Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

Garrison Life on the Rock, 1859-1934

Occupation and the Civil War

Alcatraz's first troops arrived on the island on December 30, 1859, and took up residence in the newly completed Citadel. Capt. Joseph Stewart commanded the 86 enlisted men of Company H, Third Artillery, and 2d Lt. Augustus G. Robinson served as the only other officer until the arrival of Asst. Surg. Pascal A. Quinan in January 1860. The engineer officer in charge of the fortifications, Lieutenant McPherson, promptly turned all of the 86 guns (one for each man!) and ordnance stores over to Stewart. The artillerists were in business.

From the beginning, Alcatraz served as a salute post for foreign ships of war entering San Francisco Harbor. Periodically, the department headquarters in San Francisco would notify the island to fire the international salute of 21 guns in honor of a foreign flag. Occasionally a mix-up occurred, as happened in February 1860 when Stewart received the following message: "The General commanding wishes me to inquire if you fired 21-guns in replying to the salute of the British steamer Plumper, and in case you did not he directs that the deficiency be fired forthwith." A month later Stewart received orders to fire a salute for the first Japanese warship to visit San Francisco. American officials were also honored. When Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston arrived on the steamer Golden Age in 1860, Alcatraz's guns fired the 11 rounds designated for an officer of that grade: "You will begin firing as the . . . Golden Age approaches Alcatraces so as to close the salute when the ship shall have passed as far beyond the Fort as she was on this side when it was opened.


British Warship, Sutlej

By early 1861 the artillerists on Alcatraz witnessed signs of the probability of civil war coming to America. In February, General Johnston, soon to join the Confederacy himself, ordered 10,000 muskets, their accoutrements, and 150,000 cartridges transferred from Benicia to Alcatraz for safekeeping against any southern sympathizers. At the same time, in order to maintain calm among civilians, he ordered Stewart not to practice firing with his artillery for the time being. However, Stewart was to defend the Rock against all efforts to seize it: "But you will not interrupt harbor commerce, not even boats coming to [the] island, unless their passengers look like they may be coming in to attack. Even then, no gun will be fired. The guard must report at once. And only you are to be the judge whether to fire against them.

Following the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Alcatraz's garrison increased to 8 officers and 361 enlisted men. The engineer officer turned over his mechanics' barracks and prepared plans for temporary quarters at the southeast end of the island for the enlarged garrison. Company H was joined by Companies A, I, and M, all of the Third Artillery. A detachment from Company A, Engineers, and 42 recruits belonging to the First Dragoons were also on the island. Stewart was superseded as commander by a more senior captain, Henry Burton, also of the Third Artillery. Burton resumed practice firing of the guns in July 1861, when the department commander lifted the earlier restrictions. One of Alcatraz's shells was thought to have caused a large grass fire on Angel Island a few days after practice resumed.

By November 1861 Burton's command had dwindled to 3 officers and 138 enlisted men (Companies A and I, Third Artillery). That month he sent another 17 enlisted men to the naval base at Mare Island to help guard it against any would-be secessionists. This detachment remained absent until March 1862, when a company of U. S. Marines was landed at Mare Island to act as guards. Throughout the Civil War, the troop strength of Alcatraz fluctuated periodically, rarely dropping below 150 men and reaching a high of 433 in February 1865. Despite the fact that most regular army units in the far West returned to the East during these years, regulars, often reinforced by volunteer units, continued to man Alcatraz's guns throughout the war. An early example of volunteers on the island, in March 1862, was the First Washington Territory Volunteers, who were largely recruited in California and held on the Rock until ready for transporting north.

Burton transferred to the East in May 1862, on his way to fame and glory in the war, and was replaced as commander by Capt. William A. Winder, Third Artillery. Winder received a confidential message from the departmental commander in January 1863 concerning the fear that Confederate raiders were loose in the Pacific Ocean. Urging Winder to arrange his guns for instant use, the general said that "the greatest vigilance should be enjoined on the officers and men; that the command should be instructed to assemble by day or night at their assigned posts prepared to act with promptness on any emergency." No raider sailed through the Golden Gate nor anywhere near it, and presumably the troops eventually relaxed their vigilance in the harbor.

A touch of excitement came to the island in March 1863, when the schooner Chapman was seized in San Francisco Harbor with 15 Confederate sympathizers, a cannon, and ammunition on board. This 90-ton vessel had been secretly outfitted as a commerce raider. The captured men were taken to the military prison on Alcatraz, where Winder interrogated them individually and held them in confinement because of his instructions from depar1lnent headquarters: "No one, other than your officers, is permitted to see them." It is not known how long these unusual visitors remained on the island or what information they may have passed on to Winder--except that one of them turned state's evidence. As far-fetched as it was, this incident was the closest thing to Civil War activity that came to Alcatraz.

In September 1863 the Department of the Pacific decided to establish a garrison on Angel Island to man the temporary batteries that were being erected there. This action brought out that island, Alcatraz being too rocky to support such an enterprise. Headquarters assured Winder that the developments on Angel Island would not affect the fortunes of his vegetables. While the location of this garden is shown on military maps of the period, little else is known about it. As for many other items of Alcatraz's early garrison history, the surviving records are indeed scanty. Winder caused a semi-comic international incident on October 1 1863, when he ordered an empty shell fired in the direction of an arriving British warship, Sutlej. Adding to Winder's woes, the vessel was the flagship of the very angry commander in chief of the British Pacific Squadron, Rear Adm. John Kingcome.

As soon as Sutlej dropped anchor, the admiral dashed off a note to Gen. George Wright demanding an explanation. Wright came to Winder's defense and explained to the admiral that federal port regulations required that all vessels be brought to and their character ascertained when entering the outer harbor. While a government steamer usually performed this duty, it was temporarily absent from the harbor and the commanders of the land batteries were presently responsible for this duty: "The orders of my Government require that all vessels of whatever character shall be brought to and examined before being permitted to pass the forts. . . ." However, the fort commanders and orders not to cause unnecessary delays of ships and to always be courteous. Wright said he had asked Alcatraz's commander for a full report. Winder, defending himself in a fighting manner, submitted his report on October 6, 1863:

“Thursday the officer of the day reported an armed ship towed by small boats in the direction of Raccoon Straits. I discovered her under the land near Lime Point. I could distinguish a flag flying at her peak, but there being no wind, I could not tell her nationality. The ship's direction was so unusual I deemed it my duty to bring her to to ascertain her character. I therefore fired a blank charge, which apparently not attracting her attention, I directed a gun to be loaded with an empty shell and to be fired 200-300 yards in front of her. This was done & the ship rounded to.”

Since there were no boats at Alcatraz at that time, Winder was unable to send soldiers to learn the ship's identity. At that point, the vessel began to fire the international salute of 20-guns. Winder eventually returned the salute, as did the post commander at Fort Point. (Fort Point was out of order; only the designated post was to salute.) Kingcome left San Francisco still in a huff over the incident. Winder and the newspapers were satisfied that he had done his duty.

Alcatraz's guns boomed a national salute (one round for each state in the Union) on September 26, 1864, in honor of Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah Valley. Again, on December 30, a salute of no fewer than 100 guns was fired to celebrate Sherman's capture of Atlanta. . The troops stood alerted for the presidential elections in November 1864 in case of trouble in San Francisco. But the election passed peacefully, the troops being allowed (urged) to go to town to cast their own Union votes. In April 1865, the garrisons on Alcatraz and the Presidio were ordered into San Francisco when word arrived that President Lincoln had been assassinated. The army coordinated with the chief of police to take "such measures as will preserve the peace of the city." On April 19, the San Francisco garrisons marched in the presidential funeral parade and the half-hour guns on Alcatraz boomed across the bay. The Civil War was over.

Life on the Rock, 1865-1900

Alcatraz's garrison remained inflated in size until October 1865, when Capt. James Madison Robertson arrived to take command of the companies of the Second Artillery, after the last of the California Volunteers had returned to civilian life. Robertson, who as interested in penology, was the most distinguished soldier yet to command the island. He had received a commission during the Mexican War, after serving as an enlisted man for ten years under the name of James M. Robinson. In the Civil War he fought in a number of battles, including Gettysburg, Wilderness, and Cold Harbor.

By the end of the war he held the position of brigadier general, and during his two tours of duty as commander of Alcatraz (a total of years) he was always called by that rank. Robertson possibly arrived on the Rock in time to escort Queen Emma of Hawaii on a tour of coastal fortifications. He indeed was present when another Civil War general, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, who had returned to San Francisco as depar1lnent commander, arrived on the island in April 1866 to review and inspect the troops. Robertson greeted the general with the 13-gun salute due his rank. However, the captain was absent when Halleck returned in March 1867 with the commissioners of Japan in tow for a look at the guns.

The cost of supplying water to the troops and the engineers on Alcatraz constantly came up for discussion in the postwar years. The quartermaster tallied the amount spent in 1868 and learned that he had disposed of $11,059 for 1,064,000 gallons of water. By then the army had acquired the steamer General McPherson with which they had planned to transport water from the springs on Angel Island to Alcatraz. But no sooner was the water contractor, Goodell and Nelson, notified to discontinue furnishing water to Alcatraz, than it was discovered that the springs on Angel Island had gone dry. The contractor retained his business.

By 1870 Alcatraz had acquired the appearance of a settled, permanent military post. While the engineers busily remodeled the fortifications and removed the obsolete columbiads, the garrison went about its own affairs at gun drill, guarding prisoners, and all of the mundane duties associated with the military. The enlisted men had moved out of the Citadel during the war and were now quartered in two frame barracks at the southeast end of the island. Since these quarters were designed to house 300 men and the troop •strength now averaged 120, the soldiers had all the space they needed, a situation rarely found in postwar army posts.

The officers and their families now shared the Citadel with the medical facilities, which were established in part of the former enlisted men in half of the building. The hospital consisted of a dispensary, a surgeon's office, a hospital steward's room, a storeroom, and two wards consisting of a total of 16 beds. The quartermaster and commissary storehouses were located between the wharf and the brick guardhouse, as was the Sutler's store. The guardhouse had been expanded greatly by the addition of both frame and brick buildings that housed the military prisoners and their mess facilities. Three double sets of noncommissioned officers' quarters stood in a row northwest of the Citadel. Here lived the quartermaster sergeant, commissary sergeant, and the other staff sergeants who, in the eyes of many, were the key people in operating a well-run post. Most of the shot and shell were arranged in decorative rows in the vicinity of the Citadel and the lighthouse. Near the lighthouse stood the all-important bakery and an equally valued bowling alley. A schoolhouse, for both children and enlisted men, was located near the engineer's office on the northwest peak of the island.

The best record keeper at 19-century army posts was usually the post surgeon. He recorded his observations of daily events quite beyond medical affairs in his "Record of Medical History of Post." The doctor at Alcatraz lived up to this reputation, although not all of the journals have survived. In February 1873 he recorded that a post library had been established and that the children attended school in the mornings and the enlisted men went to classes in the afternoons.

By late 1873 a new hospital building had been erected just east of the lighthouse. About that time Major Mendell had to tear down the barracks at the southeast end of the island in order to construct new batteries. One of the two companies moved into the hospital which had been remodeled in part to accommodate them. The surgeon recorded that on January 28, 1874,this company had a ball and "social entertainment" to celebrate moving into their new quarters. He said that everything went off •merrily and without the least disturbance. The men did not enjoy their quarters for long. In April 1874, fire, that dreaded enemy on the waterless island, destroyed the building. The surgeon set up temporary medical facilities in the loft of the east brick addition to the guardhouse and in old rooms in the Citadel. The troops moved into tents for the summer. That fall an extremely ugly barracks was constructed on top of the unfinished casemates behind the wharf.

General Robertson was succeeded as post commander in December 1872 by Maj. Charles Hale Morgan, another Civil War general. In October 1875, Morgan and his command had the pleasure of receiving a visit from Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Maj. Gen. John Schofield, and a number of other officers. Two weeks later Morgan entertained a high-ranking French officer with a firing demonstration of a l5-inch Rodman and a Parrott rifle. Just before Christmas 1875, Morgan went on a hunting trip in the vicinity of Sonoma. There he suffered an attack of apoplexy and was brought back to Alcatraz paralyzed. Several army surgeons were brought to the island but to no avail; Morgan died on December 20. His wife wished to have the body shipped East, but the surgeons were unable to embalm it. Morgan was buried in the military cemetery on Angel Island.

For many years thereafter a large monument marked the grave of the highest ranking officer ever buried there. Morgan's replacement, Capt. John Egan, Fourth Artillery, oversaw the Centennial celebrations on Alcatraz in 1876. The year started with a visit to the island by Japanese naval officers and midshipmen. In February the eight officers stationed on the island gave "an informal matinee hop" for a large number of fellow officers' from posts around the bay. In June tragedy struck--two privates drowned when their small fishing boat capsized off the island.

Then, on July 4, Alcatraz's Rodmans participated in the sham naval battle in the harbor. The surgeon noted that all the visitors seemed to have enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Only a month later the two artillery companies (H and K, Fourt Artillery) were ordered to Wyoming Territory to take part in the campaign against the Sioux following the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn. A year later more Alcatraz troops were dispatched northward to take part in the Nez Perce war in Idaho and Montana.

In 1879 the department quartermaster began a campaign for improved officers' quarters on Alcatraz: "Having inspected the 'Rock,' as it is called, in person," he could see the necessity for additional quarters: "The 'Citadel' so called, into which each family is now crammed, without regard to health or even decency, is utterly unfit for use as a habitation by any persons not undergoing penal servitude." The quartermaster general had a better idea: Why not move the military prisoners to some other place and abandon Alcatraz? General Sherman, then commanding the army, agreed and said that no quartermaster funds should be spent on the island. When Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, then commanding the Military Division of the Pacific, received this information, he returned the correspondence to the War Department saying that Alcatraz was an important post in San Francisco Bay and the quarters should be built: "The place is the main station in the harbor; one most respected & most thought of; one whose flag all ships salute & from which all are saluted, & it will be retained whether the prisoners are there or not." McDowell won the argument, and in 1880 the first of three sets of officers' quarters was under construction on the slope east of the Citadel and above the casemates. The post quartermaster asked the engineer, Mendell, if he could have the sandstone blocks that had been removed from South Caponier for the foundations; but Mendell did not want to let the stone go. He finally relented, and the post quartermaster reported in July 1880 that, with some difficulty, the stone had been moved to the top of the island. It now formed the basement of the new quarters for the commanding officer. 15

The new quarters were not finished in time to be occupied by Alcatraz's third Civil War general, Maj. Albion Howe. Howe, also a veteran of the Mexican War, commanded the garrison from December 1877 to June 1879. His son, Lt. Albion Howe, Jr., had been killed in the Modoc War in northern California a few years earlier. One of the building's first occupants was Maj. La Rhett Livingston, Fourth Artillery, whose name was later given to an Endicott-period mortar battery at Fort Miley, San Francisco.

The Citadel underwent major remodeling in 1882 when the post quartermaster had it converted into six up-to-date officers' quarters. He added four entrances over the ditch so that each apartment had its own outside door. Additional stairways, dumb waiters, and water closets were incorporated. The old prison cells in the basement were blocked off with masonry. A spiral stairway leading to the roof was installed in one of the towers. When completed, each set of quarters had a kitchen and a servant's room in the basement and two rooms on each of the other two floors. Space was found in the building for a schoolroom and a court-martial room. Windmills pumped both saltwater and freshwater to tanks on the roof. Alcatraz was now comfortably supplied with nine sets of officers' quarters, a number sufficient to house the officers assigned there at that time.


Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan


Maj. Albion Howe

It will be recalled that after the fire of 1874, hospital facilities had been established in both the Citadel and the prison. Later, the old post bakery was moved a short distance to a new site immediately east of the lighthouse and then converted into a house; rather unsatisfactory hospital. Finally, in late 1881, the surgeon general approved the construction of a new 12-bed, two-story, frame post hospital on the north side of the island, just below the row of noncommissioned officers' quarters. In March 1882, the post surgeon reported that •he had taken occupancy of the fine building. The post quartermaster described the structure: "It has verandas and contains all modern improvements. The first floor contains the Stewards, Matrons, and Attendants rooms, a dispensary, storeroom, mess room & kitchen. In the second story is situated a large well ventilated ward complete with closet, bathroom, a dead-room and storeroom." The surgeon had a great variety of cases to treat in his new institution. An occupational hazard that caused many soldiers to appear at sick call was the dropping of gun carriages on their feet. Another source of injury that occurred commonly was falling down (while drunk?) in San Francisco.

(See PDF Version for Table and Source Notes)

In his annual report dated March 1884, the post quartermaster accounted for several new construction projects over the past year. The most important of these was the expansion of the wharf to nearly twice its former dimensions. The old wharf had been terribly crowded with boathouses and coal, gravel, and sand bins. On the extension, he constructed a new boathouse and two new coal bins. Adjacent to the casemates, a new frame building, by 26 feet, was erected to house the quartermaster and commissary stores and offices. This particular structure stood until recent times. A new two-story building was placed on the dogleg of the casemates to house the company kitchens, mess halls, the post library, and the reading room. The messes had formerly been inside the dark, damp casemates. Repairs and painting were carried out on the officers' quarters and the hospital. The quartermaster could think of only one thing he would like to do in the year ahead: replace the fence around the formal flower garden in front of the Citadel.