The USS Alligator is the first known U.S. Navy submarine and the fourth ship in the United States Navy to bear that name. It is also a historically significant landmark. It was a key player in the evolution of naval warfare and took part actively in the American Civil War. Notably, the Continental Army used the Turtle, the nation’s first underwater vehicle, during the Revolutionary War in 1776, which is where the origins of American underwater combat may be found. The Turtle was used in New York Harbour against British boats.
Technology continued to influence naval tactics during the Civil War, and the USS Alligator became a symbol of this development. The H. L. Hunley was developed as a result of the Confederate States Navy’s parallel submarine development efforts. The use of submarines in the context of the larger conflict was investigated by both Union and Confederate troops during this century, which saw an intriguing development in maritime tactics. In light of this, the USS Alligator and the H. L. Hunley serve as historical representations of inventiveness and flexibility during an important point in naval history.
Commissioned in 1862, the USS Alligator was a spectacular Civil War submarine measuring 47 feet (14 metres) in length and 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 metres) in width, not including the oars. At 1.68 metres (5 feet 6 inches) in height, the hull was visible. First driven by eighteen hand-powered oars, the ship was converted to a hand-cranked propeller in 1863.
Performance-wise, the USS Alligator reached a top speed of 2 knots (3.7 km/h) in 1862 and a peak speed of 4 knots (7.4 km/h) in 1863 following a propulsion system overhaul. The submarine was small, but it tested down to 6.8 feet (2.1 metres).
The USS Alligator carried a crew of twelve, consisting of one officer, one helmsman, one or two divers, and eight oarsmen. The varied duties performed by the crew demonstrated the multipurpose design of this innovative ship.
During the Civil War, the USS Alligator was armed with two limpet mines, highlighting its ability to operate as an offensive and stealthy submarine. During a critical juncture in maritime warfare, this small but powerful submarine demonstrated advances in undersea technology and played a unique role in naval history.
Following launch, the Philadelphia Navy Yard handled the USS Alligator’s outfitting and staffing. On June 13th, the Navy formally acknowledged the submarine and assigned civilian Mr. Samuel Eakins as its commander. After two weeks, the submarine was towed to Hampton Roads, Virginia, by the steam tug Fred Kopp. Before arriving at Hampton Roads on June 23, the ships sailed on June 19 and passed through the Delaware River, the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, and the Chesapeake Bay.
When the Alligator arrived at Norfolk, she was stopped next to the sidewheel steamer USS Satellite, which was to be her tender while she was serving with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The official name “Alligator” was first applied to the submarine, partly because of its green hue. Several missions were contemplated for the ship, such as demolishing a bridge over Swift Creek, removing impediments in the James River at Fort Darling, and the possible danger associated with the completion and deployment of the CSS Virginia II.
On the 25th, the submarine arrived at City Point after being sent up the James River. Commander John Rodgers, the senior naval officer in charge of the area, determined that the Appomattox and James Rivers’ water depths were too shallow for the submarine to fully submerge. Commander Rodgers asked for permission to return the Alligator to Hampton Roads as he was worried about the Union gunboats’ susceptibility to submarine attacks. The ship was therefore ordered to travel to the Washington Navy Yard for additional testing and experimenting on the 29th, after which it went downriver.
The Alligator was manned by a naval crew when Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. took over as commander in August. Unfortunately, the results of the testing were insufficient, which led Lt. Selfridge to declare the project a failure. The Navy Yard then installed a hand-cranked screw propeller in lieu of Alligator’s oars on July 3, 1862, increasing the ship’s speed to approximately 4 knots. The submarine was in action on March 18, 1863, when President Lincoln observed it.
Intrigued by the submarine’s potential, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont made the decision to send the Alligator in support of efforts to take Charleston, South Carolina. The Sumpter’s acting master, John F. Winchester, was assigned the duty of dragging the submarine to Port Royal, South Carolina. On March 31, they set out, but the next day they ran into bad weather. Sumpter was compelled to cut the alligator adrift on April 2 off Cape Hatteras.
The USS Alligator’s duty came to an end, and the United States Navy’s first submarine’s career ended when it either sank right away or drifted for some time before sinking. The wreckage was not found in 2005 despite repeated attempts.