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Hunt For Red October: Submarines' Revolutionary Start By A Connecticut Inventor

November 4, 2022
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How Americans tried to innovate a red wave against the redcoats in 1776 in New York

Full-sized mockup of the Bushnell "Turtle", the world's first military submarine used in action, at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum and Library, Groton.

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Reprinted with permission Jane Hampton Cook Substack

Americans have witnessed a “red” October in 2022. Depending on its slant, political news chatter is either awash or aghast in an expected red wave of Republican victories in the Nov. 8 midterm elections, which will take place on a blood moon eclipse. Likewise, some media outlets hyped a Russian nuclear submarine's disappearance, which resurrected comparisons to the Hunt for Red October submarine movie thriller. In contrast to today’s intercontinental nuclear vessels, submarines’ humble origins trace to American ingenuity from Connecticut and a “red” September in Manhattan 1776.

As the war between Russia and Ukraine escalated after Russia’s Nord Stream 2 Pipeline was sabotaged on Sept. 26, 2022, the whereabouts of Russia’s Belgorod submarine and its underwater intercontinental nuclear torpedo, the Poseidon, was unknown.

With a degree of hysteria, there have been reports that it has been deployed with its nuclear ‘apocalypse’ and ‘doomsday’ weapons. Even that it has ‘disappeared’ (submarines do that),” NavalNews.com reported, noting that the Belgorod had appeared north of Russia’s Kola Peninsula in early October.

The media hype revived mentions of the 1990 popular suspenseful Tom Clancy movie, The Hunt for Red October, in which a foreboding nuclear Russian submarine, Red October, went rogue to presumably attack America. Tapping the Cold War zeitgeist, this thriller pitted America’s ideals of individual liberty against communism and authoritarianism.

The origins of the fictitious Red October, the real Belgorod, and any other submarine can be traced to a Connecticut inventor and his desire for independence from British redcoats during America’s Revolutionary War.

It was the latter end of June (1776), when the British fleet, which had been at Halifax waiting for reinforcements from Europe, began to arrive at New-York,” wrote Connecticut native David Humphreys, a friend and confidant of George Washington, about the 32,000 red-coated British soldiers and 10,000 sailors aboard 400 ships of various sizes coming into Staten Island as part of the British fleet.

Americans fought against this red wave with a planned red wave of their own.

“To obstruct its passage, some marine preparations had been made. General Israel Putnam, to whom the direction of the whale-boats, fire-rafts, flat-bottomed boats, and armed vessels, was committed, afforded his patronage to a project for destroying the enemy’s shipping by explosion,” Humphreys wrote in his biography of General Putnam (Humphreys, Life of Putnam, 108–12).

Putnam oversaw a novel secret mission under the water.

Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull had recommended inventor David Bushnell, a Connecticut native and Yale graduate, to General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army.

Bushnell is a man of great mechanical powers—fertile of invention—and a master in execution,” Washington reflected years later to Thomas Jefferson.

“That he had a machine which was so contrived as to carry a man under water at any depth he chose, and for a considerable time and distance, with an apparatus charged with powder which he could fasten to a ship’s bottom or side and give fire to in any given time (sufficient for him to retire) by means whereof a ship could be blown up, or sunk, are facts which I believe admit of little doubt,” Washington explained.

Bushnell had designed an egg-shaped oak vessel that brought water into the hull, which submerged the vehicle. The pilot then pumped out the water to surface the vehicle.

“The simplicity, yet combination discovered in the mechanism of this wonderful machine, were acknowledged by those skilled in physics, and particularly hydraulics, to be not less ingenious than novel,” Humphreys observed.

Attached to this vessel, however, was a keg of gun powder.

“To this machine, called the American Turtle, was attached a magazine of powder, which it was intended to be fastened under the bottom of a ship, with a driving screw, in such sort, that the same stroke which disengaged it from the machine, should put the internal clock-work in motion,” Humphreys detailed of the plan to screw a keg of gunpowder to the enemy ship and row away before the explosion.

Turtle Submarine Infographic by Shubol3D.

“This being done, the ordinary operation of a gun-lock at the distance of half an hour, an hour, or any determinate time, would cause the powder to explode, and leave the effects to the common laws of nature,” he wrote of the wave to follow.

By early September 1776 George Washington and his troops had lost the Battle of Long Island and had evacuated onto Manhattan. Because Bushnell and his brother were too ill to operate the Turtle, they recruited a volunteer pilot.

“Recourse was therefore had to a sergeant in the Connecticut troops (Ezra Lee),” Humphreys “. . . [I]t is no easy matter to get a person hardy enough to encounter the variety of dangers to which he must be exposed,” Washington concluded of the bravery of the pilot.

Engraving of Ezra Lee, Continental Army soldier and pilot of the first submarine, the Turtle, used in war.

Lee piloted the Turtle and attacked the HMS Eagle in the early morning hours of September 6-7, 1776The Eagle wasn’t just any ship. The Eagle was the 64-gun flagship for British Admiral Richard Howe, commander of the British fleet.

Humphreys noted that Lee went “too late in the night, with all the apparatus, under the bottom of the Eagle, a sixty-four gun ship, on board of which the British Admiral, Lord Howe, commanded.”

When the Turtle’s screw attempted to attach the gun powder keg to the Eagle’s hullthe screw struck iron instead of wood.

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“In coming up, the screw that had been calculated to perforate the copper sheathing, unluckily struck against some iron plates where the rudder is connected with the stern. This accident, added to the strength of the tide which prevailed, and the want of adequate skill in the sergeant, occasioned such delay, that the dawn of day began to appear, whereupon he abandoned the magazine to chance, and after gaining a proper distance, for the sake of expedition, rowed on the surface towards the town.”

From the wharf, when an anxious General Putnam beheld the machine at dawn’s early light, he was relieved that the pilot was alright and sent a whale boat to bring the Turtle to shore.

Bushnell’s submarine torpedo boat, 1776. Drawing of a cutaway view made by Lieutenant Commander F.M. Barber in 1885 from a description left by Bushnell.

When Ezra Lee realized that British sailors in rowboats were chasing him as he maneuvered the Turtle toward Putnam's whale boat, he released his keg of gunpowder into the water.

“In about twenty minutes afterwards the magazine exploded, and blew a vast column of water to an amazing height in the air.”

Had the Turtle been successful against the British Eagle, it could have taken out Lord Howe and turned the war in the favor of the Americans. Instead, the British later captured and sank the Turtle during another failed attack.

“I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius; but that a combination of too many things were requisite, to expect much success from the enterprise against an enemy, who are always upon guard,” Washington concluded of Bushnell and his invention.

Though Washington lost New York in 1776, the Continental Army would ultimately win the war against the British. Representative government came of age but without the success of the torpedo or the submarine.

Decades later, American inventor Robert Fulton became the first to successfully sink a small ship with a torpedo in 1801. Failed attempts to use the technology against the British military during the War of 1812, which I wrote about in my book The Burning of the White House, proved that torpedoes and submarines had still not yet come of age.

Coming full circle to foreboding Russian submarines, according to the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association: “Stationary torpedoes were first used on a large scale by the Russian government during the Crimean War (1854-1856).”

By World War I, submarines had come of age in various militaries. The USS Bushnell was a submarine launched in 1915 to honor David Bushnell.

For more information about the Turtle:

“Turtle” Submarine | Connecticut River Museum (ctrivermuseum.org)

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