Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...



Alcatraz's Armament

In the autumn of 1861 Elliot wrote Totten expressing his concern about the possibility of a foreign power, particularly Great Britain, going to war with the United States and attacking Pacific Coast ports:

“Should there a danger of war with a foreign power (of which, it seems to us, here, there is a possibility) I conceive it to be absolutely necessary, that not only the fortifications in this harbor, but those for the defense of Puget Sound and the Columbia River, should be constructed without delay. . . .The British have recently strongly increased their naval forces at Vancouver's Island-, and I have heard within a few days that an additional regiment has been ordered from China for the re-enforcement of the land forces there.”

At this same time, Totten requested status of the armament at Alcatraz, not because of a particular concern over British naval power, but as an updating of all coastal fortifications. Elliot responded stating that the island then had 77 guns mounted, 3 additional guns with carriages and 2 mortars with beds ready to be mounted I and 6 more guns still without carriages, for a total of 86 guns and 2 mortars. This total probably included an 8-inch columbiad in North Battery that had burst a few days earlier during practice firing, the iron damaging the columbiad next to it. Although Alcatraz had an appropriation of $25,000 for this fiscal year, 1862, the •chief engineer had withheld most of it for the time being. He had done the same with an additional $25,000 that Congress had appropriated for the island in July 1861.

Finally, in February 1862, Totten advised Elliot to resume the operations "which have been suspended for• some time." In this letter he said that changes were required for mounting guns because of the adoption of wrought-iron carriages for all barbette guns, most of which were to be mounted on a front pintle rather than the center pintle (complete circle) as had hitherto been planned for Alcatraz. (Alcatraz's existing guns were mounted on wooden carriages.) He also stated that four emplacements on Alcatraz would be changed so as to mount 10-inch guns (Rodmans); nothing was to be done for now on these big guns because their platforms were not yet "fully determined on.” Elliot did not have the opportunity to implement the instructions contained in this lengthy, detailed letter. Two months later Totten directed him "to suspend all operations on gun traverse circles of all kinds until you hear further from this office."

Uncertainties as to the dimensions of the new iron carriages had prevented completion of the detailed drawings for the platforms. Because of this delay, Totten decided that the Alcatraz appropriation should now be expended in constructing one of McPherson's pet projects--a permanent wharf built on iron columns, but of a smaller size than that planned by McPherson. The chief engineer also announced that a recent armament board had decided that Alcatraz's complete armament should be 124 guns and mortars. He added a postscript saying that if a 13-inch gun then being tested should prove worthy, it would take the place of the eighty-five 10-inch guns scheduled. This message brought work on Alcatraz's fortifications to a complete halt for the remainder of fiscal year 1862.

Elliot's annual report of work accomplished during 1861-1862 was, of necessity, the shortest yet in Alcatraz's history: "Nothing has been done on this Work for want of Funds during the year, beyond the necessary repairs of Wharf and the cutting of the Columbiad platform stones for the Extension North Westward of [West Battery]." However, the lieutenant had several ideas for the future, some old, some new: complete the above battery; construct another battery between West and South batteries; build still another battery of 37 guns on the east side of the island, on either side of the guardhouse; build a permanent prison in the vicinity of the guardhouse; construct additional water cisterns, a permanent storehouse, and a stable; dig a well and supply water by means of a windmill; and construct an additional permanent two-company barracks on the northwest hill. Elliot would achieve a few of these projects.

Batteries Named

Fiscal year 1863 witnessed a climax of Civil War-associated activities in San Francisco Bay. On Alcatraz, Elliot rushed forward the completion of the work between West and North batteries and he constructed a new battery between West and South batteries, in the area where his predecessors had long urged a parapet with gun recesses connecting the two. Whether a man of little imagination or for other reasons, Elliot could not come up with any original names for these new works. His correspondence with Washington was a confusing jumble of references to the new undertakings by old terms, mostly "West" and "South," despite the fact that these were already well established names on the island. Totten himself appeared to be somewhat bewildered on reading Elliot's letters. Finally he wrote Elliot requesting him to devise a system of designations for the various batteries, "their number has become so considerable that they require to be distinguished by names. " In later years batteries would be named by the War Department and announced in general orders. Invariably only the names of dead military men would be used. But Elliot was not bound by any traditions in 1863, and he decided to employ the names of engineer officers "who have been distinguished in the present war." His system of nomenclature was definitely an improvement, although it took time for Elliot himself to remember to use the new names.

Battery Halleck

This battery consisted of all of the right face and the first 16 positions to the left of the caponier of the former North It was named in honor of Henry Wager Halleck, a member of the first Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast, now commander in chief of the army.

Battery Rosecrans

This battery consisted of the five positions on the extreme left face of the former North Battery. It was named in honor of the then Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans, Union army.

Battery Mansfield

This new 12-gun battery was nearing completion on the northwest peak of the island. It was named for Maj. Gen. Joseph King Fenno Mansfield, who had inspected the works on Alcatraz in the 1850s.

Battery Stevens

The new work on this battery consisted of six positions which were stepped like a staircase immediately to the northwest of old West Battery. It was probably named for Maj. Gen. Isaac Ingalls Stevens, formerly an engineer officer and first governor of Washington Territory; killed in the battle of Chantilly, Virginia, in 1862.

Battery Tower

This battery consisted of both faces of old West Battery. It was named in honor of Alcatraz's own Zealous Bates Tower, now a brigadier general in the East.

Battery McPherson

This battery comprised the four new positions immediately to the southeast of Battery Tower. It was also named for a former Alcatraz engineer, now Maj. Gen. James Birdseye McPherson. (Why Elliot decided to split the eight guns of this new work between Battery McPherson [four] Battery McClellan [four] is not at all clear).

Battery McClellan

This battery consisted all of old South Battery and the adjacent four emplacements of the new work between former West and South batteries. It was named in honor of Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan, Halleck's predecessor as commander in chief of the army.

Battery Prime

This battery was formerly the old Three-Gun or Southeast Battery. It was named, of course, for Alcatraz's Lt. Frederick Edward Prime, now a captain in the East.

Alarms and Scares

Brig. Gen. George Wright, commanding the Department of the Pacific, became most concerned about the status of the defenses of San Francisco Bay in January 1863. The Confederate cruiser Alabama was wreaking havoc somewhere on the high seas, perhaps even then sailing toward San Francisco. He notified the adjutant general of the army on January 31: "Apprehensions [are] entertained that enemy steamers may threaten harbor of San Francisco. Troops in forts on the alert. War steamers necessary to co-operate with forts in harbor. No Government vessels at San Francisco. " The commanding officer on Alcatraz received orders from the general to assemble his men at their assigned posts where they were to remain day and night, ready to act on any emergency: “The guns . . . should be arranged for instant use."

Wright also put great pressure on De Russy to increase the number of batteries; he wanted temporary works on Angel Island, Point San Jose, Point Rincon, and on Yerba Buena Island. The general was impatient with the engineers' need to correspond with Totten on every detail, and it irritated him that De Russy and Elliot reported directly to the chief engineer and not through him as commanding general. Nevertheless, the engineers made every effort to accommodate the general's desires and to cooperate with him fully.

In March a fresh wave of worry and excitement swept over San Francisco. For several weeks rumors had swept around the bay that Confederates were attempting to outfit commerce raiders in either San Francisco Harbor or Puget Sound. Attention centered on one particular schooner, Chapman. She eventually cleared the San Francisco customhouse, supposedly with an assorted cargo and no passengers, sailing for Manzanillo, Mexico. After the schooner got underway, an armed party of sailors from the tired old U.S.S. Cyane, which was helping to guard the harbor, seized the Chapman and towed her to Alcatraz. The boarders found 15 men (in addition to the crew), cannon, and munitions on board, intent on going to sea as a commerce raider for the South. The army imprisoned the captives on Alcatraz Island.

The successful seizure of the Chapman eased public concern in San Francisco considerably. General Wright notified Washington in April that apprehensions had greatly subsided. While he still wanted the additional fortifications for the bay, he was satisfied that his command had prepared for an enemy attack to the extent the resources allowed: "I have lately made a thorough inspection of the forts and defenses of the harbor of this city, and find that the arrangements to meet any emergency as far as practicably are perfect.

Columbiads No Good

Wright's optimism was not well placed. Lieutenant Elliot had already informed the chief engineer that few of the mounted columbiads were really serviceable. Referring to the 8-inch columbiad that had burst some time ago in old North Battery, he wrote: "A large proportion of the Columbiads now in position can hardly be called serviceable, for the Ordnance Department several years ago directed that they be used only as shell guns and with reduced charges. They belong to a lot made at Boston which passed the inspection and were afterwards condemned." Wanting to know more about these weapons, Elliot wrote the ordnance officer at Benicia Arsenal requesting additional information. That officer replied that the columbiads on the Pacific Coast had a bad name. Several similar guns from the same foundry and of the same year had already burst on the East Coast. A series of experiments with them had ended with the conclusion that they be used only as shell guns, "the use they were originally intended for by Col Bomford of our Army and Col. Daixhan of Europe." He advised Elliot not to experiment with the 10-inch columbiads, especially with heavy charges:

“I have fired a good 10 inch Columbiad one Thousand times with solid shot and 20 lbs of powder, and then fired the Columbiad with the regular proof charges, all this without producing any great enlargement of the bore and simply rebushing after the 600th fire. This gun was cast at the Richmond Foundry and gave a low tensile strength for gun iron. The guns in the harbor [of San Francisco] are from Algiers & West Point Foundries if I remember aright, and they carried their iron too high the year in which they were cast destroying a portion of the fibre.”

He added another reason for not firing: A "rebel Pacific privateer" could cut off San Francisco's source of supply of ammunition at any moment. Ammunition should be hoarded against that possibility. Elliot, now thoroughly alarmed, complained to Totten that many of the platforms in the older batteries had never been armed; of course, none of the new 26 positions had weapons. This combined with the poor quality of the existing guns presented a bleak outlook. Making a jab at De Russy's efforts at Fort Point, Elliot concluded: "The other fort in this harbor has two entire tiers unoccupied, and only a portion of a third is filled with guns of the same description.


Gold, Legal Tender, and a Strike

Another crisis of the times that bothered both Elliot and De Russy was the matter of legal tender notes versus gold and silver coins. Elliot explained to Totten that gold and silver were the currency of the state and that California merchants raised prices of goods from 15 to 20 percent when the engineers attempted to pay in notes. He gave a graphic example of the system by describing his recent attempt to purchase bricks and cement: "The best terms I could get were $3.60 in gold per bbl for cement and $12 per M in gold for bricks, or $4.25 in paper for cement and $14.46 in paper for bricks, making a difference to the U. S. for the quantities I wished to purchase of $1146.00." Elliot thought that the supply of gold in the sub-treasury could be maintained at a level sufficient for the needs of the engineers; however, the treasurer of the United States apparently felt otherwise. Elliot's growing army of civilian employees on Alcatraz also felt the pinch. He paid a mechanic $4 per day in notes which, as far as the mechanic was concerned, came to $2.40 in purchasing value. Usually, Elliot was able to obtain coin to pay wages; but on two recent paydays he had had to deal in notes. He asked permission to increase wages should the latter happen again. In April 1863 the War Department arranged with Treasury for the Pacific Coast engineers to pay their employees in coin. But, in the end, the Treasury Department could not meet the commitment and rescinded the arrangement. Totten attempted to relieve De Russy's and Elliot's embarrassment by authorizing them to raise wages (in notes) by 25 percent. The engineers called their employees together, informed them of Totten's offer, and watched with consternation as their entire crews walked off the job. Totten brought this news to the attention of Secretary of War Stanton, who immediately authorized the payment of laborers and mechanics at the regular San Francisco wages. There was one restriction though: The engineers were not to advance wages as other federal agencies seemed to be doing. The workmen returned to their jobs after a ten-day walkout, all except stonecutters. Elliot explained that there was a temporary shortage of these craftsmen in San Francisco. He was certain they too would return shortly without any further yielding to their demands.

For years, the engineers at Alcatraz had been urging the construction of a new, permanent wharf at Alcatraz. It will be recalled that Totten had finally authorized this project in lieu of further work on setting gun platforms. He must have acted with surprise, or relief, or both, when he received a letter from Elliot saying that a new wharf was not needed after all. Elliot had examined the wharf "by submarine devices" and had found, instead of solid rock for the iron piers, that the bottom was covered with from 5 to 10 feet of loose rock, mud, and debris, all from cutting down the cliffs. The wooden piles, he learned, were for the most part sound and Only some upper timbers required replacing. The repairs, when carried out, cost only $1,500. With that out of the way, Elliot returned his attention to the fortifications.


Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan


Frederick Edward Prime


Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans


Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield


Maj. Gen. Isaac Ingalls Stevens


U.S.S. Cyane


Alcatraz Island (in the far distance) from Bay Shore and Fort Point Road, San Francisco, 1866


Alcatraz, seen from a steamer ship in 1892


Alcatraz, circa 1895

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A panorama (above) consisting of 11 sections with reproductions of photographs by Eadweard J. Muybridge, taken from California Street hill in 1877.


Eadweard J. Muybridge is responsible for much of the early photographs of Alcatraz during the fortress years. Muybridge was a pioneer English photographer who spent much of his life in the United States.