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)
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 (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
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 (SS-1), the U.S. Navy's first
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.