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History of the Alligator

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, self proclaimed “Natural Genius,” who built the submarine to salvage the 1798 wreck of the DeBraak, sunk off Lewes, DE. Taking immediate action to safeguard the safety of its citizen in time of war, the Philadelphia police impounded the submarine. Meanwhile, the local Navy Yard, answering the call from the Lincoln administration, was looking for a technological edge for fighting the Confederacy. The 1861 Philadelphia incident convinced them to invest in a submarine of De Villeroi’s design.

Jules Verne photo
Jules Verne (1828-1905)

Hence begins the little-known story of the 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. The story of the Alligator is right out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In fact, according to one translation of that novel, De Villeroi was Verne’s math teacher.

Built to counter the threat of Confederate ironclads, the 47-foot-long, green, oar-propelled sub was a vessel like no other. Among its most notable features was an airlock designed to allow a diver to exit the vessel while submerged and place an explosive charge on an enemy ship. The Alligator’s design also included an air purification system. Both are standard components of modern submarines.

Following its launch from a Philadelphia shipyard in 1862, the Alligator was tasked with destroying bridges crossing the Appomattox River and clearing obstructions in the James River in Virginia. But the Alligator would never get the chance to prove itself in battle. After arriving in the combat zone, the waters of the James and Appomattox proved too shallow to allow the sub to submerge. The Alligator was also less maneuverable than expected.

Fearing that it could be captured by the Confederacy, the Alligator was withdrawn and towed to the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., where it was refitted with a hand-cranked screw propeller. President Lincoln himself witnessed a demonstration of the “improved” vessel. After declaring that the Alligator was ready for action, Rear Adm. Samuel Dupont ordered the sub to Charleston, S.C., in March 1863. It would be a fateful journey.

While heading south along the North Carolina coast, the Alligator and its tow vessel, the USS Sumpter, encountered a storm so fierce that the Sumpter’s crew, facing the loss of their own ship, was forced to cut the unmanned submarine loose on April 2, 1863. The Union sub was never seen again.

Click here for more information on the history of submarines.

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