Sunday, September 8, 2013

Things: The Boat

Fans of the fabulous German naval flick, Das Boot, should not necessarily be disappointed by my little bait and switch. As I write this blog it is the anniversary of the first submarine (sort of) attack in the American Revolution.

Development of a Secret Weapon

David Bushnell
The history of weapons development in Connecticut is a long one. The nutmeg state has been the center of weapons development from colonial through modern times. Think Colt, Norden, etc. In the early 1770s, a Yale man named David Bushnell began developing underwater explosives. When the war with Britain erupted he turned his efforts towards a delivery system. He moved his work to Old Saybrook, Connecticut where he developed a submersible boat that could attach one of his underwater  charges to  a ship. Bushnell named his boat the Turtle, although it looked more like a shell fish. The Turtle measured 10 feet by 3 and 6 feet  tall.   Letting water into a bilge tank lowered the Turtle into the water. It climbed when a  hand pump evacuated the water. Crude hand-cranked propellers moved the boat. The Turtle held a crew of one and could operate under water for thirty minutes and at three miles an hour.

Diagram of the Boat

In the summer of 1776, the British invaded New York and seized western Long Island (see my highly acclaimed novel, The Patriot Spy), so Bushnell's boat was moved back to Connecticut. The Americans, driven from post to post by superior British soldiers, weapons and discipline, were even more outmatched by  the Royal Navy.  Desperate times called for desperate measures.                                      

The Black Operation

In a secret operation (the term black op was not coined back then) approved by General George Washington,  an expedition by the Turtle was launched in New York harbor. An hour before midnight on September 6, a Sergeant named Ezra Lee began  his daunting mission: navigate the untested Turtle through hazardous waters in an attack on British Admiral Richard Howe's flagship, the HMS Eagle. We know Howe from earlier posts.  Black Dick was the brother of William Howe, British commander in chief in North America. Taking out his ship (and possibly him) would be what we today call an asymmetrical attack. The Eagle was moored near  Governors Island, just off the southern tip of the island of New York (Manhattan).Yankee rowboats towed the Turtle from the Battery to within striking distance of the British ships floating at anchor. Lee struggled to navigate for over two hours and his chances seemed bleak. Then suddenly the river's tidal currents subsided. Lee managed, against all odds,  to reach the Eagle! He tried  fixing an explosive charge to the hull but he failed.  The Turtle's boring device struck metal - likely a  plate connected to the ship's rudder.Tired and struggling to stay afloat and to breathe,the undaunted Sergeant Lee tried once more to pierce the hull.  However, he was unable to keep the Turtle beneath the ship.

Artist's conception of the attack by the Turtle on HMS Eagle
clearly glamorized and romanticized


Unknown to Sergeant  Lee (or George Washington), a spy had alerted the British to the possibility of some sort of unconventional attack.  Expecting subterfuge, alert British soldiers on Governors Island spotted the submarine and rowed out to investigate in  dark waters. Rather than risk capture or an unwanted explosion, Lee cut loose the "torpedo," a specially designed explosive device intended to sink the Eagle. The torpedo floated
half submerged towards the approaching British boat. Fearing the worst, the British turned their longboat around and made straight for Governor's Island. Sergeant Lee meanwhile pedaled madly towards the safety of The Battery. Fortunately for the British, the torpedo got caught in the strong currents of the confluence of the North (Hudson) and East rivers and exploded sending plumes of wood and water  high into the dark September sky. But fearful of another such attack, the British ships pulled anchor and moved to the upper bay. Both Ezra Lee and David Bushnell went on to serve in other battles and campaigns. Sergeant Lee served in several pitched battles:  Trenton, Brandywine and Monmouth.   Bushnell headed several other "mining" operations and served at Yorktown. Bushnell also received a medal from the commander in chief after the war. It is known that many "black operations" were only grudgingly recognized by Washington - all of them after the conflict. His Excellency understood that secrecy need be maintained before, during, and after covert operations. Bushnell  moved to Georgia after the war, where he died.  After the war Lee returned to Connecticut.  Remarkably, both men lived into the third decade of the next century.

What Gives?

Most of the account of the attack comes from Ezra Lee's report.  Of the events of the night of September 7th, 1776, the British logs are strangely mute. They record no  attack by  the rebels nor any explosions in the in the vicinity of the Eagle.  So what gives?  Did this actually happen?  It seems implausible that Lee (along with Bushnell) would concoct a tale of  failure...or would he? Another attack was tried a month later with similarly disappointing results. It is axiomatic that proponents of a program zealously pursue them, sometimes fudging figures or achievements to maintain continued support.  Or did the British keep the attack secret to protect their spy? Would they forgo the obvious propaganda value of exposing a foiled attack? Were they hesitant because they were unsure that future attacks might succeed? Then there is the matter of historiography -  some British naval historians assert the Turtle could not have maintained itself and navigated as the Americans claimed.  So they believe it was a hoax. If so, this would not be the last hoax operation in America's military history. Maybe the hoax was on them.

Another rendition of the Boat

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