The Civil War Connections Blog

Early Submarines Part 2

Well hey there, readers – good to see you again! After all, it’s been SO LONG since I’ve posted on the good ol’ blog… (yes that was sarcasm). Today’s (second) tidbit about me is: in terms of climate and setting preferences, although I like the warm summer of the beach, I prefer the cool autumn of the mountains any day.

Yes! Let’s have more of THAT!


So in my last post, I mentioned the USS Alligator and then abruptly left you on a cliff hanger as to what it was. My apologies. To conclude my thought, the USS Alligator was a submarine made by the Union almost a year before the Confederates built the CSS Hunley! It had a revolutionary new air-purification system for extended periods below the surface, a diver lockout chamber that allowed a diver to leave the submarine with an air hose and manually clear obstructions or mines, and it was painted like an alligator! How cool is that!

As cool as AMERICA


The USS Alligator was the invention of a Frenchman named Brutus de Villeroi. Sadly, records on Villeroi have been lost over the years, so no one knows why he was in America, what his profession was, or even what he looked like.

Close enough


Regardless of these tiny details, Villeroi had invented plans for a submarine that were adopted by the Navy in late 1861. However, the support of the Navy was contingent on a few key factors: the vessel had a limited budget, and had to be completed within a short amount of time. The reason for this is that the Navy wanted Villeroi’s submarine so it could use it to defeat the CSS Virginia that was simultaneously being constructed. Unfortunately for the USS Alligator, both of those issues would prove to be problematic. The construction of the vessel took far longer than the original 40-day time limit: ordered on November 1st 1861, it was supposed to be finished by December 10th. Since the budget was low, the shipbuilding crew could not work overtime or weekends, and were in too few number to complete the project in time. Extension after extension was allowed, and huge numbers of angry letters passed back and forth between the inventor, Villeroi, the shipbuilding contractor, Martin Thomas, and Commodore Joseph Smith, who represented the US Navy (article HERE). By the time the USS Alligator was finally reported to be ready, it was April 18th of 1862. The CSS Virginia had already been repulsed by the USS Monitor, so the USS Alligator was no longer needed for that purpose.

I’m the USS Alligator, and it took about four times longer to build me than expected!


Although reported complete in April, The Navy didn’t directly receive the USS Alligator until two months later, by which time the CSS Virginia had already been scuttled. As a result, the USS Alligator – so named because of her green paint – was slated to be used for other tasks, like clearing obstructions. After her involvement in the ill-fated Appomattox raid (which will be discussed in length in about a month, at the 150th anniversary of its occurrence), the USS Alligator returned to the Washington DC area for further testing. By spring of 1863, though, the USS Alligator’s luck was beginning to turn: she got a second chance at killing some ironclads! She would join the Union navy for the attack on Charleston, and help destroy the Confederate ironclads guarding the harbor! All she had to do was get there safely. Sadly, the weather gods did not grant the USS Alligator their favor… while being towed to Charleston, the USS Alligator and the ship towing her were caught in a bad storm off Cape Hatteras, and the USS Alligator was cut loose and lost, just like the USS Monitor.


The loss of the Union’s submarine meant that the attack on Charleston failed, and the Confederates would go on to create the CSS Hunley just a few months later, sailing into history as they sank the USS Housatonic. The one piece of consolation for the brave little USS Alligator is that, although she never sank any Confederate vessels, none of her crewmen died during any phase of her existence. The CSS Hunley definitely can’t claim the same: she sank with all hands twice during testing, and then a third time after sinking the USS Housatonic.

Yaay, I guess?


Well, that’s all for today, gently readers – I hope two blog posts in one day didn’t wear you out! Tune in next time, and something completely different may be discussed! Until then, have a good one!