Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Years of Transition, 1863-1869

George Mendell Carries On

Excavations, Northwest End of Island

Elliot prepared to undertake two other projects in 1864-1865. The chief of engineers directed him to construct a ramp from Battery Halleck on the northwest end of the island to Battery Mansfield high on the northwest peak. The difference in elevation between the two was about 80 feet, and the task was complicated by the ramp having to skirt the large earthen parapet of Mansfield's 15-inch gun. A small start was made• on the excavation for this ramp before the end of June 1865; but because of a new plan to completely remodel the defenses of Alcatraz, the project was never completed. The other task involved a large amount of excavation at the northwest end of the island to allow for the extension of Battery Rosecrans to the southeast. This excavation was eventually completed and became the site of a new battery in the 1870s.

Temporary Quarters

At the end of 1864, the garrison on Alcatraz almost doubled when additional companies arrived to remain for the duration of the Civil War. To accommodate these troops, the post quartermaster and the engineer agreed to tear down the dilapidated engineer mechanics I barracks behind Battery McClellan and to erect a new two-story frame barracks on the same site. About this time, the engineer stable was moved from the rear of Battery McPherson closer to the barracks--which would cause future problems of flies and odors. Also, anticipating the enlargement of Battery Prime, Elliot tore down the laborers I barracks and the engineers I mess house that stood nearby. He erected a new building for his employees adjacent to his office near the northwest peak of the island.

Lessons learned from the Civil War occupied much of Elliot's thoughts and time during 1864-1865. Military engineers now realized that in addition to the need for thicker earthen parapets, there was an increased need for earthen traverses, parados, and bombproof shelters in barbette batteries. These additional works were needed to prevent enfilading and reverse fire on the traditional long straight flanks, such as were to be found on Alcatraz-- Batteries Halleck, Rosecrans, Mansfield, or McClellan. Elliot also concerned himself about the morale of artillerymen who had to man guns in front of Alcatraz's rock slopes, even though these slopes had been cut back to 45 degrees. He proposed to cover these slopes with a 6-foot-deep_ blanket of earth: "My design in this is that most of the shells penetrating this mass . . . would neither throw their fragments nor splinters of rock thru' the 6' of material above." Despite his preparing a large number of letters and numerous drawings on these subjects, Elliot did not receive approval to proceed with his plans; the War Department was still debating the proper designs for postwar fortifications.

Fort McPherson

Another idea that Elliot failed to get approval on was a permanent name for the post on Alcatraz. Shortly after New Year's 1865, he wrote Delafield proposing that the post be named after James Birdseye McPherson, who had been killed in battle the preceding July: "I would like . . . to have the work on Alcatraz Island . . . named after my friend the late Genl McPherson. I am sure it would gratify the Citizens here as well as his Army friends . . . he was for some years in charge of its construction." Delafield replied that he would present this proposition to the War Department when the timing appeared right. Later, General McDowell also urged that Alcatraz be named McPherson. But the War Department never got around to giving a formal name to the Rock. Until its abandonment by the army in 1934, it was known officially as the Post of Alcatraz Island. McPherson's name was eventually given to an army post in Atlanta, Georgia, near where he was killed.

Employment of Military Convicts

In January 1865, Delafield sent a circular to the engineers in the field suggesting to them the employment of military convicts in their various works, as a way of reducing labor costs. Elliot's reaction to the circular was one of caution. There was a then-small military prison on Alcatraz that averaged from 10 to 20 prisoners at a time in 1864-1865, and he thought perhaps he could employ as many as 10 of them in breaking stone, "where they would not be in the way of hired laborers." The experiment was put into practice, and Elliot wrote with some surprise, "I find that I can make them much more useful than I supposed and I have made arrangements by which I may hope to obtain a large number, and in this way save a large amount of the appropriation." Thus originated the practice of military prisoners working on the engineer works on Alcatraz. These nameless men, by the hundreds, would reshape the island in the years ahead.

Having attempted unsuccessfully several times to grow grass from seed on top of the parapets to keep them from blowing and wearing away, Elliot tried a new experiment in the rainy season of 1864-1865. While the outcome of this endeavor apparently was not successful, one notes with interest his explanation to the chief of engineers of a strange new plant:

"I have this year caused to be sown with a good deal of care, a kind of clover grown in Chili, called 'Alfalfa,' I believe this will protect the parapets from the effects of our long dry seasons, and permanently strengthen them.”


Brig. Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys (above & below)


Antietam, Md. President Lincoln with Gen. George B. McClellan (Battery McClellan was named in his honor), along with a group of officers including Andrew A. Humphreys.


Oswald H. Ernst


General Delafield


General Barton S. Alexander, first commander of the Volunteer Engineer Brigade and second chief engineer of the Department of Washington during the American Civil War.

Uncertainties & Delays

The Congress continued to be fairly liberal with Alcatraz and appropriated $150,000 for the works in fiscal year 1866. Elliot started off the year with recommendations to the chief for modifications of Batteries Halleck and McClellan. Among other items he proposed thickening the parapets, replacing decayed wooden platforms with stone ones, and as before, constructing earthen traverses that contained magazines. But General Delafield suspended approval of any major changes in the fortifications until the permanent board of engineers in New York City had developed a system of coastal defenses capable of resisting modern armament and dealing with ironclads. Five years would pass before a complete remodeling of Alcatraz's fortifications would be undertaken. Meanwhile, Elliot would pursue construction of the bombproof barracks and certain minor projects on the island, most of them concerning replacing the obsolete columbiads with heavier weapons. against the employment of prisoners there because they could escape so readily. But he was all in favor of Elliot's using them at Alcatraz, where escape would be difficult.

At Battery McClellan, Elliot proposed removing the coping from the scarp wall. He thought it was no longer needed because the earthen slope outside now reached to the top of the scarp; also an enemy shot could splinter the coping, thus increasing casualties. His correspondence raised a quite different problem at the northwest end of the island. This was the only place left that was accessible to an enemy landing party. To make the approach as difficult as possible, he did not wish to place an earthen slope outside the high, vertical scarp wall.

15-Inch Guns

Earlier in 1865, Delafield had approved a plan to rebuild the salient in the extreme left face of Battery Halleck and to replace two columbiads at that point with a 15-inch Rodman. In September Elliot reported that the enlarged brick scarp had been completed and stood ready for its coping. He did not mention if the old scarp had been removed prior to the construction of the new one. Probably it was not. At any rate, the new semicircular portion may still be seen today under the army prison's industries building. The 15-inch Rodman was mounted in July 1865.

De Russy, ill for several months, died in San Francisco on November 23, 1865. Elliot, now the senior engineer in the area, took over the supervision of all the works at Fort Point, Point San Jose, Angel Island, and Alcatraz Island. On the Rock he oversaw the beginnings of 15-inch-gun platforms in the salient of Battery Rosecrans and on the extreme left face of Battery McClellan. The engineer's office on the northwest peak received new weatherboarding and a fence around it. Also, Elliot had three doorways cut into the main floor of the Citadel, "for the greater convenience of the occupants." The stout old building was no longer considered bombproof and was suitable now as only peacetime quarters.

Armament Report, 1866--129 Weapons (See PDF Version to View Report)

New Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast

Alcatraz's appropriation for fiscal year 1867 amounted to $90,000. This year would bring several changes in engineer operations. In August 1866 Brig. Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, a successful topographical engineer and a distinguished Civil War corps commander, replaced Delafield as chief of engineers.

In December Humphreys ordered Maj. Barton Stone Alexander, newly assigned as senior engineer on the Pacific Coast, to convene a new Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast with himself as president. Alexander arrived in San Francisco on December 31 and convened the new board in January 1867. Also in January, Maj. George Henry Mendell, assisted by 1st Lt. Oswald H. Ernst, took direct charge of the works on Alcatraz. Elliot, having supervised the engineer operations on the island for almost six years, was now able to concentrate on problems concerning Fort Point.

Humphrey’s instructions to the new board contained no specific mention of Alcatraz Island; but before long the board would be very much involved with planning the revampment of its fortifications. Meanwhile, Mendell found himself with little to do on the island, the appropriation having been nearly exhausted by mid-February 1867 and work on the casemated barracks suspended. Humphreys wrote him that spring noting that there seemed to be a number of heavy guns on the island still not mounted: "It is important that you take steps to have the large unmounted guns put in place for service as soon as circumstances will allow. It appears that places are ready, or soon will be, for them all." Mendell replied that this was not the case; only Battery Rosecrans had been enlarged. Moreover, Mendell preferred to develop a complete plan of remodeling for the island, rather than to proceed on a piecemeal basis. One accomplishment that Mendell and Ernst did complete that spring was the preparation of the most detailed map of Alcatraz and all its structures that had yet appeared. Of necessity, Mendell's first annual report on Alcatraz's fortifications had little to say. He did mention that the excavation for the extension of Battery Rosecrans on the northwest end of the island, superintendent of public buildings and grounds in Washington, D.C., and superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy. He served as a brigadier general of volunteers in the Spanish-American War. George Henry Mendell, with the exception of the Civil War years, spent his entire military career on the Pacific Coast. Born in Pennsylvania, he graduated from the academy in 1852, third in his class. He was appointed second lieutenant in the topographical engineers and assigned to the Pacific Northwest. In 1863 he transferred to the Corps of Engineers. He was also responsible for the works at Lime Point in the San Francisco Harbor. When Alexander died, Mendell became the senior engineer for te Pacific Coast. He remained in San Francisco the rest of his life, overseeing the beginnings of the Endicott system of fortifications. He retired in 1895 with the grade of colonel (senior colonel in the corps) and died in 1902. Battery Mendell at Fort Barry was named in his honor.

Appropriations Reduced, 1867

Although the Congress appropriated $100,000 for Alcatraz's works for fiscal year 1868, it attached a condition that only half of this amount could be spent until the Congress released the remainder--a release that never came. Mendell, now also responsible for fortifications at the newly acquired Lime Point, did what he could with the $50,.000 available for Alcatraz. The major undertaking this year was the construction of a 50-foot extension to the wharf. The Quartermaster Department had acquired its first steamboat for use in San Francisco Harbor and the increased wharfage was necessary to accommodate both quartermaster and engineer supplies. Mendell took advantage of the opportunity to rebuild a boathouse and to erect a wharf crane capable of lifting 10 tons. The crane cost $2,866. He did not describe the construction of the wharf, but a map of the island prepared at this time mysteriously labeled the extension as the "brick wharf," meaning perhaps that bricks were unloaded and stored there.

He also completed the rear rooms of the bombproof barracks and prepared the first tier of the casemate for use as storage space: "The roof surface of the [rear rooms] arches were concreted, the stone steps leading to the barbette of the work were cut and laid, and all the coping of the area wall was cut excepting two stones. The floor of the first tier of casemates was excavated and leveled preparatory to laying a floor of asphaltum. The blacksmith made iron rivets for the doors. A pipe was laid for the supply of water in the storerooms of the Barrack. The barrack is now in such condition that no further work of importance can be done upon it.

Mendell also made some modest improvements in the armament of the island by remodeling 14 center-pintle platforms (new pintles and new traverse irons) for mounting 10-inch Rodmans that were on hand. On May 18, 1868, he wrote: "I have this day notified the Commanding Officer of the Post, of this fact and have requested him to mount the guns." Humphreys instructed Mendell to examine carefully the platform of the 15-Inch Rodman mounted in Battery Mansfield--the first of Alcatraz's 15-Inch "smoothbores-- since it was reported that the earth had settled under the platform. He suggested that Mendell might consider constructing a new platform of wood, which would "admit of easier rectification by hewing wedging etc. It He added a note to this letter saying that photographs of the works were now authorized. Wartime security was a thing of the past.

Detailed Report of Alcatraz's Defenses

The new Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast completed a masterful review of the defenses of San Francisco Bay in the spring of 1868. Alexander dispatched a lengthy report to Humphreys that included the condition of Alcatraz's armament and major recommendations for the island's future role. For the first time in many years, the report listed exactly what guns were mounted in each battery.

(See PDF Version to View Report)