September 6 – Today in Connecticut History

Echo underway, posted Monday, September 6, 2010

On this day—or rather, this night—the first submersible vessel, called the Turtle, waged war against HMS Eagle, the flagship of the British Admiral Sir Richard Howe, anchored near Governor’s Island in New York Harbor.

Designed by Saybrook native David Bushnell, the Turtle was the American revolutionaries’ secret weapon. During his studies at Yale in the early 1770s, Bushnell had experimented with wood “torpedoes” filled with gunpowder, showing that the powder, once submerged in water, could still be ignited and explode. With the outbreak of war in 1775, Bushnell and his brother Ezra began to construct secretly a larger vessel with which to transport mines and attack ships.

Or not so secretly, because several other Connecticut revolutionaries knew about the project. Benjamin Gale, a prominent Killingworth physician, wrote to Silas Deane on November 9, 1775, about this strange new “machine” made of oak being built and tested at Ayers Point in the Connecticut River:

The Body, when standing upright in the position in which it is navigated, has the nearest resemblance to the two upper shells of a Tortoise joined together. In length it doth not exceed 7-1/2 feet from the stem to the higher part of the rudder: the height not exceeding 6 feet. … It has a brass top or cover, which receives the person’s head as he sits on a seat, and is fastened on the inside by screws. In this brass head is fixed eight glasses, viz. two before, two on each side, one behind, and one to look out upwards. In the same brass head are fixed two brass tubes, to admit fresh air when requisite, and a ventilator at the side to free the machine from the air rendered unfit for respiration. On the inside is fixed a Barometer, by which he can tell the depth he is under water; a Compass, by which he knows the course he steers. In the barometer and on the needles of the compass is fixed fox-fire, i.e. wood that gives light in the dark.

Another Connecticut native, Ezra Lee, propelled the Turtle through the dark waters of New York Harbor towards the Eagle. Faced with unexpectedly strong currents, Lee could not keep the submarine still enough to bore a hole into the Eagle’s hull and attach a mine. After several hours, he emerged safely from the water, but the mine he left after being pursued by a British patrol did explode, harming no British vessel or seaman but forcing the British Navy to move its fleet and making it more difficult to blockade the harbor.

The Turtle would attack again, only to be discovered. It was subsequently captured by the British, and was sunk with the sloop upon which it was being transported.

See a replica of the Turtle at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.