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Alligator: The Forgotten Torchbearer of the U.S. Submarine Force

“The Launching – 1 May 1862” by Jim Christley. This original painting by Mr. Christley depicts the first launching of Alligator in 1862. Courtesy of the Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia, Pa.

With his ship wallowing in a Nor’easter off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, J. F. Winchester, the captain of the wooden screw steamer USS Sumpter, was faced with a difficult decision − whether to continue on his mission to join the Union attack on Charleston, South Carolina, towing a revolutionary submersible whose likely foundering threatened to sink Sumpter herself – or to cut the towline and save his own ship. Shortly after noon on April 2, 1863, he made his decision, and his tow was set adrift, allowing Sumpter to fight another day. And with that decision, Winchester sent the U.S. Navy’s first submarine – Alligator – to its final resting place among thousands of other wrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off Cape Hatteras and – unwittingly – removed Alligator from the annals of naval history for almost 140 years.

The story of the United States’ first submarine does not begin with John Holland – commonly regarded as the father of the U.S. Submarine Force – but with an immigrant inventor from France named Brutus de Villeroi. Little is known about the oftentimes eccentric de Villeroi – why he was in the United States, what his profession was, or even what he looked like. (No photograph or painting of him remains today.) However, we do know that de Villeroi had been experimenting with submersible designs in France as far back as 1832 and that in the 1860 U.S. Census, he listed his occupation – correctly or not – as a “natural genius.”

De Villeroi and his submarine first appeared in the United States on the Delaware River in May 1861. On May 18, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front-page article describing an “infernal machine” that had suddenly appeared in the waters off the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Alarmed, the harbor police, acting upon rumors that the 33-foot, cigar-shaped vessel was intent on sabotage, impounded the mysterious boat.1 Moreover, unsure of de Villeroi’s intentions and loyalty to the Union, the harbor police arrested him and his crew and turned the unusual vessel over to Navy officials for inspection. Philadelphia Navy Yard commandant Capt. Samuel F. DuPont appointed three officers to examine the vessel, question de Villeroi, and report their findings. The three
officers chosen by Capt. DuPont were Cmdr. Henry Hoff, an expert in ship design; Cmdr. Charles Steedman, an expert in naval warfare; and Robert Danby, a naval engineer. The panel reported their findings on July 7, 1861 in what was dubbed the Hoff Report.

“On May 18, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a
front-page article describing an “infernal machine” that had suddenly appeared in the waters off the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”

The Hoff Report stated that de Villeroi’s vessel was seaworthy and had shown four important features during their testing. These were the ability to surface and submerge, the capability to remain underwater for a substantial length of time without exposing anything on the surface, provision for a man to leave and return to the vessel while both remained submerged, and an exterior breathing tube connected to the vessel that allowed a diver to survive outside the submarine underwater. Apparently, de Villeroi’s submersible was equipped with a diver lockout chamber, originally incorporated for salvage efforts. Confirming these successes, the Hoff Report slowly began making the rounds inside the Navy.

During this time, de Villeroi wrote letters to both the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, and President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s letter was forwarded to the Navy Department and Secretary Welles instructed Commodore Joseph Smith, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, to provide a response. Commodore Smith reported that it was too small to test as a weapon and recommended that a larger version be constructed on a “no- payment-for-failure” basis.

A contract for the construction of the submarine was signed on November 1, 1861 by Secretary Welles and one Martin Thomas – a contractor who acted on behalf of de Villeroi. The contract stipulated that “The party of the first part will construct and deliver to the party of the second part within forty (40) days from the date of this agreement, an Iron Submarine Propeller of the plan of M. de Villeroi, at least fifty-six inches (56”) in width and sixty-six (66”) inches in height and forty-five feet in length, for the sum of fourteen thousand dollars to be paid when completed and delivered, ready for use within ten days after delivery and certificate is in all respects ready for service.”

Essentially, the Navy and de Villeroi had entered into a contract with a seemingly impossible schedule. De Villeroi was to deliver a submarine to the Navy a mere 40 days after the contract was signed.

Construction began without incident soon thereafter, and by December 7, de Villeroi reported – via letter – to Commodore Smith that the submarine was nearly completed. De Villeroi went on, however, to explain that the construction timeline would likely need to be extended, because parts of the interior were not yet complete. He attempted to justify the delay by stating that the contractor, Thomas, had not scheduled the construction properly and that the project was unlike any the shipyard had ever pursued before. Unfortunately, excuses were not what Commodore Smith wanted to hear as he grew increasingly frustrated with de Villeroi.

To mediate the growing dispute between de Villeroi and Thomas, William Hirst, a Philadelphia lawyer, was called in. Hirst helped to negotiate a 15-day extension beginning on December 10th. Even so, the situation began to spiral downward. Commodore Smith stood his ground on the delivery date and with good reason: Norfolk had fallen to the Confederates and the iron-clad CSS Virginia was finished and ready to enter service against the Union’s blockading force. In several heated exchanges, Smith and de Villeroi bickered over the root cause of the problems: the lack of funds to work nights and weekends, the need for a larger construction crew, and more importantly, the contractor Thomas himself. De Villeroi ended his letter by requesting direct contact with Smith, and not through the contractor, so that they might more quickly and easily resolve remaining differences.

This request made an already angry Smith even more irate. In a letter dated January 3, 1862, Smith explained to de Villeroi that he could have no direct contact with him and that all correspondence must go through the contractor. Smith went on to explain that the government could only deal directly with the contractor himself, which was – and is still – standard procedure in most procurement matters.

The extension granted to de Villeroi in December 1861 came and went without the boat being delivered. De Villeroi blamed the delay on not having specific materials needed to produce certain “secrets” mentioned in the original contract and now in the possession of lawyer Hirst.