July 4 Trivia: Did You Know? George Washington Launched a Submarine in the American Revolution
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York Harbor, September 6, 1776 – The Yankee experimental submarine, code named Turtle, was launched against the British warship, HMS Eagle, on September 6, 1776. The submarine attempted to attach a stationary torpedo, but was forced to withdraw when the corkscrew tethered to the explosive device would not penetrate the warship’s hull. The submarine made a similar attempt later against the HMS Phoenix with the same results. In the end, however, success was achieved when a standalone torpedo, perfected in the secret program, was used by early Colonial commandos to sink a British sloop.
Details of the submarine’s development were uncovered by examining letters from the inventor, David Bushnell, and correspondence between Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. You can read about the clandestine program along with British attempts to foil the submarine in a recently published book, “Washington’s Undersea War,” by Shawn Shallow, Gatekeeper Press.
Development of the submarine began when a Yale student, David Bushnell happened upon an old issue of English Gentleman’s Magazine . In the article, a Danish scientist, Cornelius Drebbel, theorized that a tank could be constructed to descend below the water and rise again. From Drebbel’s rudimentary drawing, the Yale student, David Bushnell, reasoned that the device could be used as an underwater weapon if expanded to include a method of propulsion, an instrument to measure depth for navigation, and a manual pump to add or remove water for buoyancy.
The timing of such an underwater machine couldn’t be better. George Washington was desperately seeking ways to protect Colonial positions on the North Hudson River from British warships intent on destroying Colonial shore emplacements. Washington initially turned to underwater obstacles and his newly formed Culper Spy Ring for information on naval movements.
The Yale student recruited his brother Ezra Bushnell and a local craftsman Isaac Doolittle to construct his submarine design. Before long, they had a wooden submarine almost six feet in height, with a brass head containing eight small glass windows for surface viewing. The pilot, Ezra Bushnell, cranked a propeller to propel the submarine through the water while changing depths with manual bow plains and a ballast pump. Attached to the submarine was a square wooden magazine, which would later be called a torpedo (after the stinging crampfish Torpedinidae), with an auger and line for the torpedo’s attachment to any enemy ship’s hull. When attached, a spring would release the torpedo and begin a watch work timer.
Early trials found that the pilot, Ezra Bushnell, couldn’t see well enough underwater to operate the internal controls. The inventor, David Bushnell, turned to Benjamin Franklin through a friend to solve the illumination issue with no results. In the end, David Bushnell solved the interior lighting problem with foxwood which contains a luminous moss capable of glowing in the dark. Unfortunately, Franklin’s discussion of the problem with other members of the Continental Congress was intercepted by a British informant who passed news of the Yankee underwater machine to a skeptical British Navy. Never-the-less, British Admiral Shouldham ordered all warships to be placed on alert.
News of the invention also reached George Washington who desperately needed new water defenses following increasing attacks by British warships. Washington arranged for funds to finish the submarine’s development and the training of a military pilot, Ezra Lee. At the conclusion of pilot training, Washington’s men transported the underwater machine to the target area.
On the evening of September 6, 1776; the Turtle attacked the HMS Eagle thereby being credited with attempting the first submarine assault. To the great credit of its inventor, David Bushnell, the Turtle worked flawlessly and reached the warship undetected. However, attempts to attach the torpedo with a corkscrew were unsuccessful and the Turtle was forced to withdraw (The CSS Hunley would later successfully sink a warship in the American Civil War). As the Turtle returned to the surface in silent retreat, it was spotted by British guards on Governor’s Island New York who launched a longboat to intercept. In response, the pilot Ezra Lee, detonated the torpedo between himself and his pursuers. News of the explosion created by the strange Yankee weapon reached the British command that put the fleet on higher alert. A second attempt followed against the H.M.S. Phoenix with similar results. However, this time, the ship’s lookout spotted the Turtle attempting to withdraw and the ship gave chase. Unable to evade the warship, Lee beached the submarine and escaped on foot.
In the end, the British fleet became so concerned about additional underwater attacks that they ordered their ships further out to sea. As a result, the program gained some success by increasing the distance between British warships and Yankee positions.
First Success with a Torpedo
With the submarine’s loss, George Washington financed Bushnell to perfect the torpedo for other covert operations. Bushnell improved the detonation device allowing a torpedo it to be aimed at a vessel without actual attachment by a submarine. With this improvement, a covert military team, similar to modern U.S. Navy Seals, was dispatched to sink the British warship H.M.S. Cerberus, anchored with a recently captured sloop. The commando’s successfully floated the torpedo to their target only to have it retrieved by curious seamen. As British crewman examined the curious wooden keg with a ticking timer, it exploded destroying the sloop and inquisitive men.
News of this torpedo’s success brought the wrath of the British who actively sought the inventor, David Bushnell, throughout the colonies. In an odd twist of fate, Bushnell was ultimately arrested in a sweep of local waterfront taverns, but evaded identification by pretending to be a simple bar patron. However, hearing through informants that the prize inventor had been unknowingly arrested, Washington arranged for a prisoner release of Bushnell’s group. Upon his return, Bushnell was granted a commission in the Continental Army and removed to an active duty regiment where he remained under Washington’s watchful protection until war’s end.
Details of the submarine’s development and associated covert operations are available in Shawn Shallow’s recent book, “Washington’s Undersea War,” available through book retailers.