In previous posts on The Weekly Packet, I have offered the idea that fifty years is a good amount of time to gain perspective on issues. As often happens, a recent trip has changed my thinking somewhat. Travel, of course, is a good thing. That sounds straight out of Martha Stewart, so let’s turn to Mark Twain, who said, ““Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
So we (Katherine and I) took a short trip to get together with some of my Amherst fraternity brothers. The whole story of the Amherst fraternity experience (very benign in our era) will prompt another story.
Our travel took us to Old Saybrook, CT. where the 406 mile-long Connecticut River flows into Long Island Sound. Our host has a lovely old home on Ayers Point, and this is how we stumbled onto a bit of 246 year-old news to share with you. In Revolutionary War days, Ayers Point was the site for the fabrication of the Turtle, the first military submarine to attempt an attack on an enemy vessel. The standard information says only that Sgt. Ezra Lee, of the Continental Army was the operator of the one-man vessel, and that he unsuccessfully attempted to drill a hole in the hull of a British ship.
Actually, the story is considerably more interesting. David Bushnell, who had attended Yale, designed the Turtle and, enlisting a number of skilled craftsmen in the area, he solved a myriad of technical problems, not only constructing the boat, but also designing a timing mechanism to allow the boat to escape after attaching an explosive mine to the enemy vessel. But he needed someone with brawn to operate the boat. The operator had to move the boat forward and backward with a front propeller driven by a treadle and a hand crank and also supply the muscle required for a vertical propeller on the top of the boat that assisted with ascent.
Enter David’s brother, Ezra Bushnell. Younger and considerably stronger, Ezra must also have been either somewhat less bright or much more courageous. Perhaps he combined both attributes. Nonetheless, Ezra provided the crew and the power for the Turtle’s initial trials that took place just off Ayer’s Point. By all reports, Ezra became quite proficient at maneuvering the vessel.
The intrepid submariners loaded the Turtle onto a boat, and headed for New York Harbor, where the British fleet with its flagship, HMS Eagle, were anchored. Before they could mount an attack, Ezra Bushnell became seriously ill. This brought Sgt. Lee into the picture, as a volunteer to step into Ezra Bushnell’s spot. The Connecticut History website details Lee’s courageous but unsuccessful efforts against the Eagle.
The “news” from almost 250 years ago?
Invention, ingenuity, creativity, and craftsmanship combined to make the impossible happen; a submerged vessel with a single man aboard attacked the flagship of the British fleet.
The success of the venture depended on the skills of one man, who was laid low by illness, and a second, who made a gallant effort on short notice.
Today, we may have more powerful technology, but we would be hard-pressed to match the mind and spirit of the Connecticut Yankees.
Note: see also Manston R.R., Frese F.J., Turtle: David Bushnell’s Revolutionary Vessel. Westholme Publishing