The Turtle: Submarine Warfare during the American Revolution

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

On 23 October 1775, Samuel Osgood, a militia leader who fought at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, wrote to John Adams with a military update. In one paragraph he mentions:

“The famous Waters Machine from Connecticutt is every Day expected in Camp. It must unavoidably be a clumsy Business as its Weight is about a Tun. I wish it might succeed [and] the Ships be blown up beyond the Attraction of the Earth for it is the only Way or Chance they have of reaching St. Peters Gate.”

What Osgood is referring to as the “famous Waters Machine” was the first submarine with recorded use in battle. It was built in Connecticut and used in New York Harbor against the British Navy and was called the Turtle because of the way it looked. The submarine was designed for a single occupant and would be positioned just below the water’s surface, with a pipe leading to fresh air. When the operator wanted to submerge, he would close the pipe and let the interior’s cavity fill with water, leaving enough space at the top to breathe for a few minutes. Propellers would move the submarine back to the water’s surface. Replicas of the Turtle can be seen in a few museums around the world; one is at the Connecticut River Museum.

The Turtle’s design was the work of two men—David Bushnell, who had graduated Yale College in 1775, and Isaac Doolittle, a clockmaker. While at Yale, Bushnell proved that gunpowder could be ignited and exploded underwater, and he used this knowledge to design underwater mines and torpedoes. With Doolittle, he designed a mechanically triggered time bomb and the first propeller. Combining these designs together, he and Doolittle created and built the Turtle.

Although the original idea was to use the Turtle to force the British out of Boston Harbor, the machine took too long to build, and the British had already evacuated Boston for Canada. Once the Turtle was built and undergoing tests in Connecticut, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both heard about it, and Franklin was able to tour it. Sergeant Ezra Lee of the Continental Army spent two weeks learning to operate it proficiently. It was then time to deploy it against the British.

By that time the British Navy was occupying New York Harbor. On 6 September 1776, Sergeant Lee deployed the Turtle to attack the HMS Eagle, commanded by Admiral Howe, a move that might have delivered a decisive blow to the British Navy. The plan was to launch the Turtle at night and get as close to the HMS Eagle as possible, then submerge the submarine to go under the ship and attach a bomb to its underside by use of a hand auger. However, once Lee was under the ship, his auger hit metal, not wood as planned, and the bomb would not attach. As dawn approached, he abandoned the mission, and although the submarine had worked, the mission failed.

The Turtle was used in two more missions, both of which also failed, and then was lost during the Battle of Fort Lee in New Jersey, when the British sunk the sloop transporting it. Although the Turtle’s missions failed and the submarine was lost, it marked the beginning of an age of innovation in the newly formed United States at a time when the former colonists were eager to find a new identity.