The two men most closely associated with Turtle, the first submarine ever to be used in combat, are David Bushnell, her designer and builder, and Ezra Lee, her operator on the night of the famous attack, described in yesterday’s “Tidbit.” But what happened to them after that fateful night in the fall of 1776?
Bushnell remains a shadowy figure. Only bits and pieces of him appear in the history books. Shortly after her daring attack, Turtle fell off the back of a transport ship. Bushnell claims to have recovered her, although there is no evidence of his having done so and the vessel was never seen again. In 1777 he attempted to blow up another British ship in Connecticut’s Niantic Bay, but succeeded only in striking and destroying a schooner the ship had taken as a prize and anchored nearby. The following year, in yet another effort to attack the British navy, he floated mobile mines down the Delaware River towards Philadelphia and the ships lying at anchor there. At least one of the mines blew up a barge; the British proceeded to fire at any bit of wood they saw in the water in the hope of destroying the mines before they found targets. The engagement, such as it was, became known as “The Battle of the Kegs.” Bushnell went on to serve as the commander of a unit newly created by General George Washington, the Corps of Sappers and Miners; he was later commissioned as a captain in the Continental Army and was present at the Battle of Yorktown.
At some point around 1787, Bushnell moved to France. He returned to America about three years later, now going by the surname “Bush.” A friend of his, George Hargraves, claims he did so because “he got duped and cheated by a rascal, and found it prudent to absent himself from a dishonest creditor.” He settled in Georgia, dying there in 1826. He hadn’t had any contact with his relatives for nearly 30 years.
Researcher Joseph Leary has discovered that in his later years Bushnell was hard at work on a self-guided sailboat that could carry a spar torpedo to an enemy vessel without risking an attacker’s life. Hargraves discovered a model of the weapon at Bushnell’s last residence and delivered it to his family in Connecticut along with his other effects. Sadly the model, which had been diassembled for transport, ended up looking like nothing more than a collection of useless parts, which were discarded. Leary himself believes that Turtle was, in fact salvaged and broken apart, the metal pieces used for other projects, including the town clock in Essex, CT. “The major wooden sections,” he concludes, “probably went up the chimney, one at a time, during Connecticut’s long, cold winters.”
Lee’s story is easier to trace. He made one more attempt at an attack aboard Turtle, but was spotted by the British and forced to turn back before getting anywhere close to a ship. Despite his lack of success, Lee received the thanks of Generals George Washington, his commander-in-chief, in person. “He ever had the confidence and esteem of Washington and was frequently employed by him on secret missions of importance,” says his obituary, leaving open the question of just what those missions entailed. In any event, Lee remained in the army and participated in several major Revolutionary-War battles. Legend has it that both his sword and coat were heavily damaged by gunfire at Brandywine, but that Lee himself emerged from the fighting unscathed. He died—“without an enemy,” according to his obituary—on 29 October 1821 and was buried in Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme, CT, where his headstone remains upright and legible. Stewart Holbrook, author of a book entitled Lost Men of American History, went so far as to claim that “had a Longfellow fastened upon him, [Lee] would be as well known today as Paul Revere, and it is a pity that he isn’t.”