The Navy & Marine Living History Association is proud to be involved in the search for and raising of U.S.S. Alligator. In addition to the efforts of our member units in distributing information about the project, this website will be constantly updated with news about our progress--both in the pages of history and also on the sea floor. Following the brief explanation as to why the Alligator Project is so very important, there are links to a variety of related resources; we'll augment these as quickly as possible.
In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, the U.S.S. Alligator went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras. Alligator was the most technologically advanced weapon in the Union naval arsenal, incorporating technology not usually associated with the Civil War Navy: a diver’s airlock, tanks of compressed air for adjusting the attitude of the boat, and an air scrubbing system to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such a vessel would not be seen again in the American Navy for almost forty years.
Now the U.S. Navy is intent upon finding and raising the Alligator. While the recovery of the vessel is historically important, the most compelling reasons for doing so are more modern in nature--and much more pressing.
The first of these reasons is for our national defense. Alligator is a small vessel (only 47 feet long and 5 feet wide) and finding it will be a test of our technology. Actually, we will have to develop new technology both for the search and for the recovery. Finding the submarine will send a message to the world that we can detect any such small ship or object as it approaches our shores, and that the devices designed to find Alligator will be used to monitor the littoral long after that boat is raised.
The second use to which the Alligator technology will be used is to protect our environment. Since metal ships have plied the oceans, they have been sinking, and taking down with them cargoes of fuels, chemicals, and, sometimes, radioactive material. Saltwater is corrosive, and it is only a matter of time before the hulls of these vessels are breached and begin to leak their deadly contents into the waters off our coasts. Developing the tools to find such wrecks and either stabilize or remove their toxic contents is better done now, in advance of the day when multiple ships begin to break apart. The cleanup cost of waiting will be staggering: recently NOAA spent half of its annual $40M coastal cleanup budget on a single vessel that sank in 1951--and admit that they could not remove all of the oil carried aboard her. Many of these ships sank in our lifetimes or in those of our parents; it is our responsibility to deal with the situation. [I]Go to the NMLA website
When I first read Tim's message, I checked the calendar, no, it isn't April 1st! Then I decided to look up the organization and Google gave me www.navyandmarine.org. I know that I'm ignorant about about a lot of things, but a Yankee submarine during the Civil War! Lo and behold, a beautiful organizational site packed with neat information including BOTH Yankee and Southern Navys. Sorry I was doubting you at first Tim! By the way, USS Alligator looks like an Electric Boat design with strong influences of the 688 Class. Tell me Time Travel dosen't exist!
Lord ... Shield us from the UltraSensitive!
I'd like to see an RC model of the oar powered version.
A Series of Firsts
The Alligator was the first submarine to:
Be ordered and built for the U.S.Navy. Have a diver’s lockout chamber Be deployed to a combat zone. Have onboard air compressors for air renewal/diver support. Be commanded by a U.S. Naval officer (who would later achieve Flag rank). Be designed with an air purifying system. Have an underway test witnessed by a U.S. president. Have electrically-detonated limpet mines. Undergo an overhaul in a U.S. naval shipyard. Utilize oars as a propulsion system—a unique distinction.
A Little-Known Story
Imagine living in Philadelphia during the early days of the Civil War and reading the latest issue of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. A front page story reveals a strange and alarming tale: Harbor police have captured a partially-submerged, 33-foot long, cigar-shaped contraption moving slowly down the Delaware River.
This “infernal machine,” as the paper described it, was the creation of French inventor, Brutus De Villeroi. Whether a deliberate publicity stunt or not, DeVilleroi succeeded in convincing the Union Navy that he could produce a submersible warship from which a diver could place an explosive charge under an enemy ship. Six months later, in November 1861, he was under contract to build the Union’s first submarine.
Hence begins the little-known story of United States Submarine Propeller U.S.S. Alligator -- a technological wonder akin to other great maritime advances of the Civil War era, including the well-known ironclad USS Monitor, and the recently-raised Confederate submarine, CSS Hunley.
Built in Philadelphia, the 47-foot long Alligator was primarily intended to counter the threat of the Confederate ironclad, the Virginia. Although the Navy specified that the submarine’s construction take no more than 40 days at a cost of $14,000, the project suffered long delays. As project supervisor, DeVilleroi objected to changes in certain aspects of his plans for the vessel’s construction. In response, he effectively exited himself from the process and was later officially dismissed as supervisor.
About a month after its launch on May 1,1862, the oar-propelled submarine was towed to Hampton Roads, Virginia. Her first missions: to destroy a strategically important bridge across the Appomattox River and to clear away obstructions in the James River.
When the Alligator arrived at the James River, with civilian Samuel Eakins in charge, a fierce battle was being waged in the area. Because neither the James nor the Appomattox was deep enough to permit the vessel to submerge, it was feared that even a partially visible submarine would be vulnerable to seizure by the Confederates. The Alligator was sent to the Washington Navy Yard, for further experimentation and testing.
In August 1862, Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge accepted command of the submarine, after being promised promotion to captain if he and the Alligator’s new crew destroyed the new Confederate ironclad, the Virginia II. During test runs in the Potomac, the Alligator proved to be underpowered and unwieldy. During one particular trial, the sub’s air quickly grew foul, the crew panicked, and all tried to get out of the same hatch at the same time--prompting Selfridge to call the whole enterprise “a failure.” He and his crew were reassigned and the vessel was sent to dry dock for extensive conversion. The dream of using this “secret weapon” against the Virginia II was scrapped.
Over the next six months, the Alligator’s system of oars was replaced by a screw propeller. In early spring 1863, President Lincoln observed a demonstration of the “improved” vessel. Shortly thereafter, RADM Samuel Dupont ordered the Alligator, once again commanded by Eakins, to participate in the capture of Charleston.
Towed by the USS Sumpter, the unmanned Alligator left Washington for Port Royal on March 31, 1863. On April 2nd, a fierce storm forced the crew of the endangered Sumpter to cut the submarine adrift, somewhere off the Cape Hatteras coast. According to reports sent to Secretary of the Navy Welles, the Alligator was “lost” at sea.
(Submarine: 1. 47'; b. 4'8"; dph. 5'6"; s. 3 to 4 k.; cpl. 21; a. In the autumn of 1861, the Navy asked the firm of Neafie and Levy to construct a small submersible ship designed by the French engineer Brutus DeVilleroi. It wanted such a vessel to counter the threat posed to its wooden-hulled blockaders by the former screw frigate Merrimack which, according to intelligence reports, the Norfolk Navy Yard was rebuilding as an ironclad ram for the Confederacy. Sinee the Navy's agreement with the Philadelphia shipbuilder speedfied that the submarine was to be finished in not more than 40 days, her keel was 1aid down almost immediately following the signing on 1 November 1861 of the contract for her construction. Nevertheless the work preeeeded so slowly that more than four and one-half times 40 days had elapsed when the novel craft finally was launched on 1 May 1862.
Soon after first entering the water, the new boat was towed to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to be filtted out and manned. A fortnight later, a civilian, Mr. Samuel Eakin, was placed in charge of her; and, on 13 June, the Navy formally accepted the small, but unique, ship.
Next, the steam tug Fred Kopp was engaged to tow the submarine to Hampton Roads, Va. The two vessels got underway on 19 June and proceeded down the Delaware River to the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal through which they entered the Chesapeake Bay for the last leg of the voyage. At Norfolk the submarine was moored alongside the sidewheel steamer Satellite, her tender during her duty with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. A short while after reaching Hampton Roads on the 23d, the submarine picked up the name Alligator a term which soon appeared in official correspondence.
Several tasks were considered for the strange vessel: destroying a bridge across the Appomattox River, clearing away the obstructions in the James River at Fort Darling which had prevented Union gunboats from steaming upstream to support General McClellan's drive up the peninsula toward Richmond, and blowing up Virginia 11 it that ironclad were completed and sent downstream to attack Union forces. Consequently, the submarine was sent up the James to City Point where she arrived on the 25th. Comdr. John Rodgers, the senior naval officer in that area, examined Alligator and reported that neither the James off Fort Darling nor the Appomattox near the bridge was deep enough to permit the submarine to submerge completely. Moreover, he feared that, while his theater of operation contained no targets accessible to the submarine, the IJnion gunboats under his command would be highly vulnerable to her attacks should Alligator fall into enemy hands. As a result, he requested permission to send the submarine back to Hampton Roads.
The ship headed downriver on the 29th and then was ordered to proceed to the Washington Navy Yard for more experimentation and testing. In August, Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge was given command of Alligator and she was assigned a naval crew. The tests proved to be unsatisfactory, and Selfridge pronounced "the enterprise . . . a failure."
The navy yard later removed Alligator's oars and installed a screw propeller in their stead. This change increased her speed to about four knots. On 18 March 1863, President Lincoln observed the submarine in operation.
About this time, Rear Admiral Samual F. Du Pont—who had become interested in the submarine while in command of the Philadelphia Navy Yard early in the war—decided that Alligator might be useful in carrying out his plans to take Charleston S.C., the birthplace of secession. Acting Master John F. Winehester, who then commanded Sumpter was ordered to tow the submarine to Port Royal, S.C. The odd pair got underway on 31 March.
The next day, the two ships encountered bad weather which on 2 April, forced Sumpter to eut Alligator adrift. She soon sank, ending the career of the Navy's first submarine
I'd like to see an RC model of the oar powered version.
Thought about it more than once, Tim. Found it near impossible to turn up any drawings one could consider remotely accurate to work from (like you probably found out during your early Hunley research). The oars were notoriously inefficient on the prototype. An RC version may possibly not move at all. Anyway, too many projects on the bench just now. Maybe after they've finally brought her to the surface......
George "Crazy Ivan" Protchenko
“There are the assassins, the dealers in death; I am the Avenger!”-Nemo "I'm disinclined to acquiesce to your request; means No!"-Capt.Barbossa