THE U.S. ARMY AT ALCATRAZ
7. What did the U.S. Army do at Alcatraz?
In the 1850's, the United States Army began building fortifications on Alcatraz
Island, part of a triangle of forts built to defend the Golden Gate and provide
security for San Francisco, through which fortunes of gold from the California
gold rush were being shipped. Alcatraz was an active military post, part of the
The physical look of the island today is much different from the way Alcatraz
Island looked when the Army arrived on Alcatraz. While the Army's design called
for turning Alcatraz into a two-tiered plateau, to be created by blasting away the
hillside and leveling the parade ground all the way to about where the cellhouse
library was during the prison era, then reducing the overall height of the citadel
level, they stopped well short of that amount of excavation. Nevertheless, the
"battleship-like" look of the island today was a big change from the original look,
and the deep excavation into the cliffs, resulting in the parade ground, was a
major construction project. The tactical objective of the excavation and leveling
was defensive, using the level and lowered top tier of Alcatraz for emplacement of
In the 1860's, America's Civil War made pro-Union Californians concerned about
possible attacks from Confederate forces. California's treasure of gold, still
trickling down into San Francisco from the Sierra foothills, as well as the
commercial developments and enterprises that the earlier flood of gold had
spawned, would have been attractive to the cash-strapped Confederacy.
But when it came time to upgrade the fortifications in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz
became a victim of advanced technology. The concept of "rifling"
weaponry--modern artillery that spiraled missile-shaped projectiles with great
speed and accuracy--replaced the "smooth bore" cannon technology that featured
a round cannonball shot out of a cannon.
Range and accuracy improvements were significant. Early in the Civil War, this
new rifling cannon technology was brought to bear against Fort Pulaski, in
Georgia. Fort Pulaski was breached in hours, instead of days.
This new cannon technology made Alcatraz strategically irrelevant; the opening to
San Francisco Bay became the critical point of defense for the Army. Enemy ships
would be engaged before they got through the Golden Gate. So, though Alcatraz'
defenses were upgraded, the focus of the modernization project became Fort
Point, and Alcatraz' massive cliff excavation project was eventually discontinued.
8. Was Alcatraz ever involved in military battles?
No. And that might be a good thing, judging from the performance of our military
forces back in 1876. The big Centennial celebration in July of 1876--festivities
held all around the country in honor of America's 100th birthday--included a
spectacular demonstration in San Francisco Bay, showcasing the military might
protecting the citizenry. An old schooner had been anchored in the bay, loaded
with explosives and flammable coal oil, while an estimated 50,000 spectators
lined the hills of San Francisco to watch our naval vessels blow it up.
Firing commenced shortly before noon, but not a single shot scored a direct hit.
Eventually, under cover of the heavy smoke from the bombardment, a small boat
was dispatched to set fire to the old schooner, so that it would finally explode for
On Alcatraz that day, a cannon demonstration began with similar results, when
the first rounds fired at a Lime Point target also proved inaccurate--though the
Alcatraz cannon eventually found their mark.
9. When was Alcatraz first used as a prison?
In the wartime scramble of the 1860's, Alcatraz became a convenient place for
local military units to incarcerate soldiers deemed unfit for regular duties by the
military justice system. Alcatraz Island was out of the way and security for the
inmates wasn't an issue--the cold, swift tides of San Francisco Bay are a strong
deterrent to escape.
Alcatraz worked so well as a prison for the U. S. Army, that Alcatraz Island was
officially named "Pacific Branch U.S. Military Prison" in 1907, then "Pacific
Branch U.S. Disciplinary Barracks" in 1915. This marked the first time the Army
had designated one place as this type of a regional prison. Before Alcatraz, every
military command had its own stockade.
The prisoners on Alcatraz during the military years were a varied lot--including
stowaways discovered on foreign vessels calling on San Francisco, Civil War
privateers, prisoners from the Army's various Indian campaigns out west, even a
German diplomat during World War I--serving time alongside disloyal officers,
conscientious objectors, run-of-the-mill miscreants and deserters from America's
The Army's prisoners on Alcatraz were incarcerated, at first, in a guardhouse
above the moat in the sallyport. As more convicts came to Alcatraz during the
early Civil War years, a wooden structure was built behind the guardhouse,
replaced by a brick building after the Civil War. More serious discipline cases
were housed in the basement of the citadel on top of the island.
A convict "population explosion" occurred around the turn of the century, with
the Spanish-American War. Work on fortifications was put aside, as buildings
were thrown together to house the new inmates. Eventually, the Army used
Alcatraz exclusively as a military prison.
10. Why did the Army leave Alcatraz, and the Bureau of
Prisons take over?
By the early 1930's, the U.S. Army had concluded that Alcatraz didn't work as a
prison location. World War I was long over, the Army was downsizing, and barren
islands are remarkably expensive locations for prisons--everything on Alcatraz
had to come to the island on a boat, they had to generate their own power and
they were cut off from the rest of the military command. But this was during
America's "Great Depression"--money was tight everywhere. The federal
government had already sunk millions into Alcatraz Island for the Army,
consequently, the War Department was looking for another federal agency to take
Alcatraz off their hands. The same fiscal constraints applied to the Department of
Justice, which was looking for a high-security prison location.
It was a perfect fit. The War Department was happy to unload Alcatraz, the
Department of Justice was happy to take it. While the allure of the security
provided by an island location was a consideration for the Department of Justice,
the fact that the acquisition didn't cost anything played a big part in the selection
of Alcatraz. As it was, when the Bureau of Prisons came in to upgrade the
facilities, they could only get budget approval to replace the bars in half the
11. How was the Army prison different from the Federal
Military prisoners at Alcatraz were expected to fulfill their military commitments
by spending their duty hours working, as they would if they were in regular duty
status. During much of the military prison era at Alcatraz, the prisoners spent
their days breaking up large rocks with sledgehammers, making room for
development on "The Rock".
Army prisoners continued changing the face of Alcatraz Island, building retaining
walls and shaping the hillsides, then vegetating the barren rock. Army prisoners
built the cellhouse on Alcatraz Island, with construction completed in 1912.
Military inmate laborers subsequently turned to laundry work, as the United
States Army decided that Alcatraz Island would be a good centralized location for
a laundry facility to serve military personnel stationed in the San Francisco Bay
Area. This laundry work continued beyond the duration of the U.S. Army's
presence at Alcatraz.
When the Department of Justice took control of Alcatraz Island from the Army in
1934, the emphasis changed from hard work to tight security. The federal
penitentiary kept the laundry job for the Army, and they also kept 32 of the worst
inmates from the Army prison on Alcatraz.
Then, Bureau of Prisons officials combed the other federal prisons, identified
their most disruptive and escape-prone inmates, and put them on the train to
Alcatraz. These inmates were incarcerated in the same cells in the same
cellhouse, but life on Alcatraz Island for these troublemakers was much different
from how it had been for the collection of deserters and petty criminals held by