A Civil War First, or Not

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

If a person-on-the-street quiz were done in Cleveland, and the participants were asked to name the inventor of the automobile, the most frequent answer would almost certainly be Henry Ford. This same answer would almost surely be most frequent if the quiz were given in New York or Atlanta or Los Angeles or definitely Detroit. But the answer would be different if the quiz were given in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, or certainly Mannheim. In Germany the inventor of the automobile is Karl Benz, and in reality Benz beat Ford by 11 years in the creation of an automobile. Sometimes, for reasons that are not entirely clear, inaccurate assignments are made to historical firsts. There are many historical firsts that are associated with the Civil War. For instance, as some, perhaps many, Civil War enthusiasts know, or think they know, the first submarine of the Civil War was the H.L. Hunley. Even Shelby Foote said so in Volume 2 of his Civil War trilogy when he wrote about the Hunley, “She was, in short, the world’s first submarine.” Or was she?

In spite of Shelby Foote’s statement, the Hunley was not “the world’s first submarine,” nor was she the Civil War’s first submarine. In fact, the first submarine of the Civil War was built in the North. This submarine was the USS Alligator, and compared to the Hunley, the Alligator was more technologically advanced. The Alligator was 47 feet in length, which made her somewhat longer than the 40-foot Hunley, and the Alligator also had a somewhat larger crew (12 compared to 8). Originally the Alligator’s propulsion was via 16 oars (8 on each side) in contrast to the Hunley’s hand-cranked propeller. However, several months after her launch, the Alligator’s oars were replaced with a hand-cranked propeller, which doubled her speed from 2 to 4 knots. The Hunley’s designed method of attack was to use a spar to attach an underwater bomb to the target and then to detonate the bomb with a lanyard as the submarine withdrew. The Alligator’s designed method of attack involved a diver who exited and re-entered the vessel through a forward chamber. Air was supplied to the diver with a hand-operated compressor inside the Alligator, and the air was sent to the diver through an air tube. The diver was to attach an underwater bomb to the target, and the bomb would be detonated with electrical current supplied by a battery on the Alligator and transmitted to the bomb by an insulated copper wire. In addition, the Alligator had an innovative air purification system that chemically removed carbon dioxide from the air in the crew compartment and thereby allowed the vessel to remain submerged longer.

A sketch of a cross sectional view of the Alligator showing the hand cranks and the oars

The story of the Alligator began in Philadelphia in May 1861 when a strange vessel was sighted in the water near the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The vessel was seized by the harbor police and turned over to the U.S. Navy. The commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Captain Samuel F. DuPont, commissioned an investigation, which found that the 33-foot submersible vessel had been built under the supervision of a man named Brutus de Villeroi, a Frenchman whose loyalties and intentions were unknown. It is not entirely clear why de Villeroi had his creation sail unannounced in plain view, but one possibility was to attract attention, which was certainly the result. The naval investigation concluded that de Villeroi’s vessel was potentially useful in the ongoing Civil War. Several months after de Villeroi’s stunt, he was contracted to supervise construction of a larger vessel that would be delivered to the navy.

A drawing of the de Villeroi submarine that sailed near the Philadelphia Navy Yard

Very little is known about Brutus de Villeroi, and no photograph or painting of him is known to exist. It is known that in 1832 in France de Villeroi built and demonstrated a submersible vessel that was intended to be used for salvage. He came to the U.S. in 1856, but his reasons for coming are not known. Two Philadelphia newspapers reported in August 1859 about a demonstration of a submersible vessel in the Delaware River. Another article appeared in October 1859, in which it was reported that a diver exited the submerged vessel and that the submersible vessel remained underwater for over an hour, which suggests that the air purifier was operational in the vessel. There is evidence that de Villeroi was opposed to slavery, such as his organizing a fundraising effort in 1863 to have a monument erected to John Brown. It is not known what de Villeroi did after the Civil War, but there is a record for him in the 1870 census, and his obituary appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper on July 3, 1874. In the 1860 census de Villeroi listed his occupation as “natural genius.”

The high regard that de Villeroi showed for himself with his declared occupation became an irritant to those who had to interact with him during the construction of the Alligator. The contract called for the submarine to be built in not more than 40 days and for $14,000, both of which were unrealistic. When it became clear that construction would not be completed on time, de Villeroi, who was the construction project’s supervisor, sent a letter to the naval officer who was overseeing the project and blamed the delay on the contractor. What followed was a series of acrimonious letters to the naval officer from de Villeroi and from the contractor in which each blamed the other for the delays in construction. These delays were of particular concern to the navy, because the navy anticipated using the submarine against a Confederate ironclad vessel which intelligence reported was under construction (and which eventually became the CSS Virginia).

A drawing of the Alligator showing a side view (upper) and a top view (lower)

The navy took delivery of the submarine on June 13, 1862, by which time she had received a coat of dark green paint. Between the color and her movements in the water while being rowed, she acquired the name Alligator, although she was never officially commissioned as such. By the time the Alligator was ready for operations, her intended first target, the Virginia, was gone. The Alligator was instead given missions to destroy an important railroad bridge over the Appomattox River and to clear obstructions from the James River to allow passage of Union gunboats to bombard Richmond. The person who was given command of the Alligator for these missions was a civilian named Samuel Eakins. The Alligator arrived by tow at City Point on the James River on June 25, 1862, but by this time the water level in the places where the Alligator was to conduct operations was too low to allow her to be completely submerged, an obvious impediment to stealth for a submarine. As a result, after spending only 8 days in a combat zone without being used, the Alligator was towed to the Washington Navy Yard. Shortly after the Alligator arrived at Washington, Eakins, the civilian commander of the Alligator, was replaced by Thomas Selfridge, who was a naval officer, because the navy wanted someone with naval experience to evaluate the Alligator’s usefulness. Selfridge, who had briefly been in command of the Monitor, became convinced that the Alligator would never be useful for military operations. After giving his gloomy opinion of the submarine, Selfridge was transferred to the river fleet in the West, where he was given command of the USS Cairo. Selfridge was in command of the Cairo when she sunk after she struck a torpedo.

The Alligator remained in the Washington Navy Yard for 9 months, during which time her propulsion system was upgraded to a hand-cranked propeller. On March 18, 1863 the Alligator was put through a series of tests that were witnessed by President Abraham Lincoln. After these tests, the vessel was declared fit for duty, and Samuel F. DuPont, the same naval officer who had taken possession of de Villeroi’s prototype in Philadelphia, requested that the Alligator be assigned to him for his planned attack on Charleston, South Carolina. DuPont envisioned using the Alligator against some Confederate ironclads that were defending Charleston. Samuel Eakins was returned to command of the Alligator, which, ironically, was to be towed to Charleston by the USS Sumpter (although the spelling of the names of the ship and the fort differ). On March 31, 1863 the two vessels began their voyage, but 2 days later, when the vessels were off Cape Hatteras, a violent storm engulfed them. In a short time the crewless Alligator began to take on water through broken portholes and loosened plates in her hull. The Alligator began to sink and threatened to drag the Sumpter down with her. After much effort to save the submarine and not wishing to risk the loss of the tow vessel, the commanders of the Sumpter and the Alligator decided that the submarine was doomed. The Alligator was cut loose and sank in the waters off Cape Hatteras, making her another resident of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The Alligator has not been seen again to this day.

A drawing depicting the loss of the Alligator

A recent collaborative effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research has been focused on searching for the Alligator. Thus far she has not been found, but a significant discovery has been made. In 2004 Brutus de Villeroi’s drawings of the plans for the Alligator were found in the military archives in France along with a letter from de Villeroi proposing to sell his design to the French government, a proposal that was rejected. Although this attempt to duplicate the Alligator met with failure, the original Alligator can rightly lay claim to being the Civil War’s first submarine.

While the Hunley is by far the best known Civil War submarine, she was by no means “the world’s first submarine,” or the Civil War’s first submarine, or even the first submarine built by the Confederacy. Nor was the Hunley the first Civil War submarine to attack an enemy warship. That distinction goes to a submarine, whose name is not known, that attacked the USS Minnesota in Hampton Roads in early October 1861. A woman spy who witnessed a test run of the submarine passed intelligence to the Union military, and because of this intelligence the attack was thwarted with a net placed around the target, although the Confederate submarine escaped. There is, in fact, evidence for more than 20 Civil War submarines, some built by the North and some built by the South. These include the Pioneer, the Pioneer II, the Explorer, the Saint Patrick, the Captain Pierce, and the Intelligent Whale. But submarines were constructed before the Civil War, perhaps as early as the mid-1600s. There was even a submarine known as the Turtle that was built by the Americans during the Revolutionary War and used in an unsuccessful attack on a British warship in what is believed to be the first documented attack by a submarine on an enemy ship.

Why, then, do so many people, including Shelby Foote, believe the Hunley was “the world’s first submarine”? Perhaps the answer is similar to why so many people believe that Henry Ford was the inventor of the automobile. Karl Benz built the first automobile, and Henry Ford subsequently developed a way to mass produce automobiles. Perhaps Henry Ford’s development of a process to mass produce automobiles became transformed over time into Henry Ford being the inventor of the automobile. Similarly, the Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. Perhaps this became transformed over time into the Hunley being “the world’s first submarine,” and maybe this notion was strengthened by Lost Cause mythology. Like people in any country, Americans enjoy giving credit to one of their own countrymen as the inventor of something important, such as Henry Ford and the automobile. Perhaps in this spirit of nationalism, Americans were willing to accept the claim of the Hunley as “the world’s first submarine,” because this gives credit for another historic first to some Americans — some traitorous, treasonous, seditious Americans — but Americans nonetheless. But whatever the reason for conferring the status of “the world’s first submarine” on the Hunley, the moral of the story about the Alligator is that, like the story of the automobile, sometimes the specifics in a story about a historic first depend on where that story is being told.