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This Week in Military History: September 1st - 7th

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September 6th: The Attack of the Turtle


In the late eighteenth century, the British Royal Navy was undoubtedly one of the most formidable fighting forces the world had known. With the exception of a few of their large European rivals, any other nation’s navy would by crazy to challenge their mighty fleets on the waves. But to try and blow up one of their flagships from below those waves with a one-man craft that was, essentially, a giant wooden clamshell with a hand-cranked propeller? That would be really, REALLY crazy. And exactly what Sergeant Ezra Lee of the Continental Army tried to do in New York Harbor on the night of September 6th, 1776. The craft he piloted, and the explosive device it employed, were the brainchildren of Connecticut engineer David Bushnell. It was called the Turtle and it would be the first submersible ever used in combat.

Painting of the Turtle approaching the HMS Eagle

Bushnell first dreamt up the vessel and its “torpedo” (the blanket term for all underwater explosives back in the day, including mines, as our regular readers may recall) while a student at Yale in the early 1770’s. By 1771, anticipating the need for such a weapon to use against England if war broke out, he was asking for funding from Connecticut Governor John Trumbull. After the outbreak of the Revolutionary War with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he began constructing the Turtle with financial backing from George Washington in hopes of using it against the British Navy.

The British invasion fleet in New York Harbor, 1776The British invasion fleet in New York Harbor, 1776

With brassworks built by fellow Connecticut inventor Isaac Doolittle, Bushnell had the Turtle complete, tested, and ready for operation by August of 1776. Named for its turtle-like shape, the six-foot tall, three-foot wide vehicle consisted of two steel-reinforced oak shells coated in tar. The bilge, like the propellor, was hand operated and she carried 200 pounds of lead aboard that could be released to rapidly increase buoyancy in an emergency. Six small windows in the top allowed the pilot to see where he was going and provide natural light to the interior, and the instrument gauges were coated in bioluminescent fungus to make them visible in darkness. Her maximum speed was around 2.5 knots, roughly three miles per hour. It’s armament was a single timed explosive meant to be stabbed into an enemy vessel and left to explode.

Diagram of the TurtleA diagram of the Turtle (albeit with a slightly inaccurately drawn propellor)

August ended with the defeat of the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island (also called the Battle of Brooklyn) and its evacuation to Manhattan. Washington was determined to hold New York City, which would be no easy task with General Sir William Howe consolidating over 20,000 troops across the East River in Brooklyn and Admiral Richard Howe’s (William’s older brother) massive fleet occupying New York Harbor. While the Americans dug in and prepared for an inevitable British assault on Manhattan Island, a plan was hatched to strike at the British command structure and morale: use the Turtle to sink Admiral Howe’s flagship, the HMS Eagle.

Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl HoweAdmiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe

When Ezra Bushnell, David’s brother and the original pilot of the vessel, took ill several weeks prior David selected fellow Connecticuter (and fellow Ezra), the abovementioned Sergeant Lee as the Turtle’s new pilot. It was he who, at 11:00pm on the night of September 6th, 1776, shoved off aboard the submersible from the southern tip of Manhattan island and steered for the Eagle anchored at nearby Governor’s Island. After two hours of hard cranking against the tide in deepening darkness, Lee reached his target. From that point on, nothing went right.

Ezra Lee
Ezra Lee

Lee tried twice to attach his explosive to the Eagle but failed both times. A popular theory was that the copper sheathing on the ship’s hull prevented the first attempt, but Bushnell espoused the more likely explanation that an iron plate protecting the rudder was the real culprit. When Lee made the second attempt he was likely exhausted and suffering from the increasing carbon dioxide inside the Turtle and could not keep his craft steady under the Eagle. By this time, British soldiers on shore spotted the submersible puttering around their fleet’s flagship and started rowing out to investigate. Lee spotted them and retreated back to Manhattan, but not before releasing his explosive in the hopes that the British would row over to investigate it and, in doing so, explode. The British, not being complete idiots, avoided the suspicious floating device, which exploded harmlessly in the East River.

Thus, the first submarine attack in history ended in failure. As did the second one (Lee and the Turtle tried attacking another British ship on October 5th, but were spotted before they got close). The craft and her tender vessel were sunk by the British off Fort Lee, New Jersey a few days later. Ezra Lee survived the British taking Manhattan and escaped with the rest of the Continental Army. He fought in several major battles and ended the war with the rank of captain. He returned to his native state and remained there until his death in 1821. After the failure of the Turtle, David Bushnell focused his attention on designing various “torpedoes” for use against the British with some minor successes. In 1778, Washington gave him command of the newly formed Corps of Sappers and Miners (what we think of today as combat engineers). He was briefly captured, exchanged, and served through the end of the war, including at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. After the war he lived in France for several years, moved back to the US under an assumed name, became a teacher and medical doctor, and died in Warrenton, Georgia sometime in the 1820's.

Memorial to David BushnellMemorial to David Bushnell in the Warrenton cemetery where he's buried.

Bushnell was by no means the first man to theorize the use of underwater vessels in warfare, but he was the first to make an honest go at making it work. And, while the Turtle failed, the concept of combat submersibles would mature and improve over the following years and decades, eventually revolutionizing naval warfare with the widespread use of submarines in the twentieth century.

Fullsized mockup of the Bushnell "Turtle", the world's first military submarine used in action, at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum and Library, Groton CT.Fullsized model of the Turtle at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum and Library in Groton, Connecticut

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