In fact, a desperate measure was under way. At a little past midnight, two American whaleboats had departed the southern tip of Manhattan with a secret weapon in tow. Considering the technological limitations of the time, this weapon was—as George Washington later described it—“an effort of genius.”
David Bushnell had conceived of it while an undergraduate at Yale, and because it “bore some resemblance to two upper tortoise shells of equal size, joined together,” the secret weapon had been dubbed “Turtle.” In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Bushnell described his creation as a “Submarine Vessel” that was “capable of containing the Operator, and air sufficient to supply him thirty minutes.” The strange contraption was equipped with an “aperture, at the bottom, with its valve . . . designed to admit water for the purpose of descending; & two brass forcing pumps served to eject the water within, when necessary for ascending.” It also included a (then) innovative screw propeller and was equipped with a “torpedo” (more akin to today’s mine) that could be attached to the hull of an enemy ship and exploded by a timing mechanism, a feature made possible because Bushnell was the first to successfully detonate gunpowder underwater.
Bushnell’s brother had become an expert on handling the vessel, but had taken ill at the critical moment, so this dangerous mission was taken on by Ezra Lee, a Continental Army sergeant. With only a few practice runs under his belt, Lee was enclosed inside and towed out as far as the long boats dared to go. Cast free, he then began the arduous task of working the manually powered propeller to approach the enemy flagship, HMS Eagle, undetected. Lee later described his adventure in a letter to a fellow revolutionary:
I . . . rowed for 5 glasses, by the ships’ bells, before the tide slacked so that I could get along side of the man of war. . . . The Moon was about 2 hours high, and the daylight about one—when I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see the men on deck, & hear them talk—I then shut down all the doors, sunk down, and came under the bottom of the ship. . . .
Using an external drill that Bushnell had included, Lee tried boring into the ship’s hull but could not penetrate to make the hole needed for attaching the weapon. While Lee maneuvered to find a different spot to drill, the Turtle suddenly bobbed to the surface and then plunged “like a porpoise.” Noting that it would soon be light, Lee then decided that “the best generalship was to retreat.”
As he pulled away, he was spotted, and several enemy boats began to give chase. Lee “let loose the magazine,” which frightened off his pursuers. As he made good his escape, the drifting “magazine” detonated, “throwing up large bodies of water to an immense height,” causing much confusion and consternation.
Although unable to harm the British flagship as intended, the Turtle was a great technological leap forward, one that would lead to much more successful submarines, ones that would someday change the nature of naval warfare. It was a testament to what can be achieved when innovation and courage are combined. David Bushnell and Ezra Lee had an abundance of both.