By now it was nearing daylight, and on his return to New York, Lee was discovered by the British as he passed near Governor’s Island. They pursued him, and in an effort to hasten his escape he detached the mine, the fuse of which was still burning. Fearing a rebel trick, the British sailors rowed frantically back to shore. Lee was eventually spotted by his men waiting on shore and was hastily rescued, but the freed mine continued on its rogue mission. It was set to go off after one hour and, according to a witness, “drifted past Governors Island into the East River where it exploded with great violence, throwing large columns of water and pieces of wood high in the air.” Putnam, thinking Lee had succeeded in his mission, shouted for joy, but the mine had done no actual physical damage to the enemy. Thus ended the maiden voyage of the world’s first submarine.
The Battle of the Kegs
The Turtle saw action during two more battles at Fort Lee on the Hudson River, but again failed to inflict any damage. The prototype was subsequently destroyed when the tender that was transporting it back up the Hudson River was sunk by British artillery. George Washington was impressed with Bushnell’s ingenuity and appointed him to a commission in the Continental Army Corp of Engineers, hailing him as “a man of great mechanical powers, fertile in invention and a master of execution.” He further elaborated on the Turtle expedition: “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.”
Despite the praise from the commander-in-chief, Bushnell nevertheless abandoned work on another Turtle and returned to his original pursuit, developing naval mines, and eventually designed a model that would explode on contact. In January 1778, Bushnell sent a fleet of so-called “death kegs” down the Delaware River to destroy British ships controlling the waterway. Owing to the darkness, the kegs were mistakenly set adrift at too great a distance from the British fleet, and were dispersed by the ice that blanketed the river. Nonetheless, during the following day they exploded and blew up a boat, causing no small amount of alarm to the British. The incident spawned a humorous poem by Francis Hopkinson entitled “The Battle of the Kegs.” Bushnell’s mines were successful in harassing and sinking British ships throughout the remainder of the war, but were never again used in conjunction with the Turtle.
Bushnell served continuously during the war, attaining the rank of captain in the Corps of Engineers, and saw duty at New York, Hudson Highlands, Philadelphia, Yorktown, and elsewhere until the conclusion of the Revolution in 1783. By 1787, Bushnell had disappeared from his home in West Saybrook. Rumored to have moved to France, it was only after his death in 1824 at the age of 82 that it became known he had actually relocated to Georgia and become a doctor and professor under the name of David Bush. Why he changed his name remains unclear—perhaps to avoid association with the infamous Turtle. It is equally unclear why Bushnell fled his career as an inventor and engineer to take up medicine, but if his past was any indication, intellectual curiosity is the most likely explanation. Sergeant Ezra Lee received a commission as a lieutenant for his bravery and served until 1782. Both men were founding members of the Society of the Cincinnati, an alumni association of Continental Army officers. Not surprising, considering the financial instability of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, Bushnell was never reimbursed for his expenditures related to the development of the Turtle.
Despite the inability to sink the Eagle, the use of the Turtle was the first attempt to end a naval blockade using a submarine, and ultimately forced the British to move a fleet of nearly 200 ships to what they perceived as a safer location. The threat of underwater attack kept the British fleet jittery throughout the war and influenced their use of resources and positioning of their ships—hardly a failure for the tiny one-man vessel. This fact was not lost on military strategists, who saw the potential of the submarine as a weapon, and it also marked the beginning of submarine development by the American Navy. The basic principles used by the Turtle still remain valid in submarine warfare today. In recognition of Bushnell’s achievement, the U.S. Navy named two submarine tenders in his honor, one during World War I and one during World War II. Inevitably, the ships were nicknamed “Turtle.”
A full-size working replica of the Turtle is on permanent display at the Connecticut River Foundation in Essex, Conn. (www.ctrivermuseum.org). This replica was launched in 1977 into the Connecticut River in a mock attack on a ship anchored offshore that proved successful in every way, thereby validating Bushnell’s vision almost 200 years later. Replicas are also on display at the Intrepid Museum, located on Pier 86 in New York City, and a cutaway version showing the interior of the Turtlecan be seen at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Conn.
Originally Published in 2018.