Explorers to look for forgotten submarine

Civil War's Alligator may have been first working model

August 21, 2004|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Undersea explorers will plunge into the waters off Cape Hatteras and into the depths of long-forgotten history tomorrow in hopes of finding the 141-year-old wreckage of the U.S. Navy's first submarine.

Named the Alligator because of its green color and the leglike oars that initially propelled it, the vessel was launched in 1862. It failed in its missions against Confederate targets in Virginia's Hampton Roads area and sank off North Carolina's Outer Banks while under tow in a fierce storm in 1863.

"The Alligator was lost at sea and also lost to history," said exploration project manager Catherine Marzin. "We hope to revive its memory, for this is very important history."

The expedition, an enterprise of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Navy's Office of Naval Research, will spend 10 days working a shallow underwater area east of Ocracoke island where unidentified sunken objects have recently been discovered.

If this effort fails to find the vessel, searches could take the team to deep water on the brink of the Atlantic shelf.

For decades, historians had identified the USS Holland, an 1897 precursor to the submarines used in World War I, as the Navy's first submarine. But in recent years, Civil War historians have come across evidence of the Alligator, prompting the Navy to become extremely interested in locating the 47-foot vessel.

"I had never heard of the Alligator," said Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of naval research. "I had never read about or seen a reference to it - nothing."

It was only last year that Marzin found letters and scale drawings of the submarine in an obscure archive in France.

Discovery of the Alligator would undercut the claim of various Confederate historical groups that the Confederate Navy's CSS Hunley was the first working submarine. Built in 1863 in Mobile, Ala., the 25-foot Hunley sank the Union warship USS Housatonic the next year.

The Alligator was designed by French inventor Brutus de Villeroi, whose papers were in the French archive. It was developed for the Union Navy to counter the first Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia, also called the Merrimack. In the end, it was the Monitor that thwarted the Virginia.

Taking possession of the Alligator after its launch, the Union Navy sent the craft down to the lower Chesapeake Bay area, where it was ordered to destroy a key Confederate bridge over the Appomattox River and remove debris from the James River that was blocking the water route to Richmond, Va.

But the rivers proved too shallow for the Alligator to maneuver, and the submarine had to be withdrawn to the Washington Navy Yard, where the oars were replaced with a hand-crank-and-propeller propulsion system and other refinements were made.

The Alligator was assigned to take part in Union Navy operations against the port of Charleston. But taken under tow by the Union warship USS Sumpter in April 1863, it met its doom when the Sumpter encountered a ferocious storm off Hatteras.

The sub was a drag on the other vessel and threatened to sink them both.

"There were two towlines, and one broke," Marzin said. "The Sumpter had no choice but to cut the other line and set the submarine adrift."

No crew members were aboard the sub at the time.

NOAA and Navy experts have been using computer technology and weather models to try to determine the position of the vessels when the Alligator was cut loose and to figure out how far it might have traveled before sinking. The expedition team is using a research vessel along with side-seeing sonar and magnetometers.

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