Development of a Secret Weapon
|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
|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.
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|