The Story of the Alligator
weeks of the beginning of the Civil War, the navies North and South turned to
submarines. To the Confederates, these were a means to break the Union blockade;
to the Federals, a way to destroy the underwater obstacles that barred their
attacks from the sea upon the ports through which vital supplies from
Civil War’s first submarine (and the first such vessel accepted into the U.S.
Navy), was designed by an immigrant Frenchman eager to help his new country.
Brutus de Villeroi had a history of submarine experiments dating back to 1832 in
the main role envisioned for Union submarines would be to clear obstructions,
the Navy contracted for de Villeroi’s boat for an entirely different reason.
Rumors of a powerful Confederate ironclad building upon the remains of the
of the features that made this vessel so unique was the fact that it employed an
air-scrubbing system to remove carbon dioxide from the interior environment of
the boat. No other Civil War submarine had such a system. Unfortunately, the
expense of the components of this system, the unfamiliarity of Navy officials
with its workings, and, quite probably, the fact that neither the shipyard nor
the Navy had ever dealt with a self-described “natural genius” before meant
construction was delayed long after the threat of the CSS
About this time, the new submarine acquired its name—not in any official ceremony, but at the whim of a newspaper reporter who likened the progress of the green-painted boat through the water to that of an alligator. Although not recognized by the Navy, the new name stuck. The image was suggested not only by the color of the vessel, but also from the fact that this first version was propelled by banks of oars! De Villeroi had opted to discard the already-traditional propeller for individual oars that deployed and feathered with each stroke.
how does a submarine attack a railroad—especially in this early period when
self-propelled torpedoes were still twenty years in the future? Alligator’s mode of attack was advanced for its day. In addition
to the crew of 14+ men and an officer, the submarine deployed a diver through a
forward airlock. Exiting the boat, the diver could attach mines to a target,
return to the boat, and detonate the mines by connecting an insulated copper
wire from the mines to a battery in the vessel. Unfortunately, Alligator
was denied this second chance to make history when local Navy officers warned of
shallow water along the
Over the summer and winter of 1862, the Navy replaced the civilian crew with one of its own, officered by Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Running extensive tests with the boat resulted in the substitution of a propeller for the unwieldy oars; this doubled the speed of the boat from two to four knots. After completing these tests and making it very well known that he thought little of submarine warfare, Lt. Selfridge and his men were transferred to the Mississippi Squadron and Alligator came under the command of Acting Master Samuel Eakins. This officer was a professional diver (who worked for the Czar of Russia in the years before the Civil War, trying to salvage Russian ships lost during the Crimean War). Eakins had a small conning tower with viewing ports added to Alligator over the winter of 1862-63.
the early spring of 1863, Alligator
was assigned a new mission to destroy underwater obstacles barring the waters
the close of the war and de Villeroi’s death in 1875, knowledge of this
advanced submarine was all but lost. The
the hunt is on for Alligator. In a project spearheaded by the National Oceanic
& Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and including the Navy & Marine
Living History Association (NMLHA), historical research as well as probes into
the waters off
While finding Alligator
would be interesting from an historical perspective, there are also compelling
reasons to develop the technology to locate something so small in such deep
waters. These include national defense for, in the words of Rear Admiral Cohen
of the Office of Naval Research, 'If we can find Alligator, we can
The ability to "find anything" is also critical for protecting our seas and shores from environmental dangers: for more than a century, metal-hulled vessels have been sinking and taking down cargoes of lethal chemicals and fuels. Corroding in the salty waters of the oceans, those ships are a ticking time bomb that will eventually poison our coasts. Finding them and securing them before it is too late is absolutely necessary.
If you would like to be informed of developments in the Hunt for the Alligator, visit either the NOAA or NMLHA websites and sign up for email updates. We’ll let you know when new information is posted to the sites.
To be notified when the
NMLHA Alligator site is updated, please send an email to: