Although it is not entirely clear what these “secrets” were, they most likely included an air purification system, which would increase the amount of time the submarine could stay submerged, and a battery system to detonate mines remotely.
In a letter written to Smith on January 18th, de Villeroi stated that that once he received the lead and platina – a platinum alloy – he needed, the submarine would be completed. He further stated that because the original delivery date and extensions had passed, Thomas’ services would no longer be necessary and that he and Smith could finally work together directly. Four days later on January 22nd, de Villeroi received Smith’s reply. Smith declared that de Villeroi would receive no more funding for the submarine until it was delivered and tested, and he continued to stress the importance of retaining the contractor. Commodore Smith then wrote Thomas directly to note that if the submarine was not finished in three or four days and ready to be shipped on the soon-to-depart USS Rhode Island, the submarine would no longer be useful to the Navy, because CSS Virginia – the ironclad the submarine was designed to counter – was out of dry dock and entering sea trials in Norfolk.
On January 29th, the submarine was reported ready for launching. However, according to a report from Thomas, the launch had to be delayed due to problems with the oars. A contradictory letter sent by de Villeroi stated that the delay resulted from ice on the river. During the interim, the submarine was painted dark green
on the outside – a factor that would later contribute to Alligator’s name – and white inside.
Two days later – faced by the imminence of the Virginia threat – Smith sent yet another letter to de Villeroi stating that although the submarine would no longer be useful to the war effort, the time and effort put into producing the boat made it worthwhile at least to put it through its paces in sea trials. In his letter, Commodore Smith also made a seemingly innocuous statement that markedly improved de Villeroi’s legal position: He told de Villeroi that the contractor was to provide everything needed to finish the project. This essentially gave de Villeroi an “out,” and he immediately responded with a veritable laundry list of items needed to complete construction – including explosives, hydraulic jacks, platina, a telescope, and a chest of tools. He also complained bitterly about Thomas, noting “unethical” discussions the latter had held with scientists, spending insufficient money to maintain the schedule, and the overall expense of the project, which de Villeroi claimed was far less than the award value of the original $14,000 contract.
While de Villeroi’s letter was on its way to Commodore Smith, the commodore informed Thomas formally that the contract was in default, and thus that the submarine would not be received by the Navy until “further opportunities avail themselves” − at which time the agreement would be renegotiated. When de Villeroi learned of this development, he immediately sent another letter to Smith saying that as he was still an employee of the government and therefore entitled to pay until such time as the Navy revoked his nomination as engineer of the project.
Continuing this seemingly endless string of letters, Smith then wrote de Villeroi explaining their unique situation and that the contract was forfeited because the delivery date had not been met. Smith closed his letter by stating that the project would be stopped and would remain so until de Villeroi and Thomas came to terms and delivered a boat and crew for testing. This letter caused an uproar, sending Hirst into a furious – but ultimately fruitless – letter-writing campaign to mediate the differences between Thomas and de Villeroi, while de Villeroi himself went into seclusion. In a last ditch attempt to salvage the work and his own pride, he wrote directly to President Lincoln, requesting that he be made “commander of the Propeller.” Not surprisingly, the Frenchman never received a response.
On April 18, 1862, Commodore Smith was informed that the U.S. Navy’s first submarine was finally ready. However, it took almost another two months before the Navy and Mr. Samuel Eakin – the submarine’s first commander – took delivery of the boat on June 13th. She emerged as a truly unique vessel with a length of 47’, a beam of 4’8”, and a height of 5’6”. The original propulsion system – oars – required 22 sailors, but later, when she was retrofitted with a screw propeller, this number dropped to eight. The boat was equipped with an innovative air purification system and a diver lockout chamber which allowed for a diver to leave the submarine and clear obstructions or plant mines; both features were part of de Villeroi’s innovative original design.
Since Virginia had already been scuttled by her crew during the Confederate retreat from Norfolk, the Union submarine’s original mission had been overtaken by events. However, it was given the task of clearing obstacles in the James River – to allow Union vessels to sail upriver and aid in the bombardment of Richmond – and destroying a railroad bridge at Petersburg. It was during this time that the submarine rather unceremoniously acquired the name, Alligator. From 1861 to 1862, she had been referred to by several other names, including Propeller, Submarine Propeller, and Submarine Boat. However, a newspaper report from the spring of 1862 had called the craft Alligator because of its green color and because it propelled itself through the water via two banks of oars; and the name stuck.
After further consideration, both the James River and Petersburg missions were cancelled. Because of the depth of the James and Appomattox rivers – less than seven feet at some points – Alligator would have been forced to operate semi-submerged, exposing it to attack from shore and possible capture by the Confederates, a risk no one was willing to take. On June 29, having spent a total of only eight days in a “combat zone” and with no new missions assigned, Alligator was transferred – under tow – to the Washington Navy Yard for further testing.
From August through December of 1862, Alligator was put through its paces in Washington. These tests resulted in the replacement of the oar propulsion system with a more conventional propeller, which doubled the top speed of Alligator from two to four knots. During this time, the civilian crew was replaced by one furnished by the Navy and command was given to Lt. Thomas Selfridge.
With the beginning of spring in 1863 came a new mission for Alligator and her crew: to clear obstacles around Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and attack the ironclads CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State, which had been positioned by the Confederacy to escort supply ships into Charleston harbor and lift the blockade.
On March 31st, a crewless Alligator began her voyage to Charleston and Fort Sumter under tow from – fittingly – USS Sumpter.2 During the voyage, the weather quickly worsened into a storm unlike any Sumpter’s commander, J.F. Winchester, had ever seen. On April 2nd, the port towline parted. As a result, the submarine pitched and yawed violently and she began to take on water through broken portholes – recently added during her winter in Washington – and loosened plates in her hull. As Alligator continued to take on water and started to sink, she threatened to drag Sumpter down with her. The tow ship had no other option but to set Alligator adrift with the hope that she might stay afloat long enough to be recovered after the storm. Alligator was cut free shortly after noon on April 2nd, and as Sumpter steamed away – fighting against the storm – Alligator slipped over the horizon, never to be seen again.
The attack on Charleston and the two Confederate ironclads commenced three days later and – without Alligator – was a major failure. Three months later, the Confederates launched their own submarine of a design similar to Alligator, CSS H.L. Hunley, in Mobile, Ala. It would later become the first submersible to sink an enemy warship, when it destroyed USS Housatonic at Charleston on February 17, 1864.
While Alligator was never commissioned, she had the distinction of being “the first” in many areas for the U.S. Navy. She was the first submarine ordered and built by the Navy and the first to have a diver lockout chamber, to deploy to a combat zone, to be commanded by a U.S. naval officer, and to undergo an overhaul at a U.S. naval shipyard – just to name a few.
Following the war, the United States concluded that a submarine force was not needed to protect her territorial waters for the foreseeable future. This belief, along with de Villeroi’s retreat to private life and subsequent death in 1874, helped to push the idea of establishing a submarine force to the back burner of the Navy’s consciousness for another quarter century.
Mr. Smith is the Managing Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine and an analyst with Anteon Corporation in Washington, D.C.
The Hunt for the Alligator
In 2002, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) began the search for Alligator in a joint project that has been dubbed “The Hunt for the Alligator”.
The following outlines some of the important milestones in the search for the long-forgotten first U.S. submarine.
- May 2002 – Then-Chief of Naval Research, Rear Adm. Jay Cohen; Daniel Basta, director of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program; and Dr. Robert Ballard, founder and president of the Institute for Exploration discuss an article on Alligator first noticed by Mrs. Cohen, wife of Rear Adm. Cohen.
- June 2002 – Rear Adm. Cohen initiates a historical research project to glean information on Alligator.
- July 2002– February 2003 – ONR’s Cmdr. Richard Poole leads an intensive research effort at the Library of Congress, National Archives, and Naval Historical Center. He is assisted by Jim Christley, a former submariner, and Mark Ragan.
- August–September 2004 – ONR and NOAA researchers analyze historical documents, in particular those regarding the weather conditions during the loss of Alligator. With this information an oceanographic chart is prepared indicating where the vessel may have sunk.
- February 2003 – Cmdr. Poole and Mr. Christley conduct a two-day historical research trip to Philadelphia. They find information regarding Brutus de Villeroi, Alligator’s designer.
- May 2003 – NOAA’s Catherine Marzin obtains original letters and blueprints drafted by de Villeroi from the Service Historique de la Marine in Vincennes, France. The blueprints are the only plans of Alligator known to exist.
- October 2003 – ONR and NOAA hold the first-ever symposium on Alligator in Groton, Conn.
- August 23–29 2004 – Researchers from ONR, NOAA, and East Carolina University conduct the first ever comprehensive search for Alligator. The search took place off Cape Hatteras, N.C. and was conducted from ONR’s YP-679 “Afloat Lab.” Based on sonar and magnetic data collected, several target areas were identified for further exploration.
- September 6–10 2005 – Based on a side-scan survey conducted in the spring of 2005, several target areas were investigated by a team of researches aboard “Afloat Lab.” The information collected is being processed and analyzed for future explorations.
- September 2005-Present – The hunt continues.