The Turtle Submarine 1776 was the date of its first attack. It’s target, the British 64-gun HMS Eagle-flagship of Admiral “Black Dick” Howe. The ship, under command of Capt. Henry Duncan, was moored with the rest of the British ships just north of Staten Island.
On the evening of Sept. 6, 1776, Sergeant Lee, (Who would command the Turtle), climbed down the narrow conning tower, into the cramped confines of the submarine. At 2230 hours, (10:30PM), the Turtle was towed downstream, as close as they dared to the fleet and cast off.
For 21/2 hours, Lee rowed towards his target eventually reaching the stern of the Eagle. Peering out the tiny portholes of the conning tower, Lee could see men about the deck of the giant ship and could even her their voices.
Just before dawn, Lee secured all doors and prepared for the descent underneath the Royal Man-of-War. Once under the ship, Lee attempted to use the hand operated drill, to put a hole in the ships hull where he would install a bolt, to secure his torpedo. Whether it was the ships copper-sheathing or a hard spot in the ships hull, his operation failed.
A second attempt also failed. Losing control momentarily, the Turtle “immediately rose with great velocity,” and came 2-3 feet above the surface, next to the Eagles hull. Fortunately Lee was able to regain control and sink back into the depths, before he was spotted.
Failing twice to attach his torpedo, and with daylight approaching, Lee decided to retreat. He traveled submerged back to shore, every so often rising to the surface to get his bearings. At some point 300-400 British soldiers on the English held Governors Island, spotted the craft, steering a “crooked and zig-zag,” course past the island. The British put a 12-oared cutter in hot pursuit, with six men.
Lee watched carefully as the tiny boat gave chase. When the cutter got within 50 yards of him, he “let loose the magazine (torpedo), in hopes that if they should take me, they would likewise pick up the magazine, and then we would all be blown up together.” Later on, Lee recorded the following conclusion to the chase. “But as kind Providence would have it, they (the British) took fright,” and returned to the island, to the sergeant’s “infinite delight.”
American boats spotted the Turtle and towed her back to shore. The ‘torpedo,” which Lee had let loose in the direction of the British cutter, drifted with the tide, past Governor’s Island, and directly toward the sea of British ships anchored beyond. At some point, whether or not it hit anything the “torpedo” blew up, “with a tremendous explosion, throwing up bodies of water to a great height.” This action, caused the British to cut their mooring cables and slip downstream of Staten Island.
Two more attempts to blow up British ships followed. Each one was conducted from Fort Lee, and both failed as did the first attack.
On October 9 1776, two British frigates, HMS Phoenix and HMS Roebuck, accompanied by the 20-gun HMS Tartar, along with three tenders, made their way up the lower Hudson. Artillery fire from Fort Washington and Constitution disposed of a small Continental squadron of boats. Among them was a ship carrying the Turtle submarine. Both Lee and Bushnell were able to escape and swim back to shore. The Turtle however sank to the bottom of the Hudson. Later on she was recovered, but she saw no further service. Her fate remains a mystery.
Naval History & Heritage Command