- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

On April 2, 1863, while under tow to South Carolina for use in the Civil War attack on Charleston, the U.S. Navy’s first submarine sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Now, armed with a long-lost set of drawings of the boat and computer models of the storm, two government agencies are organizing a search for the lost submarine, the USS Alligator.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Navy’s Office of Naval Research hope to enlist aid from universities and other research organizations.

By analyzing records of the storm that forced the captain of the towing ship, the USS Sumpter, to order the tow lines cut, researchers hope to identify a section of ocean where the Civil War submarine may be.

The drawings should help the searchers decide how the Alligator would have sunk — whether it nosed deep into the ocean floor or settled softly — said Michiko Martin, NOAA’s project manager for the planned search.

But finding the lost vessel will not be easy, she added. The boat may be in waters anywhere from 200 to 6,000 feet deep. Part of the area where researchers have preliminarily decided the Alligator may lie is in the infamous “graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Contributing to uncertainty is the fact that the Sumpter had sailed in six hours of stormy weather between its last navigational fix and the decision to cut the Alligator’s tow lines.

A preliminary sweep in the general vicinity by a research vessel armed with multiple-beam sonar failed to locate the lost submarine.

However, Miss Martin said she is developing a “surveys of opportunity” strategy in which nongovernmental research vessels passing through the area will be asked to “turn on their instruments and send us the data to be analyzed.”

It is hoped that little by little, this strategy will whittle down the area where the sunken vessel may lie.

“We hope to generate interest and support within many research institutions,” she said.

If it can be found, its resting place could become a national marine sanctuary, said Miss Martin.

The Alligator was designed by the French inventor Brutus de Villeroi, whose drawings a NOAA researcher recently located in French naval archives, and was built in Philadelphia.

It was designed to carry divers, who were to attach explosives to the sides of enemy ships, said submarine historian James Christley of Lisbon, Conn.

Mr. Christley said the boat was originally moved through the water by 18 rowers. It was then retrofitted with a crank-driven screw propeller. Mr. Christley said that the number of men who cranked the central shaft is not clear, but “there is evidence that it attained a good speed of 5 knots with twelve men on the crank.”

Shortly after being demonstrated to President Lincoln, the Alligator was towed on March 31, 1862, toward Port Royal, S.C., and the upcoming battle over Charleston.

Miss Martin said its targets were to include the CSS Virginia II, the ironclad the Confederates had built to replace the CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack.


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