Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Years of Transition, 1863-1869

New Armament

A large amount of correspondence passed between Totten and Elliot in fiscal year 1863 concerning the batteries and the new type stone platforms. These letters contained infinite detail concerning angles, measurements, platform stones, and so forth. Totten may now have been a brigadier general (March 3, 1863), chief of engineers, and responsible for all engineering activities in a vast civil war, but he was never too busy to write Elliot long letters that paid close attention to the smallest aspect of Alcatraz's fortifications. To recount all these communications here would be painful for reader and writer alike. It will suffice for the purposes at hand to summarize the highlights of the year's construction and Elliot's proposals for the future. fortification construction concentrated on the six emplacements and magazine for Battery Stevens, and the eight guns and magazine that would comprise both Battery McPherson and the right flank of Battery McClellan.

By the end of June 1863, the projects had been fully completed except for the laying of the front-pintle stone platforms and mounting the 8-inch and 10-inch guns "of the model." The elaborate scarp wall that fronted Battery McClellan (South Battery) was not copied for these new works. Most of the scarp was simply earthen embankments. Where the terrain demanded something more, Elliot built either dry rubble walls or, on occasion, low brick and concrete scarps. Here and there along the slopes, he had short retaining walls of stone or brick erected where cliffs were too steep to hold the earth. Some of these retaining walls are still to be seen. During the year, Totten concluded that there was adequate space in the batteries on the island for only two 15-inch guns, rather than the four originally contemplated. One of these would be located at the northwest end of Battery Mansfield; the other would stand at the salient angle of Battery Tower. The other two locations (the extreme western end of Battery McClellan and the fourth position in Battery Prime) would be designed so as to mount 300-pounder Parrott rifles.

Elliot's one stonecutter made all the sills, lintels, lock blocks, and steps for the magazines. He also dressed the scarce slates used as drain covers. The brick masons kept busy on the magazines and the retaining walls. Elliot noted that sentinels had worn paths on the parapets, and the great winds that swept the island were blowing away the light soil. He had the entire surfaces of these parapets made over, adding earth where necessary and sowing Kentucky bluegrass over the surfaces. When it came time to place the scheduled flagging on top of the breast-height walls in order to support the slopes of the new batteries, Elliot discovered that it was both scarce and costly in San Francisco. He proposed to substitute iron plates held in place with angle irons. These plates could readily be removed in time of battle. Totten thought this to be an excellent idea, subject to some changes in design, and they were installed. Later, this concept of topping a breast-height wall was extended to some other batteries, including the 15-inch gun position in Battery Mansfield.

As early as May 1862, Totten sent Elliot plans and detailed instructions for the construction of front-pintle and centerpintle stone platforms for 8-inch and l0-inch guns of the newest model, mounted on the new iron carriages I with an angle of depression of 6 degrees. There were to be 6 front-pintle and 2 centerpintle platforms in the new eight-gun work (McClellan/McPherson), and 11 front-pintle platforms in new Battery Mansfield. The six positions in Battery Stevens were to be center-pintle. Totten said that guns of the old pattern and mounted on the old wooden carriages could also be mounted on these front-pintle platforms, but their angle of depression would be only 4 degrees. Later I noting that Elliot already had on hand a great deal of material already prepared for the older-style center-pintle stone platforms, Totten said that he should prepare to build on the older pattern. He then proceeded to write several pages of instructions on how to strengthen the platforms so they would be strong enough for large caliber guns. Later, Totten had to admit that the Ordnance Department had decided not to build new-type center-pintle carriages for either 8-inch or l0-inch guns; thus I the old-pattern platforms would definitely be used. These, he said, could accommodate "the old wooden carriages, and also Mr. Parrott's 100, 200 & 300 pounders mounted on his centre pintle carriage." Finally, in 107 February 1863, the chief of engineers prepared a circular for the mounting of 15-inch guns, in magnificent detail as usual.


The quartermaster general, charged with supplying the troops on Alcatraz, informed the engineers in 1862 that the capacity of the underground water cisterns on the southeast side of the Citadel was insufficient for the large number of troops then on the island. He complained, too, of the great cost of transporting the water by boat. Totten ordered Elliot to prepare a project for enlarging the cisterns and to investigate the cost to the government of laying a water pipe, under the bay, from San Francisco to Alcatraz. Elliot reported that the Citadel cisterns held 54,000 gallons of water, and temporary cisterns on the island erected by the Quartermaster Department contained an additional 36,000 gallons. He estimated that Alcatraz required a reservoir of 182,000 gallons in order to have a wartime reserve for 500 men for six months. He recommended additional cisterns on the southeastern side of the Citadel and others on the eastern end of the building, between the counterscarp and the retaining wall. Totten approved the project, adding still more cisterns. In his annual report Elliot said he had constructed these cisterns, which had a capacity of 175,000 gallons. He also laid a pipe from the wharf to the cisterns. The steamer that delivered the water used her pumps to force the water to the top of the island.

Elliot recommended that the government not undertake to lay a water pipe from the mainland. He had serious doubts that it could be successfully laid without accident and heavy expenses. Also, he was certain that ships' anchors would be a constant danger to the pipe. However, if such a system was thought to be essential, a certain A. W. Von Schmidt had proposed to lay one at his own expense if he could have a ten-year contract to supply 1-7 existing cisterns. Elliot added that he had investigated the possibility of boring an artesian well on Alcatraz, but the island rock was too hard for such an undertaking (an opinion that surprised Totten greatly). However, water experts in San Francisco thought a common well, 6 feet in diameter, could be sunk and that water would probably be found at a depth not greater than 225 feet. Since the wind blew for three-quarters of the year, a windmill could be employed to raise the water.

Armament Report, June 1863 (See PDF Version)


Earth versus Masonry

Captain Elliot, far removed from the fast promotions and glories of the battlefield, must nevertheless have paid close attention to dispatches from the East. As an engineer he would have been intensely interested in the fate of coastal fortifications along the Atlantic. Before the Civil War, the vertically walled masonry casemated forts were believed to be the best possible means of defense against ships of war. Their very strength could withstand an enemy's bombardment or siege. Their great number of guns could concentrate a devastating fire on any vessel that came within range. The Civil War changed that thinking. Steam propulsion, ironclads, large-caliber rifled and smoothbore guns, increased muzzle velocity, and other advances in the delivery of firepower would make the masonry forts of the Third American System obsolete by 1865. One of the more dramatic illustrations early in the war of the demise of masonry forts was the Union attack on Fort Pulaski, Georgia, in April 1862.

Union land forces bombarded the fort with rifled guns, smoothbores, and mortars, the rifled guns opening great breeches in the scarp. On the second day the fort surrendered. Elliot, in San Francisco, never mentioned these developments in his correspondence with Totten; nor did the chief of engineers offer much advice in this matter except for directing the use of greater amounts of earth and less masonry in the scarps of the new batteries, especially for the 15-inch gun emplacement then under construction. However, in June 1863, Elliot proposed a modification of Battery Tower that forecast the post-Civil War fortifications on Alcatraz, which were entirely rebuilt with the lessons of the war in mind. I have thought it might be well, while constructing the platform & parapet for the 15" Gun in the Salient of Battery Tower, to continue the earthen embankment in front of the scarp. . . . The Scarps of this battery are constructed of Sand Stone facing . . . and appear to be in good order. The height of the Scarp varies from 2 to 16' and . . I think the thickness to be rather thin to resist the projectiles which are now used, one Section of 5' height shows a thickness of 3'. The earthen embankments which I propose will prevent in a manner the breaking of these scarps. . . . I would increase the thickness from 15 to 16.

In April 1863 Elliot received word that Alcatraz's appropriation for fiscal year 1864 would be no less than $200,000. While he had to travel north in the summer of 1863 to erect temporary fortifications at the mouth of the Columbia River, he had a multitude of proposals for the island. In addition to strengthening Batteries Tower and McClelland, he was quite concerned about the fact that an enemy party could land any place in front of Battery McClellan from its extreme eastern end to the wing wall toward the west. Because of the accessibility of this slope, the Alcatraz garrison had to post a strong guard there--because of a continuing concern that southern sympathizers in the area might attempt to land, as well as Confederate raiders from the Pacific. He also proposed a similar treatment for that part of Battery McClellan immediately to the west of the angle wall. Here, as in a section of Battery Tower, it would be necessary to build a small brick retaining wall at the base of the earthen fill to prevent it from sliding off. Elliot said he planned to paint the brick a color similar to the earthen bank so as to make it less conspicuous (This brick retaining wall, as well as the stone angle wall, are still to be seen at Alcatraz.). Totten quickly approved, suggesting that the Chinese granite coping on top of the scarp be removed for use elsewhere on the island.

Improving the Batteries

Another proposal at this time came about because of complaints of artillery officers on the island. Some of the batteries, particularly Tower and Halleck, had high vertical natural rock banks rising at their rears. If an enemy projectile hit this wall, it would drop back down onto the terreplein causing many casualties. The post officers informed Elliot that because of this condition at Battery Tower "they would either not man this battery at all, or would not do so till they found that other Guns bearing upon the enemy failed to stop his progress." Elliot now proposed to slope these banks at an angle of 45 degrees, to have a "catch shot" 4-feet wide at the bottom, and to construct a 2-foot-wide brick wall in front of the catch shot to prevent splintering shells forming havoc among the cannoneers.

Among the other projects Elliot wanted to undertake were additional guns on the northeastern side of the island, an additional permanent barracks, and enlargements of the military prison, permanent storehouses, and improved hospital facilities. While Elliot was absent on the Columbia River in1863, General Wright, still commanding the Department of the Pacific, wrote increasingly angry letters to the War Department about the delays in getting temporary batteries built in San Francisco Bay. Confederate raiders in the Pacific were still a rumored threat, and Wright fumed that the engineers spent months doing nothing but drawing profiles: "While are meditating some morning, the first thing we shall know will be the enemy's guns thundering against the city." To encourage De Russy to speed things up Wright ordered his staff engineer, Maj. Robert S. Williamson, toreport to him to in the construction of temporary fortifications. De Russy detailed Williamson to Alcatraz to supervise the works there until Elliot's return in October 1863.

New Guns

In October, De Russy learned that the Ordnance Department was able to turn its attention to the armament needs of the Pacific Coast. The defenses of San Francisco were to receive ten 10-inch, eight 8-inch, and two 15-Inch Rodmans, together with their carriages, implements, equipments, and ammunition; and twelve 42-pounder rifled guns, with carriages, implements, and equipments, but the ammunition would arrive later. The two 15-inch Rodmans, both destined for Alcatraz, would be the first guns of this type to be mounted on the Pacific Coast. Elliot, no doubt pleased by this news, now became concerned that the Alcatraz wharf was not strong enough to receive the heavy guns . He had earlier told Totten that the wharf was quite sound, and it must have been with some embarrassment that he wrote that sea worms had been unusually active the past year and the wooden piles were much decayed. With regard to the 8feet of muck and debris that covered solid rock under the wharf, Elliot proposed to rebuild the wharf employing iron screw piles that could be manufactured in San Francisco. Totten, apparently amused at Elliot's sudden change of mind, responded: "I have little to say on so much of your letter of Feby 5, as relates to of the wharf at Alcatraz." The grand old chief died shortly after writing this. Elliot would have his wharf in repair for the arrival of the 15-Inch guns. The delivery of the new armament was but haphazardly recorded. It is known that the four 8-inch Rodmans scheduled for Alcatraz arrived on the island in April 1864. The carriages for the six 42-pounder rifles arrived in June, but the guns themselves were delayed until March 1865. Excitement must have run high on the June day in 1864 when the two 15-inch Rodmans reached the Rock.

Throughout 1863-1864, laborers excavated the rock banks behind the several batteries to reduce them to the desired 45-degree slope. Elliot, considering the mass of rock and rubble, proposed to throw it over the parapet of Battery McClellan so as to strengthen its 20-foot-tall scarp wall, as was being done at Battery Tower. The chief of engineers approved this project as he did two others: strengthening the walls of the magazine for Battery Tower, and erecting a traverse before its entrance, and reducing a point of rock that lay before and restricted the fire of some of the guns in Tower's right flank. For this last, Totten instructed that the cliff be stepped so as to "reflect missiles." He added a drawing showing the effect he desired.

In May 1864, Elliot prepared a "Circle of Fire" for Alcatraz's batteries as then constructed. He pointed out that the smallest amount of fire was in a southeasterly direction, toward Blossom Rock. : He knew that Totten had been concerned about this weakness before his death, and he hoped his drawing would be helpful to the Department in devising a plan to overcome the deficiency. In the succeeding months several plans for this area were devised by both Elliot and Washington. They included a new battery high on the hill, an extension of Battery Prime, and replacing . Prime with a 15-Inch gun. However, nothing would be done at this location for a number of years.

A Multitude of Tasks, 1864

The large appropriation of this year allowed Elliot to employ a sizeable work force on the various projects. The payroll for January 1864 included a master mason, 7 stonecutters, a carpenter, 2 blacksmiths, a boat crew, and 59 laborers. The engineer purchased but few finished articles in San Francisco; his craftsmen manufactured everything from ventilator doors and copper hinges for the magazines to iron gratings for the prison windows. They cut and set stone for the permanent platforms in Batteries Stevens, McPherson, and Mansfield. The blacksmiths made the ironwork for the platforms. Laborers whitewashed the engineer buildings and repaved the bottom of the ditch around the Citadel. The huge earthen parapet around the 15-inch-gun position in Battery Mansfield took shape, and the stonemasons prepared its platform. The carpenter relocated the fog bell at the southeast end of the island because of the escarping of the cliff there. Elliot, undoubtedly pleased with the progress of the works, must have been happy to learn that Alcatraz's appropriation for fiscal year 1865 was $90,000.