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Submarines: History - The U.S. Navy's First Submarines

Illustration of De Villeroi's 1861 submarine, on which the design of the Alligator was based. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center)

!Check out a brief video history of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force from Navy/Marine Corps News (1999)! [MPEG (18.6 MB) | Text Only]

In 1861, French inventor Brutus De Villeroi convinced the Union Navy that he could build a submersible warship. On May 1, 1862 the 47-foot-long, oar-propelled Alligator became the first submersible warship of the U.S. Navy. Her first mission was to destroy a bridge and clear obstructions on Virginia's Appomatox and James Rivers, respectively. Unfortunately, neither river was deep enough to allow the Alligator to submerge and she was returned to the Washington Navy Yard. Her next challenge soon came: destroy the new Confederate ironclad, the Virginia II. However, test runs in the Potomac River proved the Alligator was underpowered, unwieldy, and unsafe. The plan was abandoned.

Intelligent Whale
Intelligent Whale (U.S. Navy photo)

In 1863, after the Alligator's oar system was replaced with a screw propellor, the submarine was sent to help capture Charleston, South Carolina. 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 Alligator.

The 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. She was sea tested in 1872, but because of repeated failures, the Navy refused to commission the vessel.

USS Holland
USS Holland (SS-1), the U.S. Navy's first
commissioned submarine (U.S. Navy photo)

An American inventor, John P. Holland, built his first steam-powered submarine in 1875. The US Navy purchased his sixth submarine on April 11, 1900, for $160,000. The 53.3-foot-long, 63-ton submarine could travel to a depth of 75 feet. It was commissioned October 12, 1900, as the USS Holland (SS-1). On the surface, the Holland was propelled by a 45-horsepower engine and could go six knots. Below the surface, the submarine relied on electric storage batteries. Holland's submarine, which held six crew, carried three torpedoes and a topside gun.

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