U.S. to Look for First Navy Sub—Sunk in Civil War

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But the apparently temperamental de Villeroi—who had been designing submarines since 1832—failed to finish the boat on time. So another contractor realized de Villeroi's design at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

The submarine was a metal tube, 47 feet (14.3 meters) long and about 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter. It was powered by oars and could carry a crew of 20. The vessel had an ingenious airtight chamber intended to allow a diver to leave the submarine to attach an underwater mine to the hull of an enemy ship and return safely.

The submarine was painted green. Its color and protruding oars, which resembled legs, probably inspired the ship's name. "People who looked at the thing thought of an alligator," Christley said.

In 1863 Union officers decided to send the Alligator to Charleston to join the effort to take that city. On April 1 the steamer U.S.S. Sumpter towed the empty Alligator from Hampton Roads, Virginia, toward South Carolina. Eakins, the submarine's commander, was aboard the Sumpter, along with the Alligator's crew.

On April 2 the Sumpter ran into a ferocious storm off treacherous Cape Hatteras, where another warship—the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor—had been lost during a tempest only three months earlier.

Realizing they risked losing both ships and all hands, the officers aboard the Sumpter decided to cut the Alligator loose. After the storm subsided, there was no sign of the submarine.

Lost to History

The Alligator was mentioned in Navy records compiled soon after the Civil War, but somehow was lost to later historians.

De Villeroi, the self-proclaimed genius, died in obscurity in Philadelphia in 1874. His obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that his death had been hastened by the "proverbial ingratitude" of the United States government.

But mention of the Alligator didn't vanish entirely during the next century.

George Eakins moved to New London, North Carolina. In 1954 he proudly showed a copy of the orders placing his father in command of the Alligator to the Stanly News and Press, a local newspaper.

In 1973 the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, published a story about Katie Eakins, Samuel Eakins's daughter. The story included a photo of the submariner and a drawing of the Alligator from a French history book.

In 1978 Christley, the retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer and historian, discovered the Navy contract for the Alligator while researching a Civil War ironclad.

The quest for the Alligator gained critical momentum, however, when Jay Cohen, a U.S. Navy admiral, became interested in the search for the lost submarine after his wife, Nancy, saw a story about the Alligator in a magazine for Civil War buffs in November 2001. Admiral Cohen asked Navy researchers to start looking for more information about the submarine.

Researchers found many documents about the Alligator in the National Archives. But Catherine Marzin of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program discovered the ultimate prize last May.

While Marzin was visiting her family in France, archivists at the Service Historique de la Marine in Vincennes told her they'd found some old naval documents.

There, near the bottom of a large, dusty box, were blueprints for the Alligator. De Villeroi apparently had submitted them to French naval officials, hoping it would win him a contract for another submarine.

It was a stunning find. "I figured I could find something," Marzin said of her search. "I didn't think it would be the blueprints. It was quite exciting."

Marzin's discovery sparked more interest in the Alligator. NOAA and Navy officials decided to look for the technological marvel.

Difficult Search

The quest to find the Alligator started last summer, when NOAA and the Navy did a preliminary sonar survey of the area where the submarine may have gone down. Michiko Martin, a former Navy officer now with the National Marine Sanctuary Program, said this summer's search will be focused on an area about 55 miles (89 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras. But finding the submarine will be "a very complex problem," she said.

Some of the search area extends into water that is about 2,000 meters—or well over a mile—deep, Martin said. NOAA and the Navy would welcome help from other participants, such as a university or private industry, she said. And while the searchers hope to find the submarine, they'll also be gathering useful information about an uncharted section the ocean floor.

"If we don't find the Alligator this time out, we don't want the data to be for naught," Martin said. "We can apply it to other scientific endeavors."

Josephine Harbers of Albemarle, North Carolina, who is the granddaughter of Samuel Eakins, said she's glad the submarine has finally gotten historians' attention. She said that when her cousin in nearby Salisbury was a child, she told schoolteachers there that her grandfather had commanded a submarine in the Civil War.

"She was ridiculed," Harbers said. "The teachers said 'Oh, there weren't any submarines in the Civil War.'"

For more sunken-sea-vessel news, scroll down.

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