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Search And Destroy

June 2024
7min read

The United States Army has always been secretive about its defense installations. In the summer of 1864 a breach of security took place on the tiny island fortress of Alcatraz that reverberated all the way back to the War Department in Washington.

Alcatraz Island, squatting in the middle of San Francisco Bay, is the twenty-two-acre cork in the mouth of the Golden Gate.

Beginning in 1853 the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers transformed the humpbacked islet into one of the country’s most heavily defended pieces of real estate. The fort continued to grow throughout the early Civil War years, until by the end of 1863 it mounted more than a hundred pieces of heavy artillery.

Early in 1864 Capt. William Winder, commanding the “Post on Alcatraz Island,” decided that it was time to have a permanent record made of his fortress. Approaching the San Francisco photography firm of Bradley and Rulofson, the captain offered to pay four hundred dollars in government greenbacks for a photographic survey of Alcatraz. Bradley and Rulofson replied that their costs would run at least fifteen hundred dollars. After some negotiating, it was agreed that the company would be allowed to make up the cost difference by selling sets of the photographs to the public.

In April Bradley and Rulofson sent their premier staff photographer out to Alcatraz. Acting under the personal direction of Captain Winder, he lugged his brassbound view camera to every nook and cranny of the island, eventually exposing two thousand negatives.

Upon completion of the work, two sets of prints were made: a partial set for presentation to Gen. Irvin McDowell, the newest commander of the Department of the Pacific, and a complete set of fifty “approved” views for Captain Winder’s staff to review before additional copies were made. Then Bradley and Rulofson printed a descriptive catalogue of their new Alcatraz series and began taking orders from the public.

The federal government so thoroughly confiscated these Civil War-era photographs that they didn’t resurface for a century and a quarter

At this time the fort on Alcatraz actually had a dual command structure, and Lt. George Elliot of the Corps of Engineers oversaw the work crews who labored at modernizing and expanding the island’s defenses. Elliot had been out of town when the photographs were made, but upon his return he was delighted, for he saw in the pictures an opportunity to document his most recent labors for his superiors in Washington.

Elliot sent off a glowing dispatch to Chief of Engineers Richard Delafield, on July 8, describing the newly taken photographs in vivid terms and including a pair of the pictures that depicted his current job, reinforcing the island’s batteries. “I have thought that you would be glad to obtain copies to illustrate the condition and the progress [of my work] …,” he wrote. He then proceeded to list all the pictures that had been taken. The photographer had been extremely thorough; the final commercial series contained images revealing in exhaustive detail every building and battery on the island.

Lieutenant Elliot’s happy report ignited a fire storm in Washington. The War Department couldn’t imagine anything more useful to Confederate spies. Upon receiving Elliot’s letter on August 1, Chief of Engineers Delafield immediately fired off a telegram informing the lieutenant in blunt language that all such photographs were to be “instantly suppressed.” That same day the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Henry Halleck, sent off his own wire, containing a frightening directive: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had personally ordered the photographs seized.

Things moved quickly. Three days later the San Francisco Evening Bulletin ran a story under the headline FORT ALCATRAZ TAKEN !, which reported that at 4:00 P.M. on August 2 a party of armed soldiers had arrived at the Montgomery Street studios of Bradley and Rulofson. Brandishing orders from the War Department, the soldiers had seized all the photographs, negatives, and correspondence relating to the Alcatraz contract, including the name and address of every customer who had ordered a copy set.

On August 5 General McDowell was able to report to Halleck that “the provost-marshall-general has all the. negatives and all the copies, except those Elliot sent to the Engineer Department.” Unfortunately for Captain Winder, the incident was far from over; his personal loyalties were now being questioned. The fact that his father was a general in the Confederate Army, and commanded the South’s festering prisoner-of-war camps, did little to increase Winder’s credibility. In disgrace, he requested and received a transfer to the tiny artillery post at Point San Jose on the San Francisco waterfront.

The Bradley and Rulofson photographs are the earliest-known pictures taken on Alcatraz; six years would pass before a photographer would again be allowed there. In 1979 the historian Erwin Thompson lamented: “The destruction of the pictures must have been thorough; no copies of any of them have been found to date, in the National Archives or elsewhere. National security was preserved; but history was made the poorer.”

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.

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.

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