America’s First Secret Weapon?

On September 7, 1776, a sudden explosion rocked New York’s East River, causing a tower of water and chunks of wood to soar high into the air.  The cause behind this bedlam?  America’s Turtle, an invention of David Bushnell and the world’s first submarine deployed in combat.  It’s one of the most significant crafts of the Revolutionary War.  And its been missing for over two-hundred and thirty years.

“The Submarine of 1776 (As described by its Operator)”
Source: The Story of the Submarine by Farnham Bishop (1916) – Digitized by Google Books

David Bushnell’s Invention: The Turtle submarine?

Invented by David Bushnell, the Turtle was designed to attach explosives to the undersides of Royal Navy ships moored in American harbors during the Revolutionary War.  The vessel consisted of two wooden slabs, which looked like turtle shells, held together by tar and steel bands.  It measured ten feet long, six feet tall, and three feet wide and contained enough air to stay submerged for thirty minutes.

David Bushnell initially trained his brother to operate the vessel.  But after the man fell ill, Bushnell turned to Ezra Lee, a gunnery sergeant.  Around the same time, a massive fleet of Royal Navy ships, led by the HMS Eagle, formed off the coast of New York City.  They aimed to capture the city.

On September 6-7, 1776, Ezra Lee manned the sub through New York Harbor to Liberty Island.  He positioned himself under the HMS Eagle and attempted to anchor a “torpedo” with the help of a drill.  His first attempt failed when the drill struck an iron fitting.  After subsequent attempts also failed, he abandoned the torpedo, which drifted into the East River and exploded harmlessly.  Although not a success, the noise spooked the Royal Navy, causing them to raise anchors and leave the harbor (it should be noted that British naval historian Richard Compton-Hall disputes this version of the events).

After another failed attempt, the sub’s tender vessel was sunk by the Royal Navy, sending the Turtle to the bottom of the sea, somewhere near Fort Lee, NJ.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So where is it today?

After the end of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson wrote to David Bushnell, inquiring about the Turtle.  In his response, Bushnell stated:

Soon after this, the Enemy went up the river, and pursued the boat, which had the submarine Vessel on board, and sunk it, with their shot. After I recovered the Vessel, I found it impossible, at that time to prosecute the design any farther…I therefore gave over the pursuit, for that time, and waited for a more favourable opportunity, which never arrived.

If we are to believe David Bushnell, he successfully salvaged the Turtle.  However, its ultimate fate remains unknown.  Maybe he dismantled the vessel.  Maybe he stored it away somewhere.  Maybe he never even recovered it and merely stated that he did so in order to keep anyone else from salvaging it.  Regardless, if the Turtle is ever found, it would undoubtedly be one of the most significant discoveries in naval history.

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