Sunday, July 14, 2019

Episode 105: Staten Island Peace Conference

After General Howe conquered Brooklyn and Long Island, he decided to take a couple of weeks before invading Manhattan Island, at the time, often called York City.  Howe did not want to crush the colonials.  His invasion of Long Island had proven to the colonists that they could not stand up to his forces.  Rather than shed more blood, Howe looked for a way to get the rebels to surrender and put an end to all of this.

Gen. Howe Celebrated

Howe, of course, intended to take Manhattan.  It was only a question of whether the Continental Army would surrender before or after the British moved into the city.  Howe’s pause was an attempt to end things without further demonstration of the destructive power of his army.

During this pause, General Howe sent back his report of the defeat of the Americans on Long Island.  He did not go out of his way to emphasize Washington’s amazing escape, so London celebrated the victory as a vindication of the plan to use overwhelming force.  The King made General Howe a Knight of the Bath and promised the conquering hero other rewards when he returned home victorious.  So, congratulations to William Howe becoming “Sir William.”  Of course, Howe would not learn of this honor for months, but it shows just how ready officials in London were to receive some good news and name a hero.

Howe Brothers as Peace Delegates

General Howe, seemed less interested in military victories than in being a diplomat who could heal the political differences between Britain and the colonies.  Remember, both of the Howe brothers were Whig members of Parliament who generally supported a policy of accommodation with the colonies.  Neither of them had wanted the war.  General Howe had even promised his constituents in the last election that he would not serve in America.  Howe obviously broke this promise.  His stated reasoning was that if the King called on him to go, he really could not refuse.

General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
That actually was not entirely true.  Howe was 112th in rank and seniority at the time. A great many of those ahead of him were too old or infirm to command troops overseas.  But a great many also simply demurred and told the ministry they did not want to serve in America.  They did not want to snuff out the rights of their fellow Englishmen.  Crushing a rebellion of British subjects was not popular in England.  While a solid majority in Parliament supported military action, a substantial minority did not.  Even among those leaders who supported military action, few wanted to be remembered for crushing such a rebellion.  No one wanted to be remembered as the Butcher of Boston or the Butcher of New York or wherever the final showdown occurred.  Therefore, many generals simply found excuses not to go to America.

While the Howe brothers were sympathetic to that view, they decided that if they went, they could perhaps prevent a wholesale slaughter of colonists in order to instill fear and obedience. They knew they would need to use military force, but hoped they could negotiate a peaceful solution once the colonists saw that force and realized they could not resist it.

One of General Howe’s constituents wrote him to criticize his decision to deploy to America in violation of his campaign promise.  In his response, Howe indicates his views in more detail:
One word for America: you are deceived if you suppose there are not many loyal and peaceable subjects in that country. I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison of the whole people … With respect to the few, who, I am told, desire to separate themselves from the Mother Country, I trust, when they find they are not supported in their frantic ideas by the more moderate, which I have described, they will, from fear of punishment, subside to the laws.
In other words, a radical minority had somehow pushed an agenda that America should be independent of England. The majority of colonists were simply suffering under the tyranny of those radical local leaders.  When the military asserted control in the colonies, the moderates would be free to express themselves and the radical leaders would have no choice but to back down.

Historians have long debated what Gen. Howe’s true motives were in prosecuting the war.  They point to numerous instances where Howe had the enemy within his grasp and simply allowed it to escape.  Washington’s escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago is one example.  Another will happen Howe will let the Continentals slip out of Manhattan that I will discuss in an upcoming episode.  There are still more examples we will see as his army chases the Continentals across New Jersey and fails to take Philadelphia.

Some have argued that Howe never really wanted to win, that he supported a common Whig notion of the colonies getting at least semi-independence from Britain.  In a letter to Germain before the New York campaign began, Howe said that an early decisive battle was critical to British victory.  Without such a victory, the colonists would never submit to British sovereignty.
It is most likely that they [the Patriots] will act on the defensive, by having recourse to strong intrenched situations, in order to spin out the campaign, if possible, without exposing themselves to any decisive stroke.
So why didn’t Howe push hard for a decisive stroke at New York before pausing for his peace conference?  Some think the answer is that he really did not want to win.

I don’t think that is the case.  One reason much of this is a mystery is that Howe’s personal papers were destroyed in a fire in the early 1800’s, before historians could dig into them.  So his real motives are probably lost forever.

A more plausible theory for me though is that Howe was shaken by the loss at Bunker Hill.  At that time, General Gage was still overall commander, but Howe led the charge on the hill that day.  The massive losses, especially among his officers, left a long held impression that he should not simply rush into colonial defenses. Although speed and surprise could be effective in battle, they greatly added to the risk of loss.  Howe did not want to see a massive loss of officers and men that he could not easily replace.

Howe also wanted to impress the colonists with the idea that the regular army was invincible.  Moving more slowly and allowing time for logistics and planning might also allow for the enemy to escape.  But having the Continentals run away from the regulars was better than creating even a small risk of a Continental victory.  If regulars got too spread out while pursuing a retreating enemy, they set themselves up for ambush.  Even a relatively minor win could destroy the impression of inevitability that Howe wanted to convey.

Therefore, Howe moved his army slowly and methodically, pushing back the enemy and always stopping to ask if they had had enough and were ready to talk peace.

Admiral Richard Howe was even more eager to negotiate a peace than his brother William.  Admiral and General Howe both worked closely and regularly discussed diplomatic initiatives.  Richard had insisted on being named a peace commissioner before he agreed to take command of the fleet in America.  He had wanted to be a one man commission, but the ministry insisted on having other commissioners.  They did not necessarily trust the Admiral not to give away too much.  Admiral Howe, though, was not interested in working with others. After considerable and heated negotiations they settled on naming Gen. William Howe as the only other commissioner.  Admiral Howe could hardly fight having his own brother on the commission.

Admiral Richard Howe
(from Wikimedia)
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that even before the British captured Brooklyn, Admiral Howe had sent a letter to General Washington calling for peace talks.  Washington had refused that letter because Howe refused to address it to him as “general.”  This was not simply ego.  It was that Washington had no desire to discuss peace with Howe.  He knew that Howe could not address him as “general” without implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Continental Congress, which gave Washington that commission.  Even after Howe got a messenger to meet with Washington in person, Washington made clear that he had no authority nor desire to talk about any sort of settlement.  The Howes, therefore, decided the colonials needed a little more demonstration of British power, and went ahead with his invasion.

The relatively easy invasion of Long Island showed that the so-called Continental Army and the militia were no match for the British regulars.  Loyalists were already beginning to emerge around New York, just at Howe expected.  If the radical leaders in the so-called Continental Congress would see that, perhaps they would be willing to back down and return as loyal subjects, as long as they received pardon for their misguided actions over the previous couple of years.  Howe decided to see his capture of Long Island was enough, and tried once again to discuss peace terms.

Sullivan Carries a Message

The British army had captured several Continental generals among its prisoners from the battle of Long Island.  On August 28, even before Washington had made his escape from Long Island, the Howes invited two of their prisoners, Generals John Sullivan and Lord Stirling to dine with them.  The British had captured both officers in Brooklyn.  The men discussed the course of events and whether they would carry a message to the Continental Congress calling for a Peace Conference.  Now that the Howes had proven they could crush the Continental Army whenever they wanted, they hoped to avoid further bloodshed by getting the Continental Congress to give up on all this independence nonsense and accept the sovereignty of the King and Parliament.

General John Sullivan
(from Wikimedia)
Gen. Stirling refused to cooperate with the enemy, but Gen. Sullivan seemed convinced, at least enough to deliver their message to Congress. Admiral Howe released Sullivan on parole and allowed him to return to the American lines in New York.  There, Sullivan met with Gen. Washington and received permission to go to Congress to deliver Admiral Howe’s message.  Washington still adamantly believed that peace negotiations were foolish.  He also thought Sullivan was naive to think the British would ever offer a negotiated settlement with any acceptable terms.

But the negotiation process apparently put further British attacks on hold and gave Washington time to shore up his defenses in New York.  Also, the decision for peace talks was one that Congress should make, not him.  So, Washington sent Sullivan to Philadelphia to deliver Howe’s message.

Sullivan arrived in Philadelphia on September 2.  He met with Congress to discuss the possibility of a peace conference. By now, Sullivan’s reputation had sunk pretty low.  Not only had he lost Canada, and then lost in battle on Long Island, but he had agreed to cooperate with the enemy in arranging this supposed peace conference.  Some members of Congress accused Sullivan of being a dupe for Howe’s plan to kill American independence.

After delivering his message, Sullivan could not return to the army.  Under the terms of his parole, he had to wait until the Americans returned a British general of the same rank in exchange for him.  Congress had to release British General Richard Prescott, who had become an American prisoner nearly a year earlier with the fall of Montreal, before Sullivan could return to active duty.

Peace Delegation

Congress debated whether to send a delegation to Howe’s proposed peace conference.  Many argued the conference would simply work to divide people against the war effort.  In the end though, Congress did not think it could reject the proposal for a meeting.  Congress voted to send a delegation made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge.  All three men were hardcore patriots who were not likely to find much common ground with the British diplomats.  Adams especially considered the whole affair as a distraction from the war and an attempt to divide moderates, who were losing nerve in the face of the large British military force at New York.

Franklin, Adams, and Rutledge confer with
Admiral Howe. (from Wikimedia)
Even if they wanted to, the delegation did not have any authority it make any agreements.  The members could listen to what Howe had to say, ask questions, and report back to Congress.

On September 9, the delegation left Philadelphia for New York.  Along the way, the delegates had to stay overnight in New Brunswick New Jersey.  The inn was so full, that Adams and Franklin had to share a bed. They apparently got into a fight over whether or not to leave the window open at night.  For diplomats, they seemed to have difficulty even getting along with each other.

They arrived two days later on September 11, where they took a British-controlled ferry from New Jersey to Staten Island. They met a delegation of British officers under a flag of truce.  The delegation planned to leave one officer with the Americans as a hostage to guarantee their safe return.  Adams told Franklin he thought the idea was absurd, and requested that the officer return with them to Admiral Howe.

Billop House Summit

Admiral Howe met with Congressional delegates.  His brother General Howe did not participate.  The Admiral hosted the meeting at the home of a Tory named Christopher Billop on Long Island.  A Hessian guard unit had been living in the house for some time and it was a smelly mess.  Howe had his men do their best to clean up the house in a hurry, and put out a meal for the delegates.

Howe was apparently greatly impressed that the Congressional delegates had returned with their hostage, thus indicating that they trusted Howe’s honor to return them safely.  That, however, was probably the high point of the meeting.

When Howe learned that the delegation did not have authority to agree to anything, he considered ending the negotiations right away.  But since he really wanted to see if the talks had any possibility of leading anywhere, he continued the discussion.

The next hurdle was that Howe insisted on meeting with the men as private citizens, not recognizing them as a delegation from the Continental Congress since that body was an illegal assembly without any valid authority.  But the delegates insisted that they represented Congress and Howe, again, allowed the discussions to proceed.

Howe and Franklin had discussed possible resolutions before when Franklin was still living in London.  Howe pointed out that the ministry would agree to end all direct colonial taxes if the colonies would tax themselves to raise the money that the empire needed.  This was the essence of the Conciliatory Resolution that Parliament had passed a year earlier, and which Congress had rejected.

Rutledge then asked if Howe had authority to cancel the Prohibitory Act, which banned all Colonial transatlantic trade.  Howe noted that he could not void an Act of Parliament, but that he could suspend enforcement if the Americans ceased hostilities.  Since Howe could not offer anything of substance, other than agreeing not to hang everybody, any settlement would require that the colonies surrender, then wait to hear what terms London would give them.  That was simply a nonstarter for the delegates.

Billop House, Staten Island (from Wikimedia)
The delegates insisted that there could be no negotiations until London recognized American independence.  Franklin told Howe that there had been too much war and devastation for the colonies to return to the empire as the King’s subjects.  Howe knew that independence was a non-starter in London.

Although Franklin knew this would not go anywhere, he made the case for British acceptance of independence.  The United States were growing into a major force in their own right, and no longer trusted British rule.  The only way Britain might maintain control, would be to keep a large and expensive standing army in the colonies that would only impoverish both countries.  If Britain accepted independence, it could resume trade with America, receiving the goods and raw materials that benefited the British people.

Howe attempted to express sympathy for the American cause, but saw the only solution as some acceptable submission to the King.  Howe emphasized though, that he really thought he had the best interests of the colonies at heart.  At one point Howe said “If America should faile, I should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother.”  To that, Franklin responded “My Lord, we shall do our utmost endeavors to save your Lordship that mortification.

The men talked cordially for about three hours, enjoying a few glasses of wine and a nice dinner together.  But it was obvious to all, that there was no common ground for negotiation.  Given that Howe could not make any political concessions and that the Congressional delegation made clear that they would accept nothing less than independence, the war would have to continue.

Peace Talks End

Howe returned the delegation back to New Jersey and, with his brother, drafted a joint report for Secretary George Germain back in London.  They noted that the Americans still insisted on recognition of independence.  For officials in London, this seemed like a joke.  When the King’s forces crush you in battle, you submit.  You don’t continue to insist on getting your way.  Clearly, the army had to continue to smash at the rebellion until its leaders got the point.

Similarly, the delegates reported back to Congress that Howe had zero authority to grant any political concessions.  Continued talks were pointless.  Adams wrote to his wife that Admiral Howe’s notion that Americans were ready to submit to the King only showed that “his head is rather confused.

The conference seemed to vindicate Howe’s political opponents.  If Britain planned to win, it needed to have less friendly conversations and more military victories.  Howe had seemed certain he could find a political solution to end the violence, but was clearly out of his league as a diplomat, or at least long overtaken by events.

While the delegates had not ever thought the conference would accomplish anything, they at least got to make their point and bought several weeks for Washington to reorganize his defenses in New York.  Of course the Howes were not worried about giving Washington more time.  They believed, correctly as it turned out, that they could push aside those defenses at any time of their choosing.

The talks did have one negative for the Americans.  In Paris, Silas Deane was still working to bring the French on board and to supply the Americans with arms and ammunition.  When word reached Paris that the British and Americans were in peace talks, the French immediately suspended covert assistance.  They were not going to risk a war with Britain if the colonies were going to turn around and make nice.  Fortunately, a few days later, Paris received word that nothing had come of the talks, and aid resumed.

Next Week:  A whole different Continental Army in the North attempts to stop the British in Canada from launching a second invasion of New York.

- - -

Next Episode 106: Arms Race on Lake Champlain (Available July 21, 2019)

Previous Episode 104: Submarine Warfare

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Further Reading


Lord Howe’s Conference with the Committee of Congress:

A Tale of Two Declarations:

Lord Howe Letter to Benjamin Franklin June 20, 1776 (sent July 12):

Benjamin Franklin letter to Lord Howe July 20, 1776:

Lord Howe Letter to Benjamin Franklin Sept. 10, 1776

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) (1780)

Barrow, John The Life of Richard, Earl Howe, Admiral of the Fleet and General of Marines, London: John Murray, 1838.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 2, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Gallagher, John J. Battle Of Brooklyn, 1776,  Da Capo Press, 1995.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

McCullough, David John Adams, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

McGuire, Thomas J. Stop the Revolution: America in the Summer of Independence and the Conference for Peace, Stackpole Books, 2011 (book recommendation of the week).

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

Syrett, David Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography, Naval Institute Press, 2005

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Episode 104: Submarine Warfare

Continental Army in Disarray

At the end of August, 1776, Washington’s army had escaped from Brooklyn, almost by miracle, back to Manhattan, leaving the British in control of Long Island.  Washington’s devastated army was in chaos.  Morale was low and desertions were going through the roof.  It’s as if the soldiers did not want to be stuck in New York City when the British made their next offensive.  Most expected Howe would to land soldiers north of the city and trap Washington’s army on the southern tip of Manhattan, with a British army to the north and the British Navy controlling the harbor to the south and the rivers to the east and west.

With the cannons of the British Navy, Howe’s army easily could have crossed anywhere along the East River and attacked the patriots.  The British had over 400 ships in and around New York, including several large Men-of-War.  Given the deep water all around Manhattan, they could bring artillery fire or land soldiers and marines anywhere they wanted at any time.  Rather than attack though, Gen. Howe took another pause and once again tried to pursue diplomacy.

Attacking the Fleet

During the pause, Washington had time to shore up his defenses on Manhattan.  But no matter how much time he had, he faced the reality that the British controlled the Hudson River (sometimes called the North River at the time) as well as the East River, and all of New York Harbor.  That made any defense of the city impossible.  The British Navy had already proven that the Continental forts defending the rivers were useless.  The Continentals had tried to sink ships in the rivers and create other obstructions that would block Admiral Howe’s ships, but nothing stopped them.

Washington, of course, had no navy to come to his aid.  Most of the small Continental navy remained locked up in Rhode Island.  The few ships that were roaming the Atlantic, along with many privateers could harass isolated British ships, or perhaps even very small convoys, but nothing that dared take on the armada at New York.  So if they wanted to do anything, they needed to get creative.

David Bushnell

The patriots were nothing if not creative.  David Bushnell headed a small team of inventive men looking for a way to attack the British navy.

Bushnell's Turtle (from Wikimedia)
Bushnell is a pretty interesting character.  He was the son of a Connecticut farmer.  He wanted to attend college but could not afford it.  For years, he worked the family farm for subsistence.  While growing up, he attended school, borrowed books when possible, and expressed an interest in mechanics and engineering.  Even so, there seemed to be little chance that he would ever escape farm life.

When his father died in 1762, the 22 year old David and his younger brother Ezra had to take over the family farm.  It was hard work with little reward.  When his younger sister died in 1769, David’s mother remarried.  No longer feeling obligated to support his family, David sold his half of the farm to Ezra and finally pursued his dream of college.  Even though he now had the tuition money, he was not ready to pass the entrance exam.  Undeterred, David moved in with a tutor and spent the next two years working in a local shipyard and studying science and Latin with his tutor.  Finally, at the ripe old age of 31, he started school.  At a time when many students started college at 15 or 16, his classmates called him the old man.

As a member of the graduating class of 1775, Bushnell attended Yale in the years leading up to war.  Expecting a fight, he devoted his studies to developing ways of exploding gunpowder underwater.  While underwater explosives are taken for granted today, the ability to ignite a device underwater that had to stay dry and needed oxygen in the air to explode properly was quite a challenge at the time.  Working with his math professor, Bushnell developed  and tested a gunpowder mine that could ignite from a flintlock attached to a clock mechanism, in other words a time bomb.  He designed small waterproof test devices that he successfully ignited under water.

David Bushnell
(from FindaGrave)
Still getting the explosives to the the ships where they could do damage seemed an impossibility. Guards aboard ship would spot any vessel approaching a warship.  They could raise an alarm and fire on any ship before it could get close enough to explode any device.  No surface ship could approach a naval vessel, even at night.

Bushnell also found an intriguing idea for a delivery device.  Yale’s library had a book Inventions or Devices, published in 1578 by William Bourne of the Royal Navy.  Bourne conceived of and described a wooden enclosure with leather tanks that could take in or force out water to raise or lower the device in the water.  Bourne never build such a device, but it gave Bushnell an idea for building one of his own.  Bushnell also drew inspiration from several others books and articles in the school library.

Bushnell was weeks away from graduation when word of Lexington and Concord reached Yale’s campus in April 1775. The school closed down for a few weeks, but eventually reopened, allowing students to take their final exams and graduate in July.  Many of his classmates headed for Boston to join the new Continental Army.  Bushnell headed back to his family farm in Old Saybrook Connecticut to continue his work on a top secret underwater device.

Building the Turtle

Bushnell kept his project a secret from almost everyone.  With his meager resources, he purchased a small island on the Connecticut River and built a small shack.  There, he told everyone, he was going to become a fisherman.  He would need some help to build his invention.  His brother brother Ezra had already enlisted and was serving at the siege of Boston.  Fortunately, Ezra’s commanding officer was one of David’s Yale classmates, Nathan Hale, who was still a year away from giving his one life for his country.  Bushnell discussed his project with Hale, who allowed Ezra to return home and assist his brother.  Bushnell also recruited a local artisan named Isaac Doolittle to work on a clock mechanism to trigger the explosive.

They made the vehicle by carving out two solid pieces of oak, leaving only one seam to waterproof.  They fastened iron hoops around the wood, like a barrel, to keep it together. The vehicle was only about seven or eight feet long about six feet high and three feet wide, barely enough room to seat the pilot.  Since it was shaped like a turtle shell, they named it the Turtle.

To travel underwater, they developed what they called a "windmill propeller" but is actually a forerunner of the modern screw propeller that others claimed to have invented half a century later. They used a hand crank and foot treadles, similar to what was used with other machinery of the time, to turn the propellers.

Sketch of Turtle (from NavSource)
Snorkels supplied air for the pilot, meaning that the vessel would have to travel near the surface for most of the trip, then rely on the air inside the small operator area when descending near the target. On the top, they attached a hatch made of wood and brass, with windows on all four sides as well as on top so that the pilot could see where he was going.  The windows also provided light when on or near the surface.

The pilot had no light while underwater.  They had tried using a candle, but that quickly burned through the small amount of air in the cabin while submerged.  Instead they added foxfire, a wood fungus that gave off a glow.  They added this to the tip of the compass and the barometer so that the pilot could see direction and depth while underwater and in the dark.

The pilot controlled descent underwater by allowing water into the bottom of the vessel, around the pilot's feet.  Several hundred pounds of lead ballast kept the vehicle from being too light, while adding or removing a little water was enough to help it descend or rise, combined with a vertical propeller that the pilot could also use.

A small team built an underwater mine, containing about 150 pounds of black powder.  A screw would allow it to be attached to the bottom of a ship.  The Turtle would tow the mine on a chain floating alongside the submarine.  Doolittle, who was a clock maker and metal worker by trade, developed a timing device that would allow the pilot to trigger the device then have a few minutes to escape before a flintlock from a gun fired a spark into the gunpowder to trigger the explosion.

During the last summer and fall of 1775, The team tested the Turtle, for weeks on the Connecticut River.  David had tried to pilot the Turtle himself, but found he did not have the necessary strength and stamina.  Instead, brother Ezra took over as pilot.  The men successfully tested their invention by attaching a mine to a wrecked ship and successfully exploded it.

The plan was to propel the Turtle along the surface at night until it got close to a ship.  Then, it would descend underwater, where the pilot would attach the explosive to the bottom of the ship with a screw, set the timing device, and move away before the explosion. The pilot had to perform the entire underwater portion of the operation in 15 to 20 minutes. Otherwise he would run out of air.

The team originally planned to move up to Boston to use against the fleet there.  However, they found they could not use the Turtle in winter.  The Ice made it too hard to navigate.  Also, the foxfire which provided needed light, did not glow in cold weather.

Keeping the Project Secret

Bushnell had attempted to maintain as much secrecy as possible around his project.  Still, he eventually needed to tell some people.  He hoped to get some funding from the Connecticut government and made a proposal to the Governor.  The amount offered was so small that Bushnell decided not to take it.  The presentation, however, meant that Governor Trumbull knew about the project and discussed it with others.

Bushnell also confided in a close friend, Benjamin Gale, who was an inventor and who Bushnell hoped could help with some of their technical problems.  Gale, with Bushnell’s permission, reached out to the most prominent scientist on the continent, Benjamin Franklin.

Turtle in Harbor
One a trip from Philadelphia to Boston, Franklin made a stop in Old Saybrook to get a look at this new contraption.  There are no specific records of what he saw, but Franklin apparently did discuss the project with Washington when he arrived in Boston.

The obvious reason for secrecy was that Bushnell did not want the British to find out about his project and send out a team to destroy it.  Loyalist spies did get word of the project and alerted both General Gage and Royal Governor William Tryon of New York.  Fortunately for Bushnell, both took note of the intelligence, but did not think it important enough to do anything about it.

Bushnell hoped to launch an attack on the fleet in Boston Harbor in the spring of 1776.  The original idea was that the British in Boston only received supplies by sea, and primarily defended their positions with naval cannons.  If the colonists could threaten the navy in Boston Harbor, the army would have to abandon the city. Before he could deploy the Turtle there, the fleet evacuated to Halifax in March after the Continentals occupied Dorchester Heights, something I discussed back in Episode 86.

Bushnell had to wait for a new opportunity to test his craft in combat.  When the British fleet anchored in New York Harbor in June, the team selected Admiral Howe's flagship, the HMS Eagle as the target.

The Attack

Both Governor Trumbull of Connecticut and George Washington approved the attempt.  The team loaded the Turtle aboard a ship on the Connecticut River where they had been testing, and took it to a point near New York Harbor.

Execution of the plan, however, ran into numerous problems.  First the pilot Ezra Bushnell got sick. Historians widely believe that Ezra came down with Typhus, one of the epidemics sweeping through the Continental camp at the time. This man would be out of commission for weeks, if he survived it at all.

The team had to recruit a new pilot for the secret mission. They did not tell the volunteer what the mission was until after he joined the team, out of the need for secrecy.  General Samuel Parsons, also from Connecticut, recommended his brother-in-law, sergeant Ezra Lee to pilot the Turtle for its first mission.

The team put Lee through several weeks of training before he was ready. Finally, once he was familiar with all the controls, the team brought the Turtle overland to New York Harbor. On the night of September 6, about a week after Washington had retreated from Long Island back to Manhattan, the team launched its attack.

Right away, the mission ran into problems.  The Turtle, which took a huge effort to propel forward had to fight an outgoing tide.  Lee describes his attempt to reach the enemy ship: “We set off from the City, the Whale boats towed me as nigh the ships as they dare go, and then they cast me off. I soon found that I was too early in the tide, as it carried me down to the [transport] ships. I however, hove about, and rowed for 5 glasses [2½ hours], by the ship’s bells, before the tide slackened so that I could get along side the man of war, which lay above the transports.

Turtle under the HMS Eagle (from NavSource)
By the time lee had worked himself close enough to his target, it was close to dawn and Lee was exhausted.  Still he descended underneath the ship and attempted to attach the explosive.  “When I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see men and deck and hear them talk-then I shut all doors, sunk down, and came up under the bottom of the ship, up with the screw against the bottom but found that it would not enter.

There is some debate about why Lee could not attach the explosive to the bottom of the ship.  Some have claimed the Eagle had a copper cover underneath the ship to prevent barnacles from attaching and slowing down the vessel.  Others have argued that no, the Eagle did not get a copper bottom until years later and that even if it did, the drill should have been able to bore through it.  Another theory is that Lee was simply unlucky enough to hit on an iron plate near the rudder, which the drill could not penetrate. Whatever the problem was, Lee could not attach the bomb.

Since it had taken him so long to reach the ship and he did not have time to pull away, ascend to get more air, and go back for another try.  With dawn quickly approaching, Lee had to make his escape before being discovered.  As he pulled away from the Eagle, British sentries saw the vessel and sent several guard boats after him to discover what this was.  The Turtle could not outrun a rowboat, so Lee was in real trouble.

Lee detached his explosive and set the timing device, hoping to take out his pursuers, and possibly himself as well.  As he put it, he “let loose the magazine in hopes, that if they should take me, they should likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together…”  The explosive drifted away from the Turtle, and a few minutes later, exploded harmlessly away from everyone, sending a column of water into the air.  That was enough for the British sailors to call off their pursuit.  After seeing one wooden device explode, they did not want to get near the other wooden device that they saw, for fear it was another explosive as well.

The British turned back.  Lee was able to propel the Turtle back to the American lines near the shore.

End of the Experiment

The Americans recovered the Turtle and prepared for a second attempt further up the Hudson river.  The British, now alerted to the danger, discovered the vessel on two subsequent attempts to make contact with the enemy and fired on it.  In both cases, the pilot was able to make his escape, but without being able to attach the explosive.  Shortly after this, the British navy sank the transport vessel carrying the Turtle.  With the loss of the vessel after three unsuccessful attempts, the American submarine project came to an end.

Mine used to destroy a British
ship near Philadelphia
(from Wikipedia)
So, the project was a failure.  The Turtle did not damage any British ships and forced no British reaction other than keeping nighttime sentries aboard ship a little more alert.  Admiral Howe did not see the technology as a threat and did not change his ship deployments.  Still, it is pretty amazing that that Patriots built and deployed a submarine at all.  During the war, the project remained secret.  It did not become well known until long after the war ended.

Bushnell later wrote that he had recovered the Turtle from the shipwreck.  If he did, the Americans never used it again.  Some speculate that he recovered and hid the parts for future use.  If he did, the chance never came because the Americans never tried this experiment again for the rest of the war.

Although this was the end of the Turtle, Bushnell continued his efforts to sink British ships with his underwater explosives.  The following year, the Americans deployed underwater mines with spring loaded triggers.  Any ship that hit the mine could trigger an explosion.  By this time, the British had occupied Philadelphia, so the Americans deployed about twenty mines in the Delaware River, just upstream from the city.  They successfully blew up a barge, killing four sailors. It was enough to alert the entire city to a possible attack.  Sentries fired at the mines, destroying several, while the remainder floated past the city.   Sadly, one of the mines which floated past Philadelphia caught the attention of a couple of boys fishing. It exploded and killed them as they attempted to haul the strange device into their boat.

Bushnell took a captain’s commission in the Continental army and served in the newly formed Corps of Sappers and Miners, what eventually became the Army Corps of Engineers.  After the war, he returned to Connecticut, but after the death of his brother Ezra in 1787, he left for good.  Some say  he want to France.  There is some evidence that Bushnell tried to make contact with French Ambassador Thomas Jefferson, in hopes of selling his submarine to the French Navy.

A few years later, a man named David Bush moved to Georgia, working as a teacher and physician.  When he died years later, he left his small estate to Ezra’s children, thus revealing his true identity.  It’s not clear why Bushnell changed his name and moved to Georgia, but he died without his friends and neighbors knowing about his exploits during the war.  The submarine would have to wait almost another century before the Confederates would try to use it again during the Civil War.

- - -

Next  Episode 105: Staten Island Peace Conference (available July 14, 2019)

Previous  Episode 103: The Battle of Brooklyn

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Further Reading


David Bushnell and his Revolutionary Submarine, by Brenda Milkofsky:

David Bushnell Facts:

David Bushnell:

David Bushnell and the American Turtle:

Speck, Robert M. "The Connecticut Water Machine Versus The Royal Navy" American Heritage Magazine Vol. 32 Issue 1, Dec. 1980:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

David Bushnell and his American Turtle, New York: The Werner Company, 1899

Fyfe, Herbert C. Submarine Warfare, Past, Present and Future, London: Grant Richards, 1902.

Wagner, Frederick Submarine Fighter of the American Revolution: the Story of David Bushnell, Dodd Mead & Co. 1963 (available as loan).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Gallagher, John J. Battle Of Brooklyn, 1776,  Da Capo Press, 1995.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. Bushnell’s Submarine, New York: Scholastic, 2006.

Manstan, Roy & Frese, Frederic Turtle: David Bushnell's Revolutionary Vessel, Yardley, Pa: Westholme Publishing, 2010 (book recommendation of the week).

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

Wagner, Frederick Submarine Fighter of the American Revolution: the Story of David Bushnell, Dodd Mead & Co. 1963 (co-book recommendation of the week).

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.