Weird Wednesday: The Union’s Infernal Machine

Illustration courtesy of Alicia Fitzmaurice

It was 1862. The Civil War was nearly a year old and both the Confederates and the Union bitterly fought for control over their country.

Through all this, something was lurking-- partially submerged under the Delaware River, waiting for the opportunity to strike. Something that was a possibly revolutionary piece of technology, which could help the North claim victory.

Painted green, made of iron and reaching 47 feet long with a cone-like nose, the Alligator (named for its verdant color) was the Union’s next big scheme to take down the South.

The Alligator was the first submarine built and operated by the U.S. Navy. (Though the Continental army used a submarine by the name of the Turtle during the Revolutionary War, there technically wasn't a United States Navy at that point.)

It cost the North $14,000 (about $360,000 today, when adjusted for inflation) and boasted the top technology of the 19th century. Floating air tubes and a pump provided fresh oxygen to the crew members below-- the first air purification system of its kind.

A hand-cranked propeller (which replaced the original propulsion system of a set of oars) kept the ship going at a brisk pace of four knots (4.6 miles per hour). The vessel had to be towed by another ship to make it anywhere in a reasonable amount of time.  

Airlocks meant divers could exit the ship while it was partially submerged, allowing them to go out, attach mines to an unsuspecting Confederate ship/bridge/motivational rubber duck and blow it to kingdom come, using a copper wire attached to a battery.

Well, that was the plan, at least.

The Alligator was designed by Frenchman and ‘Natural Genius,’ (seriously, that’s what his occupation was listed as on the 1860 census) Brutus de Villeroi, whose nautical ideas supposedly inspired Jules Verne’s adventure novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

The USS Alligator was the first submarine built and operated by the U.S. Navy. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Common)

De Villeroi was originally hired when he was testing another submarine, meant to search through salvage, by sending it down the Delaware River in Philadelphia in 1861. The police, terrified by the mechanical monstrosity making its way downtown, seized the ship. The U.S. Navy was duly impressed and hired de Villeroi as the official designer of the Union’s worst kept secret.

The ship, captained by civilian Samuel Eakins and manned by a crew of 18, was built and considered operational in 1862. The course of plan for the submarine included destroying a bridge at Swift Creek in North Carolina, clearing away debris at blocked canals to allow Union ships through and sinking the feared and mighty Confederate ship, Virginia II.

Though the plans of the Alligator seemed hare-brained, the Union had real reason to worry: the Confederate army was rapidly churning out iron-plated ships that could better withstand regular artillery and cannons. The sooner the North had an advantage in wake of these new developments, the sooner the war could be won.

The Alligator's first mission was fairly simple: compromise a railroad bridge over the Appomattox Creek in Virginia in such a way that would make Michael Bay proud, therefore cutting off a major supply road for Richmond, a Confederate hub.

Unfortunately, this never came to fruition, as the water was too shallow for the submarine to operate or be safely hidden. So much for a big debut.

After going through a design tweaks over the winter of 1862, the Alligator was ready to go by March 1863. President Lincoln himself observing the vessel in operation during testing.

The ship’s next mission was both critical and lofty: destroy several submerged obstacles and mines around Charleston, allowing the Union to take the fort and giving the North a much-needed victory and morale boost.

The Alligator was sent out on March 31, 1863, towed by USS Sumpter to the South Carolina Fort Sumter. (Yes, I spelled that right. Whoever designed the mission probably had a weird sense of humor.)

As the two ships made their way to their destination, they passed through Cape Hatteras on the coast of North Carolina, a notoriously turbulent stretch of ocean called ‘The Graveyard of the Atlantic.’

This could only end well.

On April 2, 1863, mere days after embarking, the Sumpter and the Alligator were rocked by a violent storm, sending the ships reeling in the winds and rolled over by giant waves. Captain J.F. Winchester of the Sumpter was faced with a difficult decision: try to brave the storm and risk losing both vessels, or cut the line to the submarine and preserve his ship and crew.

In the end, Winchester cut the line. The Alligator, so full of potential, sank beneath the churning waves as she took on water. To this day, the vessel has never been found, lost to time, rust and probably a hagfish or two.

The ripples left behind by her sinking, however, continued well into the 20th century. The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, built in 1862, was inspired by the Alligator’s design, and both submarines went on to influence airlock, submarine and air pump designs for years to come.

While no one knew what Commander Winchester said as the ship sank out of sight, you would wish that he called out, sadly, yet hopefully--

“Later, Alligator.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.