Search And Destroy


Ms. Noyes reported that the picture was one of a series of eight photographs received from a private donor in 1968, all of which showed “lots of cannons and soldiers.” She read me the caption on the back of one of the photographs: “View from the Citadel showing a section of Parade Ground and Engineers’ Quarters.” The description rang a bell. An entry in Capt. George Elliot’s 1864 list of photos was tantalizingly similar: “View of same [the Citadel] showing Parade ground and Engineers & Adjutants Offices”—a close enough match to get my pulse going. Pushing my luck, I asked for photocopies of the pictures. She replied that she’d send them right off, along with any information she could find on the donor.

The next several days were some of the most strained I have spent as a historian. Like a kid awaiting a mailaway prize he’d saved box tops for, each day I would race to the mailbox to see if the “Sacramento photographs,” as my wife dubbed them, had arrived. Finally they did.

My hands shook as I opened the envelope and looked at the first picture: a clear photograph of a barbette battery—a photograph ordered destroyed in the summer of 1864.

My hands shook as I opened the manila envelope and looked at the first picture: a clear photograph of a barbette battery, parade ground, and engineers’ office building on Alcatraz Island—a photograph ordered destroyed in the summer of 1864.

The other seven photographs were stunning views of the various batteries and buildings of the fort. Each corresponded neatly to one of the views described by Lieutenant Elliot in his letter to the chief of engineers, and each photo was erroneously labeled “Fort Point.” Apparently either the original donor or a librarian in Sacramento had misidentified the entire set, unaware that a vast artillery post had once existed on an island better known for such residents as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

Ms. Noyes had included a note with the photographs. In the memo she informed me that the recorded donor was a woman descended from California’s pre-Civil War governor Peter H. Burnett, whose nephew had been in the Union Army and posted to Alcatraz Island during the war. None of the donor’s descendants had any information about the photos.


At this point my search came to an abrupt end. What had begun with a note penciled on a yellow tag had led to the rediscovery of a long-lost piece of history, but identification of the photographs brought up tantalizing new questions. How did these particular photos escape seizure and destruction in accordance with Secretary of War Stanton’s orders? How did Peter Burnett come to acquire them? Did he somehow get possession of the only complete set of photographs, the ones intended for Captain Winder’s staff review?

And finally, where are the missing forty-two views described by Lt. George Elliot? Maybe they’re still out there mislabeled in some little-used archive. I hope someday another researcher will come across these remaining views and get the same thrill I experienced—the thrill of filling in a blank spot in history.