NOAA and U.S. Navy Uncover Secrets of Lost Civil War Submarine USS Alligator

Joint Research Project Yields New Details About The U.S. Navy's First Submarine

(NOAA Magazine, Dec. 15, 2003 U.S. Commerce Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

     Dec. 15, 2003--NOAA and the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research have joined forces to uncover the secrets of a technological marvel of the Civil War era akin to the USS Monitor and the CSS Hunley--the USS Alligator. Launched in 1862, the Alligator was the U.S. Navy's first submarine. While the vessel represented a significant leap forward in naval engineering, complete information about its design and fate has been elusive. Today, NOAA and ONR released findings that help fill large gaps in the history of the all-but-forgotten Union submarine, including details about the Alligator's inventor, innovative features and loss in April 1863.


     "NOAA is excited to partner with the Office of Naval Research to bring the largely untold story of the Alligator to the public," said Richard W. Spinrad, assistant administrator for the NOAA Ocean Service. "Through the Alligator Project, we are learning not only about revolutionary developments in maritime technology but also the American Civil War experience and the pioneering spirit that built our great nation."


     "The story of the USS Alligator is an exciting one. It's a mystery," said chief of Naval Research RADM Jay Cohen. "The Alligator Project will test our ability to find an object in the sea in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable cost. If we can find the Alligator, we can find anything."


     Among the NOAA-ONR research team's recent discoveries are the only design drawings of the Alligator found to date. Drafted by French inventor Brutus de Villeroi, the drawings provide new details about the vessel's architecture and breakthrough technologies, including the first diver lockout chamber ever devised for a submarine as a weapons system. NOAA discovered Villeroi's original, hand-drawn designs in France in May 2003 after a search for Alligator-related documents led to the French navy's historical archives, the Service Historique de la Marine. Along with the design drawings, NOAA also found a number of original, hand-written letters exchanged by Villeroi and the French government. The letters document Villeroi's repeated but unsuccessful attempts to persuade the government of his native country to purchase his submarine design.


     An 1863 letter provides clues about the loss of the Alligator off the coast of North Carolina while it was being towed by the USS Sumpter from Washington, D.C., to Charleston, S.C. Sent by the Sumpter's acting master, J.D. Winchester, to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, the letter explains that a fierce storm on April 2, 1863, forced the crew of the Sumpter to cut the submarine loose off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The letter includes details about the climatic conditions, wind direction, ocean temperature, and longitude and latitude of the ship when the Alligator's towline was cut, providing clues about where the submarine may lie.


     In an attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the Alligator's fate, NOAA and ONR enlisted the assistance of U.S. Naval Academy students and faculty. Using the details provided in Winchester's letter, along with available information about the Alligator and an analysis of the oceanographic and meteorological conditions that may have existed at the time of the Alligator's loss, the USNA-NOAA-ONR research team developed a rough estimation of where the green, 47-foot-long submarine may have come to rest. The area identified by the team encompasses part of the infamous "Graveyard of the Atlantic" off Cape Hatteras.


     "What makes the Alligator so compelling is that it combines history, mystery and technology," said Daniel J. Basta, director of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program, which houses NOAA's new Maritime Heritage Program and manages the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. "Everyone has a role to play in the hunt for the Alligator. We encourage others to join us as we continue to uncover the secrets of the Alligator and push the limits of ocean exploration."


     NOAA and ONR initiated the Alligator Project in 2002 in an effort to shed new light on America's maritime heritage. In October 2003, at a special symposium, NOAA and ONR brought together experts in naval history, maritime archaeology, oceanography, engineering and ocean exploration to exchange information about the Alligator and discuss the possibility of locating and recovering this historic vessel.


     The information released today, including images of the Alligator design drawings, historical documents, and a map depicting the last reported position of the submarine, are available on the Alligator Project Web site. A project timeline and brief history of the Alligator, based on extensive research conducted by the Office of Naval Research with assistance from historian and artist Jim Christley EMCS(SS), USN (Ret.), and historian and author Mark K. Ragan, is also available on the Web site.


     The Office of Naval Research manages science and technology for the Navy and Marine Corps. ONR sponsors basic and applied research in oceanography, advanced materials, sensors, robotics, biomedical science and technology, electronics, surveillance, mathematics, manufacturing technology, information science, advanced combat systems and technologies for ships, submarines, aircraft and ground vehicles.


     NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.