Hunt For Navy's First Submarine 'Alligator' Begins
By Deborah Fitts
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Nearly lost to history, the Alligator is finally getting the attention it deserves.
The 47-foot vessel, launched in Philadelphia May 1, 1862, was the U.S. Navy's very first submarine. After it sank to a watery grave the following year, before ever seeing action, it was virtually forgotten.
"It's not known well in the Civil War community," acknowledged David Hall of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "But the Alligator really does deserve a prominent place in U.S. Naval and maritime history."
NOAA and the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) have teamed up to remedy the oversight. In August they set out on a 10-day hunt for the Alligator, deploying sidescan sonar and a magnetometer from a 108-foot research vessel. They covered about 50 square miles in the waters off Ocracoke Island, southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., in an area so "strewn with shipwrecks," Hall noted, that it's earned its reputation as "the graveyard of the Atlantic."
An approaching hurricane curtailed the search. "We saw some things we'll want to go back and look at," Hall said. He added that it was uncertain whether a second search will take place as early as next year.
"Right now it's a labor of love," he said, with interested parties volunteering their time. Keeping an eye on the project are NOAA Director Daniel J. Basta, NOAA marine archaeologist Mike Overfield and project coordinator Catherine Marzin; Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of naval research for the U.S. Navy; the Navy & Marine Living History Association; researcher Jim Christley, a retired submariner and authority on the Alligator; the U.S. Naval Academy; and East Carolina University.
On April 2, 1863, USS. Alligator was heading south under tow by the USS Sumpter off the North Carolina coast when a storm struck. Fearful for their own safety, the crew aboard Sumpter cut the unmanned sub loose. It was never seen again.
The Alligator was the creation of Brutus De Villeroi, a French inventor who built subs for salvage work in France before immigrating to America. He built a vessel to reach a wreck off the Delaware shore, and when the Civil War broke out, the Navy Yard in Philadelphia envisioned his submarine as an effective force against the Confederacy.
Hall noted that De Villeroi, also an instructor in math and physics in France, may have had Jules Verne as a student. Verne's fantasy, the Nautilus, "looks a lot like the Alligator," Hall said.
Alligator was a green, 47-foot vessel that initially was powered by oars. It was tasked with destroying bridges over the Appomattox River and clearing obstructions in the James River. But upon arrival in the region it was determined that the waters were too shallow for the sub, making it easy prey for the Confederates. Also, Alligator was not as maneuverable as expected.
Towed to the Navy Yard at Washington, D.C., the sub was refitted with a hand-cranked screw propeller. President Lincoln witnessed the Alligator maneuvering in the Potomac River near the Navy Yard. The sub was ordered to Charleston in March 1863, and it was on that journey that it was lost.
Hall said the ship's log from Sumpter and a "retroactive forecast" of the weather at the time of the incident have given clues to Alligator's whereabouts. But he acknowledged that the hunt is made more difficult by the fact that the sub could have floated for some time before sinking.
Hall said that no image of the Alligator has yet surfaced. But last year Marzin, of NOAA, discovered the blueprints for the sub in "a dusty box" among France's naval archives. Scale models of the sub have been built and two symposiums on the Alligator have been held.
Chuck Veit, president of the Navy & Marine Living History Association, said the sub was "the most technologically advanced weapon of the period." He pointed out that while the Confederate sub H.L. Hunley is more famous, Hunley had a crew of only nine compared to Alligator's 14 to 20.
Alligator also featured an airlock, through which a diver would pass. The diver would advance on the target with limpet mines connected via insulated electric wires to a battery on the sub, to detonate them. The sub also had an air-purifying system which, though rudimentary, Veit said, "is what we still use today."
The USS Holland, dating from the turn of the 20th century, is typically credited with being the navy's first submarine.