Search And Destroy

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In early 1987 I was visiting Fort Point National Historic Site beneath the roaring Golden Gate Bridge. While waiting for a meeting to begin, I glanced over articles tacked to the bulletin board in the staff break room. Most of them were identical to those found in any government office, but thumbtacked in the middle of the bureaucratic clutter was something unique: a plea for research assistance in the form of a postcard.

The image on the card was typical of the reproductions of nineteenth-century photographs sold at historic sites around the country, complete with pseudosepia toning. This particular one, affixed with one of those ubiquitous yellow Post-its, showed a line-up of seacoast cannon mounted in a nineteenth-century American fort (one of my particular areas of interest). I took the postcard off the wall, turned it over, and read the caption: “Fort Point—the Civil War,” with the credit line “Sacramento History Center.” Penciled on the yellow tag was: “Not Fort Point. Where is this?”

The anonymous note was correct. Although the picture showed a battery of Columbiad-pattern cannon identical to those mounted at Fort Point during the Civil War, this particular installation also sported a flanking tower known as a caponier. Two stories tall, it had gunports in its walls for still more cannon and, on its roof, another hulking Columbiad alongside a tiny guard shack with a whimsical little crenelated parapet. Fort Point never had such grandiose features.

There were dozens of possible locations for the unidentified battery. The photo might easily have been taken on the Atlantic or Gulf coast, where the Army had erected nearly forty similar fortifications during the first half of the nineteenth century.

I mentally filed away the postcard for future investigation. Shortly, however, I found myself doing research for the book Fortress Alcatraz , focusing on the United States Army’s eighty-year occupation of the island before it became a federal penitentiary. In the course of my digging I came across correspondence relating the Bradley and Rulofson scandal, and I was fascinated by the story of the long-destroyed glass plates that had shown in detail America’s most private fortress.

My curiosity grew as I reviewed the history of the 1864 controversy. Lieutenant Elliot’s list of Alcatraz photos had described several views of the fort’s two caponiers, and the battery of guns in the Fort Point postcard had been dominated by a looming caponier. I went back to Fort Point to examine the postcard tacked to the bulletin board.

 
 

Nothing is routine in the National Park Service. The postcard, after gathering dust on the board for several months, had been dutifully filed away in the Fort Point archives. Unfortunately the person who filed it had transferred to another park, and nearly three years passed before the beleaguered Fort Point staff could relocate the picture. My repeated reminders to ranger colleagues at the fort may have strained several friendships, but in due course the postcard arrived on my desk in early 1990.

By now I could identify the site as the Rock. Not only did the arrangement of gun positions and caponier correspond exactly with an 1863 engineer’s drawing of the island’s batteries, but dimly visible in the background was the unmistakable silhouette of San Francisco’s then-barren sand hills.

Another detail convinced me that this was inarguably South Battery, located at the very southern tip of the island: both the caponier itself and an exterior scarp wall visible in one corner of the picture were constructed of blocks of roughhewn stone. The original construction reports for South Battery recorded how the engineers had encountered problems with finding a supplier of suitable brick, and in desperation had resorted to using “blue stone” sandstone, quarried on nearby Angel Island, for constructing this battery and its caponier.

There was still the possibility that the picture had been taken at a time other than the Bradley and Rulofson scandal. Once again I consulted old records and compared the cannon shown in the photo with the annual “ordnance reports” that recorded which types of guns were mounted where, and when, in the island’s batteries. South Battery, it turned out, was armed entirely with the smooth-bore Columbiads visible in the photo only until August of 1864, when half of the battery’s emplacements were ripped out during one of Lieutenant Elliot’s modernization projects. The time frame of the photo had narrowed to pre-summer 1864—the period when Captain Winder had been enthusiastically escorting the contract photographer around his fort.

What else might the Sacramento History Center—the credited holder of the original photograph— have in its collection? When I called to find out, I had the great luck to encounter Charlene Gilbert Noyes, a professional archivist who immediately picked up on my enthusiastic, possibly near-manic, drive for information.