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Hunt for Civil War-Era Sub Continues

As the ship drags a magnetometer over the search area, the scientists keep an eye on computer screens to see what it finds.
Nell Boyce, NPR
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As the ship drags a magnetometer over the search area, the scientists keep an eye on computer screens to see what it finds.

During the Civil War, when soldiers were shooting primitive muskets, the United States Navy was building its very first submarine: The USS Alligator.

The 50-foot iron tube looked like something right out of Jules Verne. It was so small that crew members had to crouch inside; the propeller was turned by hand.

The Alligator was meant to be Abraham Lincoln's secret weapon against the Confederacy's dangerous new ironclads: It would sneak under enemy ships so that a diver could plant explosives. But the Alligator never saw combat. She was lost in bad weather in 1863, while being towed south to attack the port at Charleston, S.C.

An Office of Naval Research ship is exploring waters off the coast of Oakracoke, N.C., an area flagged by experts who used historical documents and computer models to recreate the Alligator's path.

Michael Overfield of NOAA, who is coordinating the search, is aware of the odds against finding the small sub, particularly with new complications from Tropical Storm Ophelia. But, he says, "I don't give up easy."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.