By the spring of 1861 the United States was at war with itself. Both the U.S. Army and Navy had been torn apart as those in service were forced to choose sides. Meanwhile, the newly-formed Union and self-proclaimed Confederacy scrambled to build defensive forces.
Later that year, the Union Navy commissioned the firm Neafie & Levy to build a small submarine. The submersible ship, an improvement on the design first used by the Continental Army during the American Revolution, would be designed by French engineer Brutus de Villeroi.
The ship, designed to accommodate 18 men, was the first of its kind to feature an air purifying system. Two tubes with floats extended to the water’s surface above to supply air to the men inside the vessel. The tubes were connected to an air pump inside the submarine. The iron craft was roughly 30 feet long and 8 feet in diameter with small glass windows on its upper half. Villeroi’s original design featured 16 hand-powered paddles. This idea was dismissed as impractical and replaced with a hand-cranked propeller, increasing the craft’s speed to a paltry 4 knots.
They hoped this increase in speed combined with the sub’s solid construction would prove effective in facing Confederate Ironclads, a battle in which the North’s wooden-hulled blockade ships were sure to fail. Construction was complete in the spring of 1862 and the new sub was successfully launched on May 1st.
Soon thereafter, the ship was placed under the command of a civilian by the name of Samuel Eakin. It wasn’t long before a local newspaper termed the new sub “Alligator.” The moniker stuck and was adopted by the Union Navy. In nearly all official correspondences that were to follow, the sub was referred to as the USS Alligator.
The sub became involved in the war on June 19th, 1862 when the steam tug Fred Kopp began towing the vessel down the Delaware River. The two ships entered the Chesapeake Bay and finally reached Hampton Roads, Virginia four days later. The Alligator took up position near the sidewheel steamer Satellite, which was to be her tender during her service with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and was then sent up the James River to City Point. The Alligator was instructed to clear the river of any and all obstructions near Fort Darling in order to create safe passage for Union gunboats to move upriver to support General George B. McClellan and his drive towards Richmond. When the sub reached City Point, however, naval commander John Rodgers realized that the river was not deep enough to conceal the submarine.
Considered useless on the James, the Alligator was sent to the Washington Navy Yard for further testing. Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont soon took an interest in the unique vessel and decided to use her in his plan to capture Charleston, South Carolina. On March 31st, 1863, the Alligator and her new tender (USS Sumter) began the long voyage to Port Royal, S.C. The two ships ran into rough weather near Cape Hatteras, N.C. and the Sumter was forced to disengage with the heavy submarine. The Alligator was left adrift. And while we don’t know exactly what happened to the unlucky vessel in the hours that followed, we do know that it sank – effectively ending the experiment that had been the Union’s first submarine.
Just shy of 150 years later, in 2005, a group made up of multiple researchers, historians and archaeologists began searching for the missing submarine. The multi-faceted effort aims to reveal the sub’s final design and discover just what happened between the time the Alligator was cut loose from the Sumter and when it sank.
The Alligator project involves several organizations led by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Researchers believe the project will lead to new underwater discoveries that will add to our knowledge of the Civil War and thus our nation’s history as a whole – even if the submarine is never found.