate two companies of artillery. This 40-foot building would be located in the rear of the right face of South Battery, just below the mechanics' barracks.

In his annual report for 1860-1861, McPherson noted that he had corrected most of the deficiencies that Totten had observed, including, finally, putting the three drawbridges into working order. He mentioned that the parade ground was then located on the northwest side of the defensive barracks--the area that had been filled in with material excavated for the Citadel. As for the new 12-gun battery, the breast-height walls and the six small shell rooms were completed--except for hanging the doors. He had finished the brick retaining circles for permanent platforms and had eight sets of traverse stones dressed and ready to set. The parapet had been filled with earth brought from the Presidio and was sodded. But his pride and joy was the new $55 flagstaff that he had installed on top of the south tower of the defensive barracks. The flag would wave from this lofty perch for many years to come

McPherson Goes to War

McPherson's estimates for fiscal year 1862 (prepared long before the Civil War started) again called for over $100,000 to complete the works. Congress made the appropriation for Alcatraz in March 1861--another $25,000. The lieutenant decided that with this small sum he could complete the new 12-gun battery and the large magazine at its south end, and make a beginning on the six descending positions that would connect it to West Battery. He also thought he could fund the construction of a defensive storehouse on top of the wall behind the wharf.

When news of the surrender of Fort Sumter reached the West Coast, McPherson, like the vast majority of people in San Francisco, strongly supported the Union. But three of his fellow engineer officers in the Bay Area, Gilmer, Lee, and Alexander, resigned their commissions, all three later becoming generals in the Confederate army. James Birdseye McPherson, in contrast with them, wrote Washington volunteering his services and describing the local mood:

“The intelligence that the "Confederate States" have commenced hostilities against the General Government, and threatened to seize the Federal Capital, has aroused [sic] a feeling of Patriotism in the breast of every true loyal citizen. The Union element of this state, irrespective of party, has come out in the most decided manner. . . and today there is one of the grandest and most enthusiastic "Union Demonstrations in this city that I have ever witnessed. So that I think there is no danger to be apprehended on this coast.... I wish and also the Department to understand that I am anxious to go wherever I can be of the most service.”

Lieutenant McPherson left California on August 1, destined for fame and death. Replacing him in charge at Alcatraz, as well as Fort Point, was 1st Lt. George Henry Elliot. Colonel De Russy returned to California in December 1861 and assumed control over both Fort Point and Alcatraz Island, leaving Elliot in immediate charge of the works, but as his assistant. In March 1862 Elliot was freed from the aged De Russy's supervision and from then on reported directly to Totten.