The Navy searches for first sub,
The USS Alligator, lost in 1863
By DIANE TENNANT, The Virginian-Pilot© June 21, 2004
When the Union ship Sumpter rounded Cape Henry on April 1, 1863, a fresh wind was blowing out of the west-northwest.
The ship, some felt, was on a fool’s quest with a foolish contraption, but Acting Master W.F. Winchester had his orders: Tow the Navy’s newest weapon to Port Royal, S.C. , to sink the two Confederate ships that protected the Charleston harbor. Hasten the end of the Civil War.
At the end of two tow lines bobbed a dark green object only partly visible above the water. It was 47 feet long, large enough for a crew of 12, and it was the first submarine that the U.S. Navy had ever owned. Not the Hunley, which would sail under a Confederate flag three months later.
Not the Holland, which would be commissioned 37 years later . Its name was Alligator , and it was, in the parlance of the time, an infernal machine.
Its first two missions, in the James and Appomattox rivers, had failed. Some in the Navy had advised scrapping it. But Alligator was given one more chance, and Winchester proceeded past Cape Henry in water he described as “very smooth.”
By early morning, the Sumpter, a wooden screw steamer, was past the Cape Hatteras Light. The sea water temperature was rising, up to 68 degrees. The wind picked up until, by 8 a.m., the Sumpter was struggling to make headway.
The engine began to fail. Winchester ordered the fore and aft sails set, but it didn’t help. By noon, when the sailors were able to take a reading, the ship was at latitude 34.43, longitude 75.2, and moving little farther.
“The wind by this time had increased to a very heavy gale from Southward and westward and a very heavy sea,” Winchester wrote in a letter dated April 9.
The Sumpter was plunging under to the foremast, then struggling back to the top of the waves. Winchester, to save his ship, turned to run with the storm. The wind blew harder and harder, the waves crested and crashed without easing, and Alligator yanked at the Sumpter until one tow line broke.
“The Alligator was steering wildly and threatening to snap the hawser,” Winchester wrote. “It being evident we would soon lose her, I called a council of all the Officers.”
Life or death was the question on the table. The sub, Winchester feared, could pull the Sumpter under. As the decks rolled under their feet and the timbers moaned, the officers’ vote was unanimous: Cut it free.
At 6 p.m. on April 2, the Alligator’s last tow line was released. Great gray waves broke over Sumpter’s stern and swept the two vessels apart. Free of the dragging iron weight, the Sumpter drove on into the storm.
The crew had its hands full with just one ship. A break in the weather gave the crew time to repair the engine, but within 24 hours, a storm had built again. The wind screamed, and snow fell so thickly that the crew could not see a ship’s length distant, Winchester wrote.
The spanker boom was washed away, the wardroom skylight broke in, huge waves carried off two crewmen.
Finally, on the morning of April 6, the wind lessened and the seas dropped. A reading showed the Sumpter now at latitude 37.38 and longitude 71.04, well north and east of its last known position.
The Sumpter limped toward New York for repairs, carrying the sub’s last commander and crew away from their ship forever. The Alligator was never seen again.
It sank out of sight and out of recall.
The Navy, when it celebrated the centennial of its submarine force in 2000, didn’t even acknowledge that Alligator had existed. It feted instead the Holland, commissioned in 1900.
Then, one day in 2002, an admiral’s wife scanned a Civil War magazine that mentioned a sub she had never heard of.
Look at this, she told her husband.
He looked, then decided to look some more.
After 139 years, the hunt for the Alligator was on. The chief of naval research, Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, sat down in May 2002 with NOAA’s director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program and with legendary ocean explorer Robert Ballard to talk about the magazine article that Cohen’s wife had found. The most amazing thing, they agreed, was that no one had ever heard of this submarine.
They began small, with two college interns digging for background information on the Alligator. Then artist/historian Jim Christley of Connecticut went to the National Archives with Cmdr. Richard Poole of the Office of Naval Research.
They dredged out more than 200 documents, including Winchester’s detailed account of the storm. He may have exaggerated, Christley said, in order to assure his superiors that the loss of the Alligator was inevitable.
Using Winchester’s coordinates, and applying knowledge used to predict the drift of modern-day oil spills, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration examined tides, currents and wind models to project where the Alligator might have gone down.
In November 2002, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy arranged for a team of midshipmen to prepare a detailed analysis of the ocean bottom off the Outer Banks.
More archival research followed, including a trip to France, where a NOAA employee on family leave volunteered to look for documents related to Alligator’s French designer. She found the original blueprints for the sub and, by June 2003, the agencies were ready to take to the sea.
Searchers spent 50 hours aboard the NOAA vessel Littlehales, looking into the ocean depths for the little submarine. They found nothing.
“The good news is it probably lies in deep water, which means it has been preserved,” Christley said. “The bad news is it probably lies in deep water and it’s off Cape Hatteras.”
This summer, they will try again. “Never, since the first flush of the news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, has there been an excitement in the city equal to that which was caused in the upper wards this morning, by the capture of a mysterious vessel which was said to be an infernal machine. ...”
The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia reported in May 1861 that police had detained an iron monster, sharkish in appearance, with the back above water and the tail and snout submerged. It was the invention of Brutus de Villeroi, who may or may not have staged the capture of his prototype as a publicity stunt.
His native land had declined to buy his design, and he was desperate to get the U.S. Navy’s attention. He was helped by the discovery in June 1861 that the Confederates had a submarine in New Orleans. Five months later, de Villeroi had a contract to build the Navy’s first submarine.
De Villeroi had dabbled in submarine design for years. A young Jules Verne may have witnessed the test of an early device, as one translation of “ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” describes de Villeroi as his math teacher.
But de Villeroi had moved to Philadelphia by 1860, when a census listed his occupation as “natural genius.”
The capture of the submarine brought him the desired attention. The iron tube was revolutionary. It had an air purification system, tubes for divers to breathe through and onboard air compressors. Not only could it stay underwater for a long time, it could release and retrieve divers unseen to place mines on the bottoms of ships. The Navy was sold.
The sub was to be built for $14,000. An additional $86,000 would be given upon its destruction of an enemy ship or vessel. In return, de Villeroi was to write down the secret of his invention and seal it, not to be opened until the bonus was paid or he died, was disabled or found derelict in duty.
The Union wanted a sub to counter the threat of the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack), but cost overruns and tantrums by its designer delayed construction for so long that the Monitor had already battled the Confederate ironclad, and the Virginia had, in fact, been scuttled by its own crew before the sub was ready.
The sub was launched in May 1862 and sent to Hampton Roads for its first mission.
Painted dark green, with a series of paddles protruding from its sides like legs, the sub had acquired a name by the time it reached Norfolk: Alligator.
Not everyone was impressed. “I saw this contrivance yesterday,” wrote Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. “My impression is that it is next to a very useless concern.”
With the ironclad gone, Alligator was to slip up the Appomattox River and destroy a railroad bridge, or sneak up the James River and remove underwater obstacles that protected Richmond from naval attack. But the rivers were too shallow, and naval officers feared that the sub would be sighted, captured and used against them.
Alligator was sent back to Philadelphia without seeing action.
Command was offered to Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge (later a rear admiral) .
Selfridge was not impressed with its speed or handling. A handwritten note at the bottom of his report reads, “The enterprise is a failure.”
Alligator’s paddles were replaced by a rear propeller to make it faster. President Lincoln watched a test in March 1863 in which the sub doubled its speed to 4 knots. Just the thing, the Navy thought, to take Charleston harbor, which was blockaded by Union ships but protected by two ironclads. On April 1, 1863, the sub was headed for South Carolina, under tow by the Sumpter.
Ocean water, as one sinks deeper and deeper beneath the surface, changes color quickly. Warm colors disappear immediately. From the clear shallows, where light can penetrate, color fades through aqua to blue-green to midnight as the light is lost until, about 1,650 feet down, it fades entirely to black.
It is the kind of black that you’re sure you can see through, except you can’t, said Cindy Lee Van Dover, a deep-sea researcher at the College of William and Mary, and a former pilot of the research submarine Alvin.
Without exterior lights, a person inside a sub sinking in the ocean could see nothing, she said. Portholes would look out into inky darkness, broken only by pinpoints of blue-white light from bioluminescent creatures - jellies, fish, even microscopic plankton.
All the pinpoints would appear to be moving straight up, but the submarine would actually be dropping past them, sinking at a rate of 100 feet per minute.
From the warmth of the Gulf Stream, the temperature would drop to the 50s, then the 40s, then lower. At depths of about 6,500 feet, the water is barely above freezing, she said, kept that way by the salt.
There would be no sound. Whale songs audible closer to the surface would fade away with depth. In that kind of utter silence, shrouded by darkness, the Alligator sank to the bottom.
No one knows where. It could be on the continental shelf, the relatively shallow seabed fringing the East Coast. It could be on the continental slope, where the shelf slants downward, broken by canyons and ravines in which anything could hide.
By 13,000 feet down, the bottom of the sea is called the abyssal plain.
The water pressure there is 400 times the pressure of air in the surface world, Van Dover said. A Styrofoam cup can be shrunk to a quarter of its regular size by such pressure, but an iron submarine, if water could enter through a hatch or broken seam before it sank too deep, would not be damaged.
That is what the Office of Naval Research hopes for, what NOAA hopes for, what could make the Alligator worth finding.
Based on the letter describing the 1863 storm, researchers calculated that the Sumpter was approximately 50 nautical miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras when it took a fix, probably a dead reckoning, at noon on April 3.
They drew a circle with a diameter of 100 nautical miles around that spot to show the distance the Sumpter could have covered in good weather, traveling at 8.5 knots for six hours, the length of time before Alligator was set adrift.
Adding in the facts that Sumpter was barely making headway in southwesterly winds before it turned around, plus the ship’s position in the Gulf Stream pulling to the northeast, researchers reduced the size of the circle.
Then they added in a degree of error for a dead reckoning fix taken during a violent storm, and figured that the Alligator could have been cut loose anywhere in a trapezoidal shaped area of 636 square nautical miles.
But the submarine was seaworthy, still afloat during the storm, likely pushed by winds that shifted from southwest to north to northeast, and pulled by the Gulf Stream. As it sank, it also could have been influenced by two other currents that flow in opposition to the Gulf Stream.
The researchers assumed that Alligator may have made a comma-shaped track before sinking, changing directions several times.
They hope it landed on the continental shelf. The wreck of the ironclad Monitor was discovered in 1973 on the shelf 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, but only about 235 feet deep. The Alligator may not be so near.
It is most likely in the deep waters of the continental slope, or even the abyssal plain, wrote Naval Academy students in a detailed study of the ocean floor.
The good news, they wrote, is that Alligator probably has less than an inch of mud or sand on top of it because of currents and topography.
Complicating everything is the fact that little money has been spent on the search.
NOAA and the Office of Naval Research have been relying on volunteer efforts from staff and from the public, said Michiko Martin, education coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuary Program and the former oceanography instructor who got the Naval Academy involved.
Descendants of the Alligator’s commander, Samuel Eakins, have come forward to help. Volunteers are still being accepted for archival research, to look for weather and climate records that could reduce the search area, to help with education and more.
The package of de Villeroi’s secrets has never been found. Perhaps it, or other important documents, are in somebody’s attic, Martin said.
In July, NOAA will have a research ship off the Outer Banks on another mission, and the Alligator team has been given space and time to work for a few days.
Martin is hoping to find researchers working with underwater vehicles, for example, who would be willing to test them by hunting for the Alligator.
In October, a symposium on the Alligator will be held at Nauticus. The first day, Oct. 25, will be open to the public.
The Discovery Channel is interested in the Alligator. The TV series “JAG” also is intrigued, the Navy said.
Finding the Alligator, Christley said, would ultimately benefit national security. “It says a lot about what we – the Navy, NOAA, the U.S. – can do about finding things in deep water that other folks think might be hidden.”
The Office of Naval Research says the search is useful for many reasons. “If we never find the Alligator, this whole effort will still be worthwhile in that we’re sharing a lot of history,” Poole said. “It would rewrite U.S. submarine history.”
More importantly, the search could improve technology for rescuing survivors of submarine accidents, and test the Navy’s ability to detect small objects in the ocean within a reasonable time at a reasonable cost, he said.
“It represents a very interesting challenge for the Navy,” Poole said. “As Admiral Cohen says, if we can find the Alligator, we can find anything.”
Reach Diane Tennant at 446-2478 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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To volunteer to help with the Alligator