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On February 17, 1864, naval warfare changed forever when the Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley, rammed a torpedo into the Union warship U.S.S. Housatonic and sank it in Charleston harbor. The submarine, as a weapon of war, claimed its first victim in history. However, this was not the first use of a submarine for combat. David Bushnell's Turtle, built during the American Revolution, has the honor of being the first combat submarine in history.

In 1776, the British controlled New York harbor with its fleet thus, controlling the Hudson River Valley, which effectively split the colonies in two. The Americans lacked a navy but they needed to find a way to end this naval blockade. David Bushnell of Saybrook, Connecticut, a recent graduate of Yale and ardent patriot, designed and built the Turtle for this purpose.

Made out of wood and held together by iron hoops, the Turtle was six feet in height and just over seven feet in length and had enough room for a single operator. At the bottom of the submarine, there was an opening, which allowed water into the ballast tanks, enabling it to submerge and to surface. The pilot used two brass pumps to empty the tanks. The submarine could remain submerged for 30 minutes before running out of air. The submarine's only weapon was a mine, attached near the top of the submarine. The mine was another invention of Bushnell's. It was a watertight wooden keg filled with packed gunpowder, a fuse, and a clock-timer device.

The goal of the Turtle's mission was to break this blockade by attacking the British fleet in New York harbor. The target was Admiral Richard Howe's flagship, the HMS Eagle. Ezra Bushnell, the inventor's brother, was supposed to carry out the task but on the eve of this mission, he became ill and someone else had to take his place. That someone was Sergeant Ezra Lee of Old Lyme, Connecticut. David Bushnell quickly taught him how to maneuver the submarine and how to deploy the mine. After a few practice sessions, Lee was ready.

The First Combat Mission

The Turtle set out on its historic mission shortly after midnight, September 7, 1776. It managed to reach the Eagle, submerge and slip beneath the ship's keel undetected. Sergeant Lee made two attempts to attach the mine to the bottom of the ship but failed because he could not penetrate the copper-sheathed hull. Failing to attach the mine, he had no choice but to abandon his mission and return.

The journal of Dr. James Thacher explains what happened during the Turtle's trip back to the American lines.

"In his return from the ship to New York, he passed near Governor's Island and thought he was discovered by the enemy on the island. Being in haste to avoid the danger he feared, he cast off the magazine, as he imagined it retarded him in the swell, which was very considerable. After the magazine had been cast off one hour, the time the internal apparatus was set to run, it blew up with great violence, throwing a vast column of water to an amazing height in the air, and leaving the enemy to conjecture whether the stupendous noise was produced by a bomb, a meteor, a water-spout, or an earthquake."

Despite the failure to sink the ship, the submarine performed as designed by forcing the British to move their fleet to a safer position. It was the first attempt to end a naval blockade by using a submarine. Even though the attempt failed, military planners took notice that the submarine had potential as a weapon.


Military Journal of Dr. James Thacher
Dr. James Thacher provides us with an account of the attack on the HMS Eagle in his journal about the American Revolution. He also describes what the Turtle looked like.

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Fulton
Jefferson suggested, in a letter to Robert Fulton, that America should train men how to operate submarines like the Turtle to defend American waters against enemy attack. The submarine would use the torpedoes Fulton was developing at the time.

Turtle-A Revolutionary Submarine
This article by George Pararas-Carayannis examines the history of the Turtle in more detail, including some interesting suppositions about the topic.