Alcatraz Island's heavy guns may not have fired a shot in anger in her 81 years as a military post, but they came mighty close to it on October 1, 1863. That was when a suspicious ship was noticed approaching Raccoon Straits and the ensuing confusion included firing between the ship and the island with Fort Point chiming in.
Routinely during the Civil War a Revenue Service cutter greeted every arriving ship at the Golden Gate, but on October 1 she left her station to help a wrecked Russian ship. Captain William A. Winder, commanding at Alcatraz, was asked to challenge all ships before permitting them to enter the port.
"The officer of the day reported an armed ship towed by small boats in the direction of Raccoon Straits," reported Winder. After he was unable to recognize her colors (there was no wind and the flag fell in folds) Winder decided her course was so unusual, "I deemed it my duty to bring her to and ascertain her character and the reason . . .
" 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 or 300 yards ahead of her," he said. His two boats were busy inspecting other ships, but while waiting for one to return so that the newcomer could be inspected, "The ship commenced firing." He thought it might be a salute, but could not be sure because she was firing broadside and was "entirely enveloped in the smoke"
As soon as he decided it was a salute, he started to return a 21-gun answer. Before he was finished, "Fort Point commenced firing."
Finally everyone stopped. The letter exchange that followed was even more pointed when the ship was identified as Her Majesty's Ship SUTLEJ, the flagship of Rear Admiral John Kingcome. The admiral did not take kindly to the unusual welcome, Captain Winder did not appreciate the Sutlej's "unusual course" and in the final outcome, the departmental commander suggested a mild reproof to Alcatraz.
"It is expected that the delicate duty devolving on military commanders will be exercised with prudence," he announced in a letter dated five months later.
The embarrassing international situation was all part of the game to Alcatraz, however. With her position recognized as the key to San Francisco Bay, she was in a sensitive situation throughout the war. In 1864, in fact, an even greater reaction set in when commercial photographers were permitted to make 30 photographs that showed every road and battery.
The War Department heard about the photos, ordered them suppressed, and demanded to know who had authorized them. As department head, General McDowell reported to Washington that the photos had been approved by the area engineer and authorized by Winder, whose "motive was one of pride and interest in his important command and a desire to have himself and the command have pictures of the place."
McDowell denied any disloyal motives on Winder's part, including rumors that he was influenced by the fact his father was in the Confederate Army. If be wanted to be disloyal, McDowell suggested, as an officer of intelligence he would not "have acted so openly and undisguisedly as be did."
The real losers in the proposition seem to have been the San Francisco firm that claimed it took the views on a $400 contract from the Army, and had spent $1,500 in the process. They hoped to recoup the difference by selling their photos for a rumored $100 to interested soldiers. Instead, the pictures and negatives wound up at the War Department.
Had Confederate agents obtained and interpreted the photographs, they would have found that Alcatraz had not changed materially from 1861 when she bad 85 cannon and 130 men. In one of his last acts before resigning to join the Confederacy, General Albert S. Johnston had rushed 10,000 muskets and 150,000 cartridges to Alcatraz. His successor, General Sumner, had proposed posting 400 men on the island. And in 1864, an official estimate was that 600 artillerymen were needed to man the works.
This was not to be. In fact, details from Alcatraz were siphoned off frequently. Thirty men spent months guarding Mare Island Navy Yard until they could be relieved by Marines from the USS LANCASTER. Another detail was dispatched to man a battery on the south end of Angel Island, later the location of the vegetable garden tended by Alcatraz troopers.
Rumors of election riots placed the entire garrison on alert frequently. The bulk of the force was shifted to San Francisco to keep order in 1865 in the unsettled days following Lincoln's assassination. The Bay area's official half-hourly gun salute on the day of Lincoln's funeral was fired by the batteries of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz' important position was recognized as early as 1849 when it was bought in the name of the United States by John Fremont, acting governor of California, for $5,000. Despite charges that the $5,000 never was paid, the government moved in and by 1853 a construction detail had arrived. "Temporary buildings for the accommodation of workmen have been erected, excavations made, masonry commenced," reported an 1854 inspection, and "The batteries on this island might be completed in about one year."
General Wool ordered six 8-inch and six 32-pound guns to be mounted on Alcatraz, despite the inspection report characterizing "Alcatrazes" Island as "a highly important point in the water defenses, where 200 guns ... should be mounted."
The initial work at Alcatraz was finished in 1858. By 1861, the post included a belt of encircling batteries, a massive brick guardhouse, and a three-story barracks that could hold 600 men. Then, with rumors of secession, came rumors that Kentucky born Johnston planned to take over the city from headquarters on the island.
"There is treason on Alcatraz," reported one contemporary account of a message sent to the White House. "To insure success of the scheme, Albert Sidney Johnston was placed in command at Fort Alcatraz," the version continued. "It was arranged that the leaders in San Francisco with a force of picked men sufficient for the purpose, should surprise and capture the fort."
The fact was Johnston was in San Francisco and not on the island. "As long as he held his commission he would maintain the authority of the United States to the last extremity," intimates insisted. And
When General Sumner relieved him of his command, Sumner was able to report, "It gives me pleasure to state that the command was turned over to me in good order. General Johnston . . . was carrying out the orders of the Government."
As the war progressed, these orders involved Alcatraz in a variety of duties. In 1863, a suspicious clipper schooner was towed to Alcatraz when inspectors from the USS CYANE found 15 armed men and unmanifested cannon and ammunition hidden below her decks. The crew was questioned in separate cells on Alcatraz. A plot was revealed for the schooner to take on other military stores elsewhere, then to act as a Confederate privateer against the coastal ships.
Another plan to capture the California mail steamers was uncovered in 1864 by the arrest of plotters when they arrived in San Francisco. A result was an order for all steamer passengers to be searched for concealed weapons and for all ship officers to be armed in order to discourage attempts to commandeer the vessels.
Political prisoners were imprisoned at Alcatraz during the war, a hint of things to come. In 1868 it became a disciplinary barracks and military prison. During the seventies, troublesome Indians were sent to Alcatraz; in 1900, Philippine prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. Conscientious objectors were kept there during World War 1.
The Army need for the Alcatraz prison was gone by the 1930's just when the rise of organized crime called for a maximum security penitentiary. In 1934, the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over San Francisco's prime fortress for a 30-year occupation that earned it a reputation dreaded by criminals as "The Rock."
Except for the shape of
12-acre island, this version of Alcatraz bears little resemblance
to the later period of Army or prison use. Almost all of these
buildings had been replaced by time prison was closed in 1963.
As Army post in 1870's, Alcatraz had room for 300 men in two frame
barracks. Officers' quarters, hospital, offices, and storerooms
were in the citadel that was two-storied, and a basement, measuring
200 by 100 feet. Prisoners were kept in three buildings that had
total of 113 cells which averaged eight by six by 3 feet. A bowling
alley, gymnasium, and theater provided amusement at isolated post.
At the start of Civil War, commander officer complained that island
had no place to keep prisoners and that both guard and prisoners
were jammed into casemates overlooking the wharf. He noted that
temporary wooden store sheds could not contain required three
months' supplies, and much had to be stored outside the wall of
fortification. The island was supplied with fresh water by barge
"which a besieging force might cut off," and he asked
authority to bore a well. Later, a 50,000 gallon cistern was built.
Work on post continued even after war and a 1866 inspection noted
the men were constructing earthworks. At that time, its redoubt's
had 105 guns manned by eight officers and 146 men and condition
of post "reflects great credit on the commanding Officer."
Only improvement the 1866 report could suggest was the refinishing
of the bunks in barracks.