If not for conflicts between its French designer and the I contractor selected by the wartime Federal government to build it, ALLIGATOR might have altered the course of the Civil War. By preceding its Confederate counterpart, CSS HUNLEY, by almost two years, ALUGATOR, had it been employed successfully at Hampton Roads against MERRIMAC as intended, would have an honored place in Naval history, rather than an obscure footnote.
In September of 1861, a French nobleman offered to no less than the President, Abraham Lincoln, the services of his submarine vehicle and himself and crew in defense of the Union. The gentleman making the offer was M. Brutus de Villeroi and the submarine vehicle a 35 foot long, crank propeller vessel. It had been build in Philadelphia two years earlier with private financing by the Girard family for salvage work. The possible salvage target was the British warship HMS DE BRAAK which had capsized off Lewes, Delaware in 1798 with $10 million in specie aboard. De Villeroi, who had built and demonstrated several submersibles in France prior to coming to the United States, resided in Philadelphia. His submarine came to the attention of the U.S. Navy in May, 1861 while the vehicle was in the custody of the Philadelphia Police Department. It had been impounded after some zealous citizens saw it operating in the Delaware River and reported it as a possible infernal machine of the Confederacy with potential employment against the nearby Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Captain Samuel F. Dupont, Commandant of the Navy Yard, undoubtedly intrigued by newspaper reports and detailed descriptions of the craft in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, as well as by direct appeals to him for an inspection of the craft by de Villeroi, ordered a board of three officers, including the Yard’s Chief Engineer Robert Danby, to examine the craft and report back to him. This was done on May 30, 1861, thirteen days after the craft’s arrest and impoundment by the Philadel-phia Police Department. The Board undertook a very detailed examination of the craft, taking numerous measurements of interior and exterior dimensions and extensively interviewing and querying de Villeroi with whom they were apparently very impressed. The results of their evaluation, including observing several dives, concluded, among other things, that: 1) de Villeroi’s machine could remain submerged for a considerable period without fatigue to the crew; 2) the boat could be submerged or raised at the will of the commander; 3) the crew could leave and return without surfacing; 4) a man could leave the ship and exist comfortably underwater using an air tube from the submarine; 5) a larger vehicle with a larger crew could attain speeds of one mile per hour; and 6) a diver deployed from the vehicle could attach an explosive device to the hull of hostile vessel and return to the safety of the vehicle prior to detonation and remain completely undetected. This report was submitted to Captain Dupont on July 7, 1861 containing the following conclusion:
“We therefore consider that the services of the distinguished engineer would be very valuable to the Government and that the possession of his invention would be of the greatest importance..”
This report wended its way through the Navy Department, including the office of Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy.
Because of the threat of MERRIMAC, and its availability date in March of 1862, of which the Navy was well aware, it was decided to award a contract to Martin Thomas of Philadelphia on November 1, 1861. Mr. Thomas then subcontracted with shipbuilder Neafie & Levy who hired de Villeroi as superinten-dent of construction. The contract was for a larger vehicle than that demonstrated to the Navy on the Delaware at Philadelphia. Keyed to the March 1862 delivery of MERRIMAC, the contract called for a 40 day delivery and a contract price of $14,000. At the end of 40 days the craft was incomplete and the Government extended the date. The craft was still incom-plete in March of 1862 when MERRIMAC sortied against the Federal blockade at Fort Monroe, Virginia.
Part of the blame was placed on the shipbuilder for its construction delays and part upon the general contractor, Thomas, for failing to deliver some equipment on time, includ-ing de Villeroi’s secret oxygen generating system, probably a hydroxide exchange system. In a letter published by the Philadelphia Public Ledger on March 26, 1862 written by Louis Hennet, the Engineer of the Submarine Propeller, he concluded by stating:
“It is almost certain that if the Submarine Propeller that for the last two months has been lying at the factory of Messrs. Neafie & Levy, Philadelphia, had been in service at its destination [Fort Monroe] things would have gone differently. The MERRIMAC would have been destroyed, or at least rendered harmless.”
On April 30, 1862 the submarine was finally launched at the shipyard of Neafie & Levy. She was given no name at the time and was referred to as the submarine propeller until her initial deployment at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Additionally, in her as-launched condition, she had no propeller but rather was propelled by sixteen oars, eight to a side, both on the surface and underwater. Her full crew was sixteen rowcn and the submarine commander. Her physical dimensions were 46 feet long, 6 feet high, and 4 feet 6 inches wide. She was equipped to carry a minimum of two spar torpedoes similar to that carried on Lt. William Cushing’s steam launch two years later when he attacked and sank CSS ALBEMARLE in the Roanoke River. ALLIGATOR also was constructed with a bottom hatch for ingress and egress of swimmers at or very near the surface. It lacked de Villeroi’s oxygen generating system.
The submarine, after builder’s trials at Philadelphia, was ready to go to war. After a five day tow via the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, she arrived at Hampton Roads on June 23, 1862. Her first orders upon arrival were to attempt to blow up the Petersburg Bridge over the Appomattox River, a part of the Confederate supply route during the ongoing Peninsular Campaign. She was assigned, along with her tug FRED KOOP and support steamer USS SATELLITE, to Commander John Rogers who had command of naval operations on the James River.
After just four days, Commander Rogers returned ALLIGA-TOR to Admiral Goldsborough, his superior and bead of all naval operations in the Norfolk area, expressing that the ALUGATOR was incapable of operating in the shallow water and fast currents of the rivers of the area because of its lack of speed and turning capability. Admiral Goldsborough comment-ed when it was returned:
“I never thought that it would be of the slightest service to you …I have always thought that it would prove, as it has done, only a source of expense and embarrass-meal”
Goldsborough was saved from further worries about the submarine and how to get some sort of utilization of its capabilities. On July 3, 1863 he was ordered by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, to send ALUGATOR to the Washington D.C. Navy Yard for tests and modifications to improve performance. It arrived at the Washington Navy Yard under tow on July 9, 1862. At the Navy Yard they concluded also that it lacked endurance and speed. The shipyard attempt-ed to correct the speed/control problem by removing the sixteen oars and installing a hand operated, screw-type propeller, the identical type propulsion that de Villeroi had recommended and was already installed and demonstrated in his prototype vehicle. The problem of endurance could not be solved as de Villeroi and his secret air purification/replenishment system were nowhere to be found. The next he was heard from was a death notice in 1874 in a Philadelphia paper.
It was decided to obtain some use from the submarine and ALUGATOR was ordered to join the South Atlantic Blockad-ing Fleet under Admiral Dupont. On March 10, 1863 she left Washington under tow of USS SUMPTER. On April 2, 1863 ALUGATOR was lost in a heavy storm off Cape Hatteras after being cut adrift because she was endangering the towing vessel. Rather ironically, these were the same waters in which USS MONITOR, the ultimate hero of the battle with CSS VIRGIN-IA (nee MERRIMAC), was lost.
Thus ended the rather undistinguished career of the only submarine actually launched and operated by the Federal Navy during the Civil War, a full year and one-half prior to the CSS H.L HUNLEY, the relatively successful Confederate submarine.