Just a quick follow-up to my last blog entry, in which I mentioned how Captain William A. Winder, commanding the Civil War-era garrison on Alcatraz island in San Francisco Bay, raised hackles among our British allies by firing a shot across the bow of their Pacific fleet flagship. That incident blew over with an exchange of brusque communiques, and the rest of Winder's Alcatraz command remained uneventful, until 1864, when he got a hankering to document his island fortress in a series of detailed photographs.
The San Francisco outfit of Bradley and Rulofson was chosen for the task, and they set about exposing two thousand negatives of the island defenses from, presumably, innumerable angles. When a member of Corps of Engineers, Lieutenant Elliot—eager to show his superiors the progress made at Alcatraz—forwarded some sample photos to Washington, congratulations were not forthcoming.
Historian John Martini, in a 1992 article for American Heritage, picks up the story:
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.”
That nearly did it for Captain Winder. He was the grandson of a prominent American general in the War of 1812, and the son of a distinguished Mexican War veteran. But that all changed in 1861. The fact that his father, John H. Winder, had resigned his U.S. commission, ultimately becoming a Major General in the Confederate army in charge of all POW camps east of the Mississippi—and a pariah in the northern press—cast a dark cloud over the loyalties of the young captain. It didn't help that Captain Winder was now distributing detailed photos of the lynchpin in the San Francisco Bay defenses. Must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Irvin McDowell, then commanding the department, defended Captain Winder, assuring Washington that the young officer was motivated by pride in his command, rather than in any effort to aid the enemy. Still, a humiliated Winder resigned his command at Alcatraz and transferred to the sleepy post at San Jose, at the south end of San Francisco Bay.
Most interesting is the saga of the photos themselves. They were thought to have been destroyed upon Stanton's orders. Only by chance did John Martini, author of Fortress Alcatraz and the aforementioned American Heritage article, discover one image mistakenly identified as Ft. Point. Through a fortunate series of events, this led to the discovery of eight other images in the series, all mislabeled and hidden away in Sacramento for over 100 years.
The lost Alcatraz photographs can be seen in Fortress Alcatraz, but it's difficult to find any of the photos online. They also appeared in the November 1992 issue of American Heritage, but only the text of the article appears online—here. Read the AH piece for the fascinating story of how Martini identified the photos—a tale that warms the cockles of history buffs' hearts. Archives everywhere are full of such undiscovered treasure, or so I want to believe. Page 48 of the Google Books version also has a sidebar summary of Mr. Martini's happy sleuthing.