for National Geographic News
When Brutus de Villeroi filled out his 1860 United States Census form, he probably raised the eyebrows of some enumerators when he listed his occupation as "natural genius."
It was an audacious statement, but in de Villeroi's case it wasn't idle boasting. The Frenchman was a visionary engineer, and the proof of his exceptional talent rests on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off the coast of North Carolina.
Next month the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Navy will search for his masterpiece of designthe little-known U.S.S. Alligator. The vessel was the Navy's first submarine, built during the U.S. Civil War and lost during a storm at sea.
The search will take place only a few months after the crew of another Civil War submarinethe Confederate H.L. Hunleywas laid to rest with much fanfare in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Hunley mysteriously sank in February 1864, the same night it brought down the U.S.S. Housatonic in Charleston Harbor.
The Alligator was the technological equal of the Hunley. But when the Alligator slipped beneath the waves during a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, it plunged into obscurity for 139 years.
When the Navy celebrated the centennial of its submarine service in 2000, it focused on the U.S.S. Hollandlaunched in 1900as its first underwater warship. Records documenting the Alligator's brief career lay forgotten in files that weren't touched for decades.
"It doesn't have the same claim to fame that the Hunley hasbeing the first submarine to sink a ship in combat," said artist and historian Jim Christley, a retired Navy chief petty officer now living in Lisbon, Connecticut. "The fame the Alligator has is esoteric. It's something you have to look for."
Researchers have turned up tantalizing references to the Alligator since at least 1932, when George Eakins, son of Alligator commander Samuel Eakins, asked the U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library for information about his father's unusual ship.
In a July 13, 1932, letter to Eakins, Capt. D.W. Knox, the officer in charge of the library, said Navy officials gave de Villeroi a contract for U.S. $14,000 to build the submarine in 1861.
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