Of Civil War, Pioneers and Alligators- Submarine history during the American Civil War (1861- 1865)

While Federal development efforts were burdened with conventional naval bureaucratic processes of contracting and evaluation, the Confederate efforts were able to benefit from a quick application of private initiative, which was in turn met with swift support from a government unburdened with the traditional bureaucracy of the type extant in the North.


Confederate torpedo boats emerged as the South attempted to find ways to use torpedoes [mines] as offensive weapons. Capt. Francis D. Lee, a Confederate Army engineer, concluded that the best way to use the torpedo offensively would be to mount it on a spar forward of the bow of a boat and deliver it by ramming, a torpedo ram or torpedo boat. Initially the torpedo boat were rowboats, but these were soon followed by models powered by steam, either with an open deck (CSS Squib class) or partially covered with wood or iron (CSS Torch class). These were designed to ride low in the water, to make them hard to detect. The more sophisticated Davids were semi-submersible, with a cylindrical hull that was ballasted by iron or by water (via pumps), enabling them to ride low in the water. Most were about five feet in diameter and about 48 feet long with a 14-foot-long spar for the torpedo, but one captured at the end of the war was 160 feet long and 11.5 feet in diameter. Generally powered by steam, a few Davids were powered by oars or a screw turned by the crew. Confederate successes with torpedo boats were few.

Efforts to develop fully submersible boats began on both sides as early as 1861. Whereas the US Navy`s submersible development efforts were laboriously slow and generally less successful than those of their Southern counterparts, within the Confederate States there rapidly emerged a somewhat more widespread and independent interest in submersible construction which localized in a number of coastal and riverside cities.

At least four Confederate boats, American Diver, H.L. Hunley, St. Patrick, and the unnamed vessel or vessels constructed at the Tredegar Iron Works, were either built at government facilities or with the assistance of military personnel. Submersible construction efforts in the Southern Confederacy were basically centered in four areas: at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, at the Leeds Foundry in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the Park & Lyons Machine Shops in Mobile, Alabama, and at the Confederate naval facilities at Selma, Alabama. The most successful of these initiatives would ultimately prove to be the effort begun in New Orleans by McClintock, Watson, and their core coalition of financial backers.


One of the approximately 50 Confederate privateers ultimately authorized by the government was James McClintock and Baxter Watson`s New Orleans-built Pioneer, which, while unable to fulfill its intended mission, in hindsight can be seen to have essentially comprised an experimental prototype for the H.L. Hunley. The Pioneer also owned the distinction of being the only submersible provided with a letter of marque and reprisal by the Confederate States.

In 1863 McClintock built a second boat, American Diver, also of iron 1/4 inch thick, and in order to obtain more room as well as to correct the faults of the first boat, she was built with square sides. Dimensions was 36 feet long, 4 feet high, and 3 feet across top & bottom, with ends tapered like a wedge for a model, with a 30 inch propeller in the end. McClintock spent much time and money in efforts to work an Electro Magnetic Engine, but without success. McClintock afterwards fitted her up with cranks, to be turned by four men. But her speed was not sufficient to make her of service against blockaders

To obtain room for the machinery and persons, she was built 36 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 4 feet high, 12 feet at each end was built tapering or modeled to make her easy to pass through the water. There was much time and money lost in efforts to build an electromagnetic engine for propelling the boat...I afterwards fitted cranks to turn the propeller by hand, working four men at a time, but the air being so closed, and the work so hard, that McClintock was unable to get a speed sufficient to make the boat of service against vessels, blockading the port.

CSS H.L. Hunley

During the American Civil War, Confederate inventor Horace L. Hunley converted a steam boiler into a submarine. This Confederate submarine could be propelled at four knots by a hand-driven screw. Unfortunately, the submarine sank twice during trials in Charleston, South Carolina. These accidental sinkings in Charleston harbor cost the lives of two crews. In the second accident the submarine was stranded on the bottom and Hunley himself was asphyxiated with eight other crewmembers. Subsequently, the submarine was raised and renamed Hunley.

In 1864, armed with a 90-pound charge of powder on a long pole, Hunley attacked and sank a new Federal steam sloop, USS Housatonic, at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. After her successful attack on Housatonic, Hunley disappeared and her fate remained unknown for 131 years. In 1995 the wreck of the Hunley was located four miles off Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Plans are being made to raise Hunley for preservation and exhibition in Charleston. Even though she sank, Hunley proved that the submarine could be a valuable weapon in time of war.


In 1861, French inventor Brutus De Villeroi convinced the Union Navy that he could build a submersible warship. In early 1861 Philadelphia Harbor police captured a partially-submerged, 33-foot long, cigar-shaped contraption moving slowly down the Delaware River. This “infernal machine,” as the paper described it, was the creation of French inventor, Brutus De Villeroi. With this deliberate publicity stunt, De Villeroi succeeded in convincing the Union Navy that he could produce a submersible warship from which a diver could place an explosive charge under an enemy ship.

Six months later, in November 1861, he was under contract to build the Union’s first submarine. Built in Philadelphia, the 47-foot long Alligator was primarily intended to counter the threat of the Confederate ironclad, the Virginia. Although the Navy specified that the submarine’s construction take no more than 40 days at a cost of $14,000, the project suffered long delays. As project supervisor, De Villeroi delayed completion by making changes during the process of advancing the initial design to an operational naval vessel. As a result of serious liaison problems with the Navy, the contractor and himself, he effectively exited from the process and was later officially dismissed.

On May 1, 1862 the 47-foot-long, oar-propelled Alligator became the first submersible warship of the US Navy. About a month after its launch the oar-propelled submarine was towed to Hampton Roads, Virginia. Her first missions: to destroy a strategically important bridge across the Appomattox River and to clear away obstructions in the James River. Unfortunately, both rivers were deep enough to allow the Alligator to submerge and she was returned to the Washington Navy Yard.
In August 1862, Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge accepted command of the submarine, after being promised promotion to captain if he and the Alligator’s new crew destroyed the new Confederate ironclad, the Virginia II. During test runs in the Potomac, the Alligator proved to be underpowered and unwieldy. During one particular trial, the sub’s air quickly grew foul, the crew panicked, and all tried to get out of the same hatch at the same time, as a result Selfridge was compelled to call the whole enterprise “a failure.” He and his crew were reassigned and the vessel was sent to dry dock for extensive conversion. The dream of using this “secret weapon” against
the Virginia II was scrapped.

Over the next six months, the Alligator’s system of oars was replaced by a screw propeller. In early spring 1863, President Lincoln observed a demonstration of the “improved” vessel. Shortly thereafter, RADM Samuel Dupont ordered the Alligator, once again commanded by Eakins, to participate in the capture of Charleston, South Carolina.
Towed by the USS Sumpter, the unmanned Alligator left Washington for Port Royal on 31 March 1863. While being towed south for the battle, the Alligator had to be cut loose during a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Her current whereabouts are unknown, but an effort (launched in 2003) by the Office of Naval Research and NOAA could one day reveal the Secrets of the Aligator.

Alligator was an engineering marvel that helped usher in a new era in undersea travel. Fabricated from riveted iron plates, a diver was intended to lock out of the submarine and attach explosives to enemy targets. It contained two crude air purifiers, a chemical based system for producing oxygen and a bellows to force air through lime. But until recently, little was known about the green, 47-foot-long Union vessel.

Intelligent Whale

The US Navy`s interest in using submarines continued during the Civil War, but it wasn`t until the war ended that the Navy purchased the Intelligent Whale from the American Submarine Company. The 22-foot-long, hand-cranked submarine was bought from its inventor Oliver Halstead.

Intelligent Whale, an experimental hand-cranked submarine, was built on the design of Scovel S. Meriam in 1863 by Augustus Price and Cornelius S. Bushnell. In 1864 the American Submarine Co. was formed, taking over the interests of Bushnell and Price and there followed years of litigation over the ownership of the craft. When title was established by a court the submarine was sold October 29, 1869 to the Navy Department, with most of the price to be paid after successful trials.

Intelligent Whale
submerged by filling water compartments, and expelled the water by pumps and compressed air. It was estimated that it could stay submerged for about 10 hours. Thirteen crewmen could be accommodated, but only 6 were needed to make her operational. The only known trial, reported by submarine pioneer John Holland, was made by a certain General Sweeney and two others. They submerged the boat in 16 feet of water and Sweeney, clad in a diver`s suit, emerged through a hole in the bottom, placed a charge under a scow, and reentered the submarine. The charge was exploded by a lanyard and a friction primer attached to the charge sinking the scow.

In September 1872 the first trial was held and was unsuccessful, whereupon the Department refused further payments and abandoned the project. Because of repeated failures, the Navy refused to commission the vessel. The Intelligent Whale is credited with inspiring John Holland to develop his more successful submarine. Intelligent Whale, an early experiment in a field now of central Importance, is on exhibit at the Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.

Back to History Index

Image Country Year Description
Liberia 2001 Merrimack 1862.The battle of Ironclads
Grenada 2002 Naval history of the American Civil War (2ed series) (sheetlet of 6 stamps+ss)
Grenada 2002 Naval history of the American Civil War (1st series) (sheetlet of 6 stamps+ss)
Antigua & Barbuda 2002 1861-1865 The American Civil War
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