I never knew the first submarine invented for warfare was created during the American Revolution. It wasn’t in any of my history books when I was a child. Had I known about it, my interest in the subject, which was already high (I was in 6th grade in 1976 during the Bicentennial) would have peeked even higher.
I stumbled on the American Turtle submarine while searching for possible hooks for the second book in our new American Revolutionary War Adventure series (Harper Collins-Zondervan) crafted with my father. Our first book in the series—Patriots, Redcoats & Spies—used the Culper Spy Ring as a hook. Our goal with the books is to inspire kids and adults to do great things and educate our readers about some “little known” facts or events during this important period in our nation’s history.
When I saw the image of the American Turtle on my computer screen, my eyes widened and I had that “Aha!” moment. When I tell kids about it during my author visits, they too are fascinated. How can you not be—a submarine during the American Revolution! Who knew?!
My PowerPoint presentation used for my author visits shows an image of the Turtle. One child said it looked like a giant acorn, which is true, but the American Acorn doesn’t sound so cool. Others described it as two giant clam shells stuck together… but the American Clam doesn’t work either. When the sub is in the water it looks like a Turtle, hence the American Turtle, maybe not a very threatening name, except when you think of its inventor, David Bushnell, saying that his Turtle snaps on command.
The Turtle that More than Snaps
The American Turtle was invented to secretly submerge under a British warship and attach a bomb to its hulls, and then escape, while the fuse burned and the clocked ticked down until BOOM!
David Bushnell, a Yale graduate, started inventing the Turtle in 1775 because he first invented underwater explosives (waterproof gunpowder) and he needed a way to deliver it to blow up a ship.
Previously, when men of war wanted to destroy a ship they used fire bombs made with oil or other flammable materials, all delivered above the water level.
The Governor of Connecticut, the state in which Bushnell lived, who was a Patriot and knew of the invention, recommended it to General George Washington, who, even though he was a little skeptical, invested funds for its continued creation.
The Turtle could hold one man as pilot and operated via pumps and hand-cranked propellers. Tar inside the grooves of the wooden structure made it water proof. It could submerge for about 20-30 minutes. Glass built into its structure provided some light, but once submerged there would be darkness. That problem was solved, to my surprise, by fungus that would glow in the dark and that was placed around instrumentation like gauges. Yes, the ingenuity of David Bushnell is so impressive! The fungus would not work in cold weather so the Turtle didn’t operate in winter.
The Turtle was used several times in the New York harbor but failed to achieve the purpose for which it was created. Patriot Ezra Lee piloted its first mission in New York Harbor. The target, The HMS Eagle, Howe’s flagship, stationed off Manhattan.
Lee’s personal account (found in the back of our book, Submarines, Secrets and a Daring Rescue) details how he couldn’t get the bomb to attach to the hull because he hit metal. He tried to connect with another part of the hull, but was not able to stay underneath (imagine all the currents). He had to give up. He reported that the British did spot him and rowed out to investigate. He then released a charge (a floating bomb), which they saw and avoided in retreat. When it exploded, it did so “with tremendous violence, throwing large columns of water and pieces of wood that composed it high into the air.”
The Turtle was exhausting to operate, as you might imagine.
Lee tried again a month later, but he was spotted so he abandoned the mission.
The British sunk it later as it sat on its holding device in Fort Lee.
Not So Secret, After All
Despite best attempts to keep the Turtle’s existence a secret, the British did learn about it, and they didn’t take its threat too seriously. It seems a Loyalist tavern keeper and postmaster had intercepted Bushnell’s mail and learned of it, and a coded message was then sent to the British’s attention. The message contained some inaccuracies stating it was ready to be used when in fact it was still being developed in the Connecticut River.
George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the Turtle was an “effort of genius.” He described David Bushnell as “a man of great mechanical powers – fertile in invention and a master in execution.”
In our book Submarines, Secrets and a Daring Rescue, fifteen-year-old twins, Ambrose and John Clark, once again find themselves in the thick of things in service of the newly forming United States of America. Their new mission: help transport much-needed gunpowder to the patriots. When they end up in an even more dangerous situation—manning one of the first submarines—it seems the worst is behind them. Until they have to attempt a prison break to rescue one of their older brothers. Follow these brave young patriots as they continue to follow in their father’s footsteps and take even bigger leaps of faith.
Robert Skead is the author of several popular children’s books, including the American Revolutionary War Adventure series Patriots, Recoats & Spies and Submarines, Secrets, and a Daring Rescue (Zondervan, 2015).