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U.S. Naval Submarine Operations during the American Civil War

J. L. Christley, EMCS(SS) USN (ret) 
Reposted with permission of the author from http://home.att.net/~jimchris/civilwarmono.html.

In the reading room of the National Archives and Records Service main building in Washington, DC, you can look at a book of contract copies of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. It is Item 42 in Record Group 71. The contract book of interest is dated 1861. In this large ledger are hand written copies of the contracts for ships, buildings, dock construction, boiler purchases and a myriad of things required to run a navy. Somewhere around page 320 of that book is the contract for the Monitor. On page 323 and 324 is the following contract.

This agreement, made and entered into this first day of November, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and sixty one, between Martin Thomas of one part and the United States by Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy on the other part, witnesseth:
First: The party of the first part will construct and deliver to the party of the second part within forty (40) days from the date of this agreement, an Iron Submarine Propeller of the plan of M. de Villeroi, at least fifty six inches (56") in width and sixty six (66") inches in height and forty five feet in length, for the sum of fourteen thousand dollars to be paid when completed and delivered, ready for use within ten days after delivery and certificate is in all respects ready for service.
Second: The government of the United States will employ M. de Villeroi to superintend the construction of said propeller, as well as in its employment for actual service when required, and agrees to pay him for his full services at the rate of two thousand dollars per annum whilst thus employed, his pay to commence with the date of this agreement: also to pay reasonable wages to the crew of said propeller, and to transport it from Philadelphia to the place or places where the Secretary of the Navy direct it to be used.
Third: In case the said de Villeroi shall perform valuable services with said propeller for the United
States by the destruction of an enemy's ship or vessel by direction of the Secretary of the Navy and to his satisfaction, then the government of the United States shall pay to the party of the first part a further sum of eighty six thousand dollars ($86,000) subject to and appropriated by Congress.
Fourth: The secret of said invention shall be divulged by the inventor, M. de Villeroi, under his solemn oath or affirmation in a written paper subscribed by him to be sealed and deposited with the Chief of Bureau of Yards and Docks, with the certificate thereon of Mr. W.L. Hirst that he has carefully examined the paper and firmly believes it to be of the secret of said invention, not to be opened until after the payment of said eighty six thousand dollars, or the death, disability or dereliction of duty of the inventor shall occur.
Fifth: The said invention shall not be used by or the secret divulged to any government, power or individual without the consent in writing of both parties to this agreement.
In the presence of S. Gough
/s/ Martin Thomas
/s/ Gideon Welles

Thus begins the strange story which is the genesis of the US Naval Submarine Force. The War Between the States had been long in coming and was well underway when in May, 1861, the Philadelphia police, acting on nervous reports of strange goings on at the waterfront arrested the French diver and inventor Brutus de Villeroi and some of his workmen. They also impounded a curious device. It was a tube of iron some thirty three feet long and about five feet in diameter. De Villeroi had tested the device in the Delaware River and was going to use for a mobile diver lockout chamber and salvage platform. Needless to say, the police, not being sure of the patriotic intent of the inventor, had no idea what this tube was but they knew it needed to put under Naval control. Captain Samuel F. DuPont, commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, was informed and appointed three officers to examine the device, interview the inventor and report their finding to him and the Navy Department.

The three officers chosen by DuPont, were nearly ideal in qualification to perform the inspection and review. The senior officer was Commander Henry K. Hoff of the shipyard staff and an expert in ship design. Commander Charles Steedman was the second officer and was an expert in naval warfare. An eminent naval engineer, Robert Danby was the third officer and carried the rank of Engineer. The three performed the assigned task and reported on the 7th of July.

They reported that de Villeroi's submarine was already operational and seemed to be a successful venture. It was screw propelled, resembled a whale in external form. The report stated there were four major principles demonstrated. They were, the ability to remain submerged for a length of time without exposing anything to the outside air, the ability to sink and be raised at will, the ability of a man to leave and return to the vessel while both remained submerged and lastly, the ability of a man to survive outside the submarine while submerged by breathing through an air tube connected to the inside of the boat. This report, called the Hoff Report filtered up through the Navy bureaus until it had help from above. De Villeroi had written the Secretary of the Navy and President Lincoln. The letter to Lincoln was forwarded to the Navy Department. Secretary Welles called for Commodore Joseph Smith, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and requested a report on this submarine. Smith reported that the Hoff report reflected favorable but the present submarine was too small to readily test the device as a weapon. He recommended a larger version be built on a "no payment for failure" basis. A contract was drawn up. Mr. Martin Thomas acting in behalf of M. de Villeroi (most likely because of citizenship concerns), agreed to build a larger submarine and deliver it to the Navy.

On the 7th of December, de Villeroi wrote to Commodore Smith that the vessel was " almost entirely finished". He intimated that there may be some problems and the build time may need to be extended because of some "delicate pieces of the interior" were not finished. He said the ship was entirely different than anything that the yard (Nefie and Levy;s shipyard which became the Cramp Shipyard) and that it was scarcely possible for the contractor to appreciate how long it took to build the boat. Thus the contractor (Thomas) had not scheduled things properly. The seeds of disagreement had been laid and would disrupt the building.

Enter Mr. William L. Hirst. A Philadelphia lawyer, Hirst acted as a go between in the dispute between de Villeroi and Thomas. Commodore Smith granted a fifteen day extension on 10 December 1861, the date the boat was to be finished. On the 20th, Smith received word that the "secrets" were in Hirst's possession and locked in his safe. Commodore Smith took a hard stand on finishing the ship, partly because he was working against a deadline of his own. Norfolk had fallen and word of the conversion of the USS Merrimac into the CSS Virginia had reached Washington. Smith told de Villeroi that any contract scheduling difficulties were "no fault of mine" His letter passed one from Hirst to the Bureau asking for another 14 days to finish the work. The inventor wrote at the same time and told Smith that the delays were entirely the fault of the contractor (Thomas) in that money was not forthcoming to allow work at night and on weekends. De Villeroi further stated that more crew had to be hired soon so they could be trained. At the end of the end of the letter, de Villeroi informed Commodore Smith that the two of them must correspond directly and not through the contractor to resolve these problems.

Commodore Smith was furious. He wrote de Villeroi a letter on 3 January 1862 that spelled out the facts of bureaucratic life. He said he would be happy to correspond but "as for the contract, the Department knows no one but the contractor". He also informed the inventor that because of the delays and evident problems, the ship would not be considered received until it had been well and fully tested and was considered by the Navy to be in all respects.

The second extension passed and the boat was still not finished. It appears that there were some things the inventor wanted for the boat that Thomas had not provided and these were needed to produce the "secrets" alluded to in the contract. From the existing records, it appears that the secrets were a form of air purification system and a type of battery. The air purification system would be of great use in allowing the submarine to stay submerged. The usefulness of the battery is somewhat a mystery. One conjecture is that is would be used to detonate mines or charges laid by the divers.

De Villeroi wrote to Smith on the 18th of January saying rather magnanimously that his payment "is in the glory and successful completion of the work". He went on to say that "after taking on the ballast of lead and some pieces of platina which have not been furnished me" the work would be finished. He felt that because the completion date and the extensions had passed, that the contractor could be done away with and de Villeroi and Smith could deal directly with each other. He said "Now that you have done away with the contractor...business ought to be between the government and the inventor." He then (in the last part of the letter) gave brief update of the status of the project.

Smith replied on the 22nd of January and burst the inventor's bubble. He stated that no further money would be forthcoming until the boat was finished and tested. He continued on to state that the government still knew no one but the contractor with respect to the boat. One week later he wrote Thomas and laid it on the line. If the boat was not finished and ready to be shipped aboard the USS Rhode Island in three or four days, the time for using the submarine would have passed. He stated "the Merrimac is out of dock and ready for trial at Norfolk".

The submarine was reported ready for launch on the 29th of January but according to Thomas, some of the oars that were to be used for propulsion had to be reworked thus the launch was delayed. A parallel letter from de Villeroi stated the delay was due to ice on the river. In the meantime, the boat would be painted, dark green outside and white inside.

February arrived and the boat was still not complete. Commodore Smith was getting discouraged with the progress of the project and was becoming more and more concerned with the threat posed by the CSS Virginia. A letter to de Villeroi on the first showed Smith had little faith in the usefulness of the boat, but he did feel it warranted a trial. Smith made a tactical error in the letter. De Villeroi had been asking Thomas for things to finish the boat. He needed the plates of platina (which were silver covered platinum), explosives and other items. In his letter of the first of February, Smith told de Villeroi that the contractor (Thomas) was to furnish everything de Villeroi needed to finish the submarine. De Villeroi immediately wrote back that there was a list of things which were required but had not been supplied and were holding up completion of the boat. These included explosives, two hydraulic jacks, platina, a telescope which could give distances (an invention of de Villeroi's which had not been patented or proven to work) and a chest of tools. In that letter, he complained of an entire litany of thing that Thomas had done or not done. These included having what de Villeroi termed "unethical" discussions about his inventions with scientists, not spending enough money to complete the work in a timely manner. The cost of the project, he said, was very much less than the $14,000 allowed for by the contract. He felt that the boat should be taken by the Navy for completion to keep it safe from harm as he intimated there had been threats against the boat.

Before this letter had reached the Bureau, Smith informed Thomas that the terms of the contract had not been met and the boat would not be received by the Department until "such time as further opportunities avail themselves" at which time the contract would have to be re negotiated. De Villeroi, upon hearing of this development, rushed a letter to Smith saying that he (de Villeroi) was still employed by the government and entitled to pay until such a time as the Navy Department suspended his nomination as engineer of the work.

Smith shot back that the relationship between Thomas, de Villeroi and the Navy Department was "unique" . Smith wrote that "the time has elapsed for the completion of the boat and the contract is forfeited. You now decline, as I learn, to give certificate of the completion of the boat because the contractor demurs to furnishing a quantity of costly material which the chemists say is unnecessary." The he lowered the boom. "Therefore work and superintending is stopped and will remain so until you and Mr. Thomas come to terms....If the contractor will deliver the boat in 10 days complete and with your certificate and you and your crew will be there, the government will test the efficiency and if she proves satisfactory, payment will be made." ... "Until there is compliance with these terms, the Department will...consider the bargain as closed.

Hirst initiated a flurry of correspondence between Thomas and de Villeroi. They came to terms on everything but the platina for the battery. The problem was not whether they were necessary, but what size they were to be. Then, to complicate matters, de Villeroi went into seclusion. Thomas tried to placate de Villeroi by sending him money to get the plates that Thomas could not find. De Villeroi wrote a letter to Smith saying that he considered the money insulting and an "insidious proposition". He then wrote Lincoln still trying to cling to a fast vanishing hope that he could receive the honors for the boat. He said "(I) haven't received a commission as yet as commander of the Propeller - I would be happy to receive it from you" He received no recorded reply.

Thomas reported to Smith that attempts to resolve the problems had been unsuccessful. Smith replied that he regretted the matter had become so complicated by the terms of the contract had not been met thus the contract was forfeit. Hirst asked if there weren't some way to salvage the project. Smith sent Captain Davis of his staff to discuss the problems with the parties and attempt to resolve the impasse. De Villeroi would not meet with Davis.

Finally on the 18th of April, Commodore Joseph Smith received word that the first submarine the United States Navy would ever own was ready. There was still the problem of de Villeroi. Smith directed that de Villeroi resume his duties per the contract and if he declined to do so the sealed secrets would be used as de Villeroi would be found derelict in his duty.

On the first of May 1862, the Submarine Propeller was launched by a crane which lowered the boat into the water of the Delaware River. Mr. Levy stood on the deck as if to show his confidence. Later that day, she was towed to the Navy Yard. The submarine had actually been the property of the Navy since the 28th of April when the Navy Department made payment to the shipbuilder. De Villeroi evidently read of the acquisition of the boat and went ballistic. He wrote a scathing letter to Secretary Welles and after having received no reply, he sent another to Smith blasting the honor of everyone who had anything to do with the project. Smith replied, explaining the facts but to no avail.

Mr. Samuel Eakin was appointed so superintend the boat and finish the details. Finally the big day came, Hirst got word from Commodore Smith to formally turn the boat over to the Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a task he completed on the 13th of June 1862. (Exactly 100 years to the day before the author's first full day in the Navy). Eakin would be master of the vessel and the crew would be paid by the Navy.

So what did this submarine look like. We don't know for sure. The available evidence consists of two drawings of de Villeroi submarines in a French submarine history book, written descriptions, the specifications, and little else. Without going into the details of the assumptions and suppositions, the evidence shows the following description to be fairly close.

Length: 47' (Hull); Beam: 4'-6" (Hull); Extreme Beam: 8'-2" (over oar guards);
Keel to top of hull: 6'-0"; Keel to top of air tube: 8'-2";
Color: Dark green with white interior; Displacement 275 tons surface/ 350 tons submerged.
Propulsion: As built; 16 oars, (8 on each side). After November 1862; screw propeller.
Crew: One officer, one helmsman, one or two divers, and 8 oarsmen.
Weapons: Planned. 4 pounder cannon, auger and limpet mine, cable cutters,
Installed: Divers and explosives, torpedos (mines)

It was riveted iron plates, rounded top and bottom and tapered at the ends. The access to the interior was via a hatch set forward on the upper side of the hull. Another hatch on the lower side of the tapered bow structure for diver access. There was a small diver lockout chamber in the bow. A cast dome shaped conning tower was set at the forward end of the parallel mid body and just forward of the access hatch. This conning tower had four glass windows, one on each side, one forward and one aft. There were 8 oarsmen in the crew, one helmsman and an officer for a total of 12. It is assumed that one or more of the divers took their place at the oars.

As a side note, on the page following the contract for the Submarine Propeller in the Bureau of Yards and Docks contract book, was the following document:

This agreement, in two parts entered into this first day of November A.D. 1861 between Henry Lambert, John Lambert, Rode Alexander, and John France of the first part, and Joseph Smith, Chief of the bureau of Yards and Docks, acting under the Navy Department, of the second part, witnesseth:-The party of the first part agree to serve the United States as operatives in the submarine propeller under contract with Martin Thomas for and during such a time as they shall be employed, by the United States, at the rate of twenty four dollars per month each, for their full services and sixteen dollars per month for their full subsistence and necessary clothing for the work; and they further agree to sign the oath of allegiance to the United States as prescribed and submit to the laws of the United States enacted for the government of the Navy of the United States.

And the party of the second part agrees to pay them the wages monthly, with ten dollars bounty each on signing this agreement, as bounty for engaging in perilous services of this propeller, under orders of the officers of the government placed over them.

Signed Sealed and Delivered
in the presence of
Geo. Patchel Henri Lambert
Martin Thomas John Lambert
Alexander Rhodes
John Franc

By the time the submarine was ready, the CSS Virginia was gone, scuttled by her crew and the next big task was helping the Union Army now stuck on a line from Harrison Landing northward around the east side of Richmond. There were obstructions in the James River near Drewry's Bluff which, if cleared would supposedly allow ironclad ships like USS Galena and USS Monitor to pass upriver and flank the Confederate line and bombard Richmond. The submarine was towed to Hampton Roads under tow of the tug Fred Copp. Commodore Smith had ordered the boat to the command of Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

By the time the ship had arrived at Hampton Roads it had acquired the name Alligator, most likely because of the long green shape and the movements of its oars. Goldsborough ordered the ship to moor alongside the ship Satellite which he ordered to provide berthing and messing of the subs crew and whatever else the ship and its crew needed. He therefore created a new concept, the forward area based submarine tender. Goldsborough turned over tactical command of the sub to Lt. (Commanding) John Rogers of the USS Galena. He inspected the sub on the 25th of June at City Point, Virginia. After a tour and discussion with Eakin he rejected using the boat for the task of breaching the obstructions and rejected the alternative task of blowing up the railroad bridge at Petersburg. His logic, even today, is irrefutable. The submarine required at least 6 feet of water to operate submerged and another 18" minimum to lock out a diver. Both the James and the Appomattox were less than 7' at the points of operation. The ship would have to operate semi submerged and would be vulnerable to cannon fire. He insisted the boat be sent back to Hampton Roads to prevent capture and use by the Confederates. There were no targets for the ship in the hands of the Union Navy, but in Confederate hands, havoc could have ensued. On the 29th the boat was on its way back to the Roads and then to Washington for further testing. It had spent a full eight days in the "combat zone" and had not been used.

Alongside a pier at the Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC the boat waited until late July for the arrival of Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge. Welles offered him command of the Alligator and directed that he commence a training and testing program with the submarine. He took the boat out several times over the next week and issued a report on the 8th of August 1862. He was not optimistic as he had trouble controlling it while running submerged and could not get respectable speed surfaced or submerged. The report was forwarded to the department and on the bottom had a note, possibly in the handwriting of Commodore Smith, "the enterprise is a failure."

During the winter of 1862, the boat, which had won some converts, underwent a propulsion change. Its oars were removed and a screw propeller added. In a test witnessed by President Lincoln on the 18th of March, 1863, the boat made four knots. A letter to Commodore Smith stated the boat operated admirably. Now, in the spring of 1863, there was another task. The commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was not Samuel F. DuPont, the same officer that had headed the initial investigation of de Villeroi's invention eighteen months before. He was now in Port Royal near Charleston and had a big problem. DuPont had the hard nut of Charleston harbor to crack and unlike Farrigut he couldn't just force passage by running past the forts into the inner harbor. Even there, his ships would have been sitting ducks. In addition, the CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State, two ironclads threatened to lift the blockade by escorting cargo ships past the Union Naval forces off the harbor entrance. The Alligator would be ideal for attacking these two ships at their anchorage. He requested the services of the submarine and was rewarded by orders that the submarine would be towed to Port Royal for his use.

Sumpter picks up the tow.  Watercolor by Jim Christley

On 31 March 1863, the ship was underway in the tow of the USS Sumpter under the command of Acting Master J.F. Winchester. The weather in the Atlantic was stormy and on 2 April the port tow line parted.

The efforts of the crew of the Sumpter to gain control of the tow were not successful. The little sub began to yaw wildly and the Sumpter could not control it. The Sumpter could not maintain enough way on to prevent being broached and possibly sunk. Winchester with the agreement of Acting Master Eakin (who had command of the Alligator again) elected to cut the little submarine loose. If the submarine lasted afloat until the seas abated they would take it in tow again. No crew were aboard so there was no danger to life, only to the boat. So as the stormy skies darkened with the oncoming night, the little submarine was cast loose to fend for itself some 50 miles south of Cape Hatteras. It was never seen again.

At six Alligator was cut loose.  Watercolor by Jim Christley

The H.L.Hunley, a Confederate Submarine, was launched at the Theater Street Dock in Mobile, Alabama in mid-July 1863. The Hunley was just a bit over half as long as the Alligator but in other respects was nearly the same. Forty eight inches in the beam and six feet high, the boat was propelled by eight men on a crank shaft attached to a screw propeller. There are two possibilities for the similarity. First is, like many engineering projects, two different people might well arrive at the same general design features without any contact between them. The other is that the details of the Union Submarine Propeller were used to guide development of the Confederate submarine. It is my view that the development of the Hunley and Alligator were parallel developments with only the possibility that the design of one contributed to the design of the other. No documentary evidence has come to light as yet that either of the inventors/builders even knew of the other design's details. The H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink a warship in combat. The Alligator was the first American submarine to be owned and operated by the US Navy and was first to be assigned to a combat area. It is a unique testament to the American spirit and talent for technological innovation that the first two submarines used in wartime should look and operate so much alike.


Artist rendition of Alligator as she may look today.

Pen and ink by Jim Christley

Jim Christley has a variety of information about other U.S. submarines on his Old Subs site at http://home.att.net/~jimchris/.

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