David Bushnell and America's First Submarine - Turtle
[Excerps from a speech delivered by CW2 Mark J. Denger, California Center for Military History, to the Sons of the Revolution in the State of California in 2000. The speech was thereafter republished by the Empire Society, Sons of the American Revolution]
As we begin the third millennium, this year we will mark a key centennial in the history of naval warfare the Submarine Centennial. It was in the autumn of 1900 that the U.S. Navy commissioned its first "modern" submarine, USS Holland (SS-1), a marvel of 19th century technology which was destined to transform military strategy throughout the 20th century.
But the story actually begins 125 years earlier during the age of wooden ships and iron men. It's development continues through the age of sail to the steam age to the age of nuclear power and to the space age. It is about one small colonial submarine that, over the course of two centuries, would evolve into a powerful submarine force that today dominates the seas as no other naval force ever before.
These events are all related, just as the people involved are all part of a seamless story, not yet ended that started more than 225 years ago and will continue into the foreseeable future. Thus the history of submarine warfare rightly begins with David Bushnell (1742-1842), "a man of great mechanical powers," as George Washington himself attested, who designed and built the first combat submarine in 1775.
David Bushnell was born in 1742 in Westbrook, Connecticut, and like all good Americans in those early colonial days, when Bushnell heard that the great seaport of Boston had been blockaded by a strong British fleet, he realized that something had to be done to render impotent England's sea power on this side of the Atlantic.
At the time, Bushnell was majoring in mathematics at Yale University when he set his mind working to evolve some scheme to defeat England. Having first demonstrated to the skeptics that gunpowder could explode under water with devastating effect, David Bushnell, using his own funds and with his brother Ezra's help, he set to work to build the first combat submarine, which according to him, could be used in attacking British men-of-war and merchantmen anchored in American harbors. He was encouraged and assisted in his ambitious program by none other than George Washington himself who had heard of Bushnell's discoveries and enterprising accomplishments.
Upon completing the submarine, the brothers set out to test their invention. At its first test, Benjamin Franklin joined Mrs. Bushnell along the shore to see the little submarine. And, according to reports, old Mrs. Bushnell fainted dead away when Ezra sank from sight.
Bushnell's submarine was called the Turtle, because, as he said, it was shaped like one. Here, however, the resemblance ended. The Turtle was about 7 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet from its keel to the top of its conning tower. Made of oak, its clam shaped hull was coated with tar. When in surface trim, it metal conning tower protruded about 8 inches out of the water. As it had no periscope, the conning tower contained six glass ports in the circular casting. The interior of the vessel included equipment which was the forerunner of equipment to be used in later-day submarines. There was a depth gauge for indicating depth below the surface; a compass for steering. These were marked with a phosphorescent "foxfire" so their dials could be read in the dark. Other innovations included a crank for hand operation of the propeller; a tiller for operating the rudder; 700 pounds of lead ballast, 200 pounds of which could be quickly lowered about 50 feet in case of emergency; an immersion chamber for flooding when additional ballast was desired; two brass forcing pumps for forcing water out of the immersion chamber; and two tubes which passed through the conning tower hatch for use in obtaining fresh air when near the surface which was frequently done, for the air soon became foul when the submarine was in the submerged condition.
The attack would consist of approaching an intended victim unseen and attaching a torpedo, by means of a screw, to the hull of the enemy's ship. The torpedo contained 150 pounds of gunpowder which was set off by a timing devise called a clockwork fuse. This timing devise permitted the submarine to get away before the explosion occurred.
Because David lacked the stamina to operate the Turtle, he spent months in training his younger brother Ezra Bushnell. The British had not yet seized Manhattan when Bushnell arrived in camp with his submarine invention. However, when it came time for the submarine's first mission, Ezra fell ill. A volunteer was sought out and found in one Continental Sergeant by the name of Ezra Lee.
On a cold September night in 1776, with General Putnam's staff watching, the Turtle set out in an attempt to attack the Howe's flagship HMS Eagle anchored in New York Harbor off Governor's Island. At 11:00 p.m., the one-man submarine's operator, Continental Sergeant Ezra Lee, dove the little submarine and began his trek across the harbor by vigorously cranking the submarine below the HMS Eagle. After several attempts to attach the explosive torpedo to the Eagle's hull, Sergeant Lee was now running out of breathable air and was forced to discontinue the attack and set a return course to Manhattan Island. The attack proved unsuccessful due to the screw striking an iron bar. On the return trek, the Turtle was sighted by the British occupying Governor's island, who set out after the little submarine, whereupon Lee released the torpedo which drifted into the East River and, in Lee's words, "went off with a tremendous explosion, throwing up large bodies of water to an immense height." Before preparations for another attempt could be made against the enemy, the British ships withdraw the fleet to a safer anchorage near Staten Island.
Despite its first failure, word of David Bushnell's little submarine began to spread following her epic attack on HMS Eagle. "The famous Water Machine from Connecticut is every Day expected in Camp," wrote Samuel Osgood to John Adams. "I wish it might succeed and [enemy] ships be blown up." The Turtle was to make two other tries.
When the British landed on Manhattan Island, Washington's forces withdrew to the northern part of the island, taking the Turtle with them in the general retreat. With the departure of the British fleet from New York Harbor, Bushnell put the Turtle on a sloop and took her up the Hudson River to Fort Lee where Washington's army was quartered. Here, the Turtle attacked another British frigate. In this attempt, the operator again succeeded in getting the Turtle under the frigate's stern, but before he could secure the torpedo to the hull, she was discovered and driven off. After her third attempt, the career of the Turtle was cut short when an enemy shore emplacement demolished the tender carrying her back up the Hudson River.
General Washington was favorably impressed in spite of these failures. He said: "I thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius, but that too many things were necessary to be combined, to expect much from the issue against an enemy, who are always on guard."
One should reflect carefully on that first effort made during the night of 6 September 1776. Simply because Sergeant Lee and Bushnell's Turtle did not actually sink a British vessel, the attempt has been described, incorrectly, as a failure. One submarine crewed by one soldier actually forced a fleet of more than 200 ships to retreat several miles to a safer anchorage. That certainly was not a failure, but in fact a feat unparalleled in naval history.
David Bushnell was not to be discouraged easily, carried on his work of attacking ships with his "water bomb" or torpedo. One dark August night, 1777, off New London, Connecticut, he procured a small whale boat and endeavored to tow his torpedo into the side of the British frigate Cerberus. Just like the time before, just as Bushnell's plot looked like it would succeed, the towline was discovered by the ship's watch. Members of the frigate's crew, unaware that it contained an explosive, hauled the torpedo up on deck, and set to work to examine it. Suddenly, the torpedo exploded, killing three men and blowing another overboard. While the venture proved to be fruitless in as much as little damage was sustained by the Cerberus, the real objective, Bushnell demonstrated for a second time that a torpedo would work. Once again, the British were sent running seaward in a panic.
Bushnell next experimented with floating mines. These mines were powder kegs fitted with flintlocks which were set off by jarring them. Late in December of 1777, Bushnell again set out to disrupt British shipping in an American port. This time it was at Philadelphia. Bushnell set forty of his mines adrift above the city so that the mines would float down with the current. Because of winter ice, the first of the mines arrived on January 5, 1778. One of these struck and blew up a small boat, killing two boys. The result, however, was that Bushnell again caused the British fleet to be panic stricken. Redcoats were ordered to form on the banks and fire at anything seen floating in the water. This was kept up for a whole day and night, much to the amusement of the Colonials.
Although Bushnell's inventions accomplished little in the way of material destruction, he had the satisfaction of keeping the entire British fleet jittery. Many eminent Americans of that time believed that his inventions had real merit, and that it would be only a matter of further development and experimentation before success was attained. Governor Trumbull of Connecticut was especially interested, and highly commended Bushnell to George Washington on several occasions.
Bushnell's chief contributions were: (1) He invented the first practical submarine for war purposes; (2) He proved that gunpowder could be exploded under water; (3) He advanced the development of torpedoes and mines; and, (4) He invented the screw propeller, and all vessels which use this type of propulsion are indebted to him for this essential and useful apparatus.
David Bushnell was never compensated for his expenditures on the Turtle. He brother, Ezra Bushnell, died from his illness.
Bushnell never quite ever abandoned the idea of using the submarine. In the War of 1812, it is believed that David Bushnell built another submarine which attacked the British ship HMS Ramillies at anchor off New London, Connecticut. This time the craft's operator succeeded in boring a hole into the ship's copper sheathing, but the screw broke loose as the explosive was being attached to the ship's hull. While the attempt failed, an except from a Connecticut newspaper (summer of 1813) reads that "A gentlemen of Norwich has invented a diving boat, which my means of paddles he can propel underwater. . . . He has been three times under the bottom of Ramillies off New London. . . . So great is the alarm and fear aboard the Ramillies that Commodore Hardy keeps his ships under way at all times."
In 1977, a full-scale replica of the Turtle, which is now on display at the Connecticut River Museum, was launched into the Connecticut River and undertook a successful mock attack on a ship anchored offshore, performing as promised in every way, thereby confirming Bushnell's genius and Sgt. Lee's bravery.
Of some historic significance, Sergeant Ezra Lee received a Continental Commission as a First Lieutenant for an exploit that the Navy would ignore for almost a hundred years. He retired from service in June, 1782, later becoming an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati. David Bushnell, served to June 3, 1783, as a Captain in the Continental Sappers and Miners. He too was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati.
In celebrating the Submarine Centennial, the Center for Military History joins with the U.S. Navy in recognizing the enormous contributions of both American submariners and those involved with building and supporting our innovative submarines since the dawn of this century. However, as we reflect back, we recognize the efforts of such men as David Bushnell and Ezra Lee.
The product of American ingenuity and technological prowess, our Navy's submarines comprise one of the most cost-efficient elements of U.S. armed forces. Their contribution to conflict prevention, deterrence, crisis resolution, and war termination are at the heart of America's security. If deterrence fails, U.S. submarines are already on station prepare the battlespace while other submarines quickly move to the battle, strike key targets ashore, and open the seas for follow-on forces. Stealth . . . endurance . . . agility . . . firepower. These attributes provide multi-mission capability and the full spectrum of conflict utility. The nuclear submarine is a true sunrise system of U.S. naval operational primacy in the 21st century.
Today, in the five domains where our military forces operate on land, in the air, in space, on the oceans, and beneath the sea submarine operations are the least visible. For this reason, they offer the ultimate in stealth and surprise while influencing events in all five domains with minimal risk. Unfortunately, because submarine operations remain highly secretive, they are least understood and most frequently under-valued by the American public. Yet, they comprise of 30 percent of all naval combatants, use only 7 percent of the Navy's people and less than 12 percent of its budget to carry out numerous tasks in support of national needs. Likewise, our nuclear ballistic missile submarines carry 54 percent of U.S. strategic warheads at only 35 percent of the strategic force's people and 19 percent of total strategic costs. Because of their survivability, multi-mission capability, and lethality, nuclear submarines offer American taxpayers a tremendous return of their investment.
From its humble beginnings in the American Revolution, submarine designers have sought to build the ultimate undersea warfare platform capable of exploiting the ocean depths for its self-protection and significant tactical advantage.
As you can see, these events are all related, just as the people involved are all part of a seamless story, not yet ended a story that started more than 225 years ago and will continue are into the foreseeable future.
In recognition of the Turtle's enormous contribution to the Submarine Force, submarines and submarine tenders have been authorized to fly a special Submarine Centennial Jack throughout calendar year 2000. This is the first time since 1776 that any class of ship been so honored.