A Brief History of the Original Bushnell Turtle

 HMS Eagle in New York Harbor, Frank Tinsley

HMS Eagle in New York Harbor, Frank Tinsley

In the summer of 1776, the British controlled New York harbor with a massive fleet of gun ships. The British Army and Navy threatened to push George Washington and his continental troops up the Hudson River to gain control of the entire Hudson River Valley. This would effectively split the colonies in two. The Americans desperately needed to break up the naval blockade. David Bushnell of Connecticut, a Yale student and ardent patriot, envisioned and built the Turtle, a one-man submarine designed to discreetly attach a timed explosive to the underbelly of the of the British ships.

 Drawing by Frank Tinsley

Drawing by Frank Tinsley

The goal of the Turtle's mission was to break this blockade by attacking the British fleet in New York harbor. The target was Admiral Richard Howe's flagship, the HMS Eagle. In August 1776, after a year of training, David Bushnell’s brother, Ezra Bushnell was prepared to pilot the Turtle but on the eve of the mission, he became ill and someone had to take his place. David Bushnell retreated with the Turtle back into Long Island Sound to teach Sergeant Ezra Lee of Old Lyme how to maneuver the submarine and deploy the mine.

Meanwhile, by August 28, 1776, the British had overrun Long Island, brutalizing Washington’s troops and forcing a retreat to the town of New York. This was a time of extreme measures for the survival of America. Bushnell cut short the training to return to New York. The Turtle set out on its historic mission the night of September 6, 1776 and before dawn it managed to reach the Eagle, submerge and slip beneath the ship's keel undetected. Sergeant Lee made two attempts to attach the mine to the bottom of the ship, but failed because he could not penetrate the copper sheathed hull. Exhausted and unable to attach the mine, he had no choice but to abandon his mission and return.

 Ezra Lee

Ezra Lee

In his return from the ship to New York, he was discovered by the enemy as he passed near Governors Island, They took chase and in an effort to escape, Ezra Lee cast off the timed mine, as he imagined it retarded him in the heavy swells of the harbor. He was then spotted by his men waiting for his return on the shore and was safely retrieved. The freed magazine, which was set to go off at one hour, “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.”

Despite the failure to sink the ship, it was the first attempt to end a naval blockade using a submarine, and marked the beginning of the development of the submarine by the American Navy. The basic underwater principles used by the Turtle still remain valid in underwater submarines today. Bushnell’s Turtle opened a window into underwater science and marks the beginning of man’s entrance into the submarine world.