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Biography: William Anthony Alexander born Dec. 21, 1837

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Mobile, Alabama

William Anthony Alexander was a business man and inventor. He was born December 21, 1837, in London, England and died May 13, 1914, at Mobile, the son of William Alexander and Sarah (Graham) Alexander. William Anthony Alexander came to America in 1855 and located at Mobile.

He was a machinist by occupation. At the outbreak of the War of Secession, he enlisted in the twenty-first Alabama artillery, C. S. Army, and was assigned to Fort Morgan. He invented and built the first submarine torpedo boat used in the war and also the first used with destructive effect upon the enemy.

A historical reference to the boat says, “‘The Hunley’ (Alexander’s boat) was a cigar-shaped iron vessel of some twenty-five or thirty feet in length armed with a long wooden pole at the bow, to which pole was attached a percussion torpedo.

The boat was operated by a shaft with screw at the stern, the shaft crank being turned by hand, four men working in a shift. It could not remain under water any length of time with safety to the crew as there was no artificial air supply.

The plan of operations was to proceed to a point as close to the enemy as possible, sink beneath the surface and approach until the torpedo exploded by contact with the enemy’s hull. In practice, the Hunley proved a craft very fatal to its operators.

It was taken to Charleston harbor where twice it sank, and remained at the bottom until raised by outside means, all the volunteer crew on board losing their lives. In 1864, the submarine passed down the bay and attacked the U. S. steamer Housatonic at night.

The bottom of the Housatonic was blown out and the vessel sank. The Hunley and her crew were likewise lost, being victims of the heroic action.” “William Alexander was supposed to have been a member of the crew on the Hunley but the son of the shop’s owner begged Alexander for his spot on the crew and he relented. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his generous gesture saved his life.”

After the war, Mr. Alexander was for many years superintendent of the Mobile fire alarm telegraph system. He also invented and built the first rotary dredge.

He was past grand commander of the Grand Commander- of Knights Templar-of the State of Alabama, and was a member of the Baptist Church.

He married June 27, 1861, Margaret Spence, (b. Aug. 10, 1840, Mobile, AL – d. Mar 25, 1918, Mobile, AL) of Mobile. According to her Alabama Death Record, she was the widow of William Alexander, age 77y, 7m, 15 days at the time of death. Her parents are listed as William Spence b. Scotland and Jean Palmer, b. Scotland. Margaret was residing at 13 S. Catherine St and was a housewife. William Alexander was an electrical engineer according to the 1900 census.

According to the 1880 census of District 134, Mobile, Mobile Co. Alabama, they had the following children.

  1. George Henry Alexander (b. Nov. 8, 1868, Mobile – d. Feb. 14, 1918, Yonkers, Westchester, New York; married Martha Francis Hill (1874-1967)
  2. Grace Alexander (b. Nov. 3 1871, Mobile, AL-d. Feb. 13, 1909)
  3. Colin Redwood Alexander ( b. May 8, 1882, Mobile, AL – Dec. 15, 1934, Memphis, Shelby Co.,TN) Mattie
  4. William W. Alexander ( Nov. 1889 Mobile, AL)
  5. Arthur J. Alexander (b. 1862 Mobile, AL)
  6. Ida Alexander ( b. Dec. 1863 Mobile, AL – Nov. 2, 1937, Mobile, AL) married William E. Taylor
  7. Mary A. Alexander (b. Nov. 1868)
  8. Robert Graham Alexander (b. Jun 27, 1873) married Annie before 1918 lived in Dallas Co., AL
  9. Dabney Spence Alexander (b. Aug 3, 1876) on Sep 12, 1918 (Portsmouth, Norfolk, VA) married Adelia Jenette before 1918.
  10. Gordon Rogers Alexander (b. Mar. 1880 – d. Jun 16, 1910, Mobile AL)

“William Alexander left behind a large family and a town full of admirers who remembered him as a pleasant man, a volunteer in his church, and an inventor of some note.” He immortalized the crew when he wrote the most complete firsthand history of the Hunley.”

Both William Anthony and his wife Margaret are buried at Magnolia Cemetery, in Mobile, Alabama.



  1. 1900 Dist. 110, Mobile Ward 8, Mobile, AL census
  2. 1880 Mobile Alabama census , 1870 Mobile Alabama census
  3. Alabama Deaths and Burials Index 1881 – 1974
  4. WWI draft registration
  5. History of Alabama and dictionary of Alabama biography, Volume 3 By Thomas McAdory Owen, Marie Bankhead Owen
  6. Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost …By Brian Hicks, Schuyler Kropf
  7. Find A Grave # 52452574 # 52452467 # 94130170 # 37989707 # 94130201 # 94130252

This biography can be found in Biographies of Notable and Not-so-Notable Alabama Pioneers Volume VI

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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