and His American
Turtle by Sarah
Tale of the
THE FIRST SUBMARINE BOAT INVENTED.
David! cried a voice stern and commanding, from a house-door one
morning, as the young man who owned the name was taking a short cut
across lots in the direction of Pautapoug.
Sir! cried the youth in response to the call, and pausing as
nearly as he could, and at the same time keep his feet from sinking
into the marshy soil.
Where are you going? was the response.
To Pautapoug, to see Uriah Hayden, sir.
You'd better hire out at ship-building with him. Your college
learning's of no earthly use in these days, said the father of David
Bushnell, returning from the door, and sinking slowly down into his
Then spoke up a sweet-voiced woman from the kitchen fire-side, where
she had that moment been hanging an iron pot on the crane:
Have a little patience, father (Mrs. Bushnell always called her
husband, father), David is only looking about to see what to do. It's
hardly four weeks since he was graduated.
True enough; but where can you find an idle man in all Saybrook
town? and you know as well as I do that it makes men despise
college-learning to see folks idle. I'd rather, for my part, David
did go to work on the ship Uriah Hayden is building. I wish I knew
what he's gone over there for to-day.
A funny smile crept into the curves of Mrs. Bushnell's lips, but her
husband did not notice it.
Mr. Bushnell moved uneasily in his chair, as he sat leaning forward,
both hands clasped about a hickory stick, and his chin resting on the
knob at its top. Presently he said:
Anna, I fear David is getting into bad habits. He used to talk a
good deal. Now he sits with his eyes on the floor, and his forehead in
wrinkles, and I'm sure I've heard him moving about more than one
night lately, after all honest folks were in bed.
Father, you must remember that you've been very sick, and fever
gives one queer notions sometimes. I shouldn't wonder one bit if you
dreamed you heard something, when 'twas only the rats behind the
Rats don't step like a grown man in his stocking-feet, nor make the
rafters creak, either.
Madam Bushnell appeared to be investigating the contents of the pot
hanging on the crane, and perhaps the heat of the blazing wood was
sufficient to account for the burning of her cheeks. She cooled them a
moment later by going down cellar after cider, a mug of which she
offered to her husband, proposing the while that he should have his
chair out of doors, and sit under the sycamore tree by the river-bank.
When he assented, and she had seen him safely in the chair, she made
haste to David's bed-room.
Since Mr. Bushnell's illness began, no one had ascended to the
chamber except herself and her son.
On two shelves hanging against the wall were the books that he had
brought home with him from Yale College, just four weeks ago.
A table was drawn near to the one window in the room. On it were
bits of wood, with iron scraps, fragments of glass and copper. In fact,
the same thing to-day would suggest boat-building to the mother of any
lad finding them among her boy's playthings. To this mother they
suggested nothing beyond the fact that David was engaged in something
which he wished to keep a profound secret.
He had not told her so. It had not been necessary. She had divined
it and kept silence, having all a mother's confidence in, and hope of,
her son's success in life.
As she surveyed the place, she thought:
There is nothing here, even if he (meaning her husband) should take
it into his head to come up and look about.
Meanwhile young David had crossed the Pochaug River, and was half
the way to Pautapoug.
All this happened more than a thousand moons ago, when all the land
was aroused and astir, and David Bushnell was not in the least
surprised to meet, at the ship-yard of Uriah Hayden, Jonathan Trumbull,
Governor of Connecticut.
This man was everywhere, seeing to everything, in that year.
Whatever his country needed, or Commander-in-chief Washington ordered
from the camp at Cambridge, was forthcoming.
A ship had been demanded of Connecticut, and so Governor Trumbull
had come down from Lebanon to look with his own eyes at the huge ribs
of oak, thereafter to sail the seas as The Oliver Cromwell.
The self-same oaken ribs had intense interest for young David
Bushnell. Uriah Hayden had promised to sell to him all the pieces of
ship-timber that should be left, and while the governor and the builder
planned, he went about gathering together fragments.
Better take enough to build a boat that will carry a seine. 'T
won't cost you a mite more, and might serve you a good turn to have a
sizable craft in a heavy sea some day, said Mr. Hayden.
Now David Bushnell had been wishing that he had some good and
sufficient reason to give Mr. Hayden for wanting the stuff at all, and
here he had given it to him.
That's true, spoke up David, but how am I to get all this over to
Don't get it over at all, until it's ready to row down the
Connecticut, and around the Sound. You're welcome to build your boat at
the yard, and, now and then, there will be odd minutes that the men can
help you on with it.
David thanked Mr. Hayden, grew cheerful of heart over the prospect
of owning a boat of his own, and went merrily back to the village of
Two weeks later David's boat was ready for sea. It was launched into
the Connecticut from the ways on which the Oliver Cromwell grew, was
named Lady Fenwick, and, when water-tight, was rowed down the river,
past Saybrook and Tomb Hill, and so into the Long Island Sound.
When its owner and navigator went by Tomb Hill, he removed his hat,
and bowed reverently. He thought with respect and admiration of the
occupant of the sandstone tomb on its height, the Lady Fenwick who had
slept there one hundred and thirty years.
With blistered palms and burning fingers David Bushnell pushed his
boat with pride up the Pochaug River, and tied it to a stake at the
bridge just beyond the sycamore tree, near his father's door.
I'll fetch father and mother out to see it, he thought, when the
moon gets up a little higher.
With boyish pride he looked down at the work of his hands from the
river-bank, and went in to get his supper.
David! called Mr. Bushnell, having heard his steps in the
Here I am, father, returned the young man, appearing within the
room, and speaking in a cheerful tone.
Don't you think you have wasted about time enough?
The voice was high-wrought and nervous in the extreme. He, poor man,
had been that afternoon thinking the matter over in a convalescent's
weak manner of looking upon the act of another man.
David Bushnell, smiling still, and taking out a large silver watch
from his waistcoat pocket, and looking at it, replied:
I haven't wasted one moment, father. The tide was against me, but
I've rowed around from Pautapoug ship-yard to the sycamore tree out
here since two o'clock.
You row a boat! cried Mr. Bushnell, with lofty disdain.
Why, father, you have not a very good opinion of your son, have
you? questioned the son. Come, though, and see what he has been
doing. Come, mother, as Mrs. Bushnell entered, bearing David's supper
in her hands.
She put it down. Mr. Bushnell pulled himself upright with a groan or
two, and suffered David to assist him by the support of his arm as they
Why, you tremble as though you had the palsy, said the father.
It's nothing. I'm not used to pulling so long at the oar, said the
When they came to the bank, the full moon shone athwart the little
boat rocking on the stream.
What's that? exclaimed both parents.
That is the Lady Fenwick. I've been building the boat myself. You
advised me, father, to go to ship-building one morningdo you
remember? I took your advice, and began at the bottom of the ladder.
You built that boat with your own hands, you say?
With my own hands, sir.
In two weeks' time?
And rowed it all the way down the river, and up the Pochaug?
Good boy! You may go in and have your supper, said Mr. Bushnell,
patting him on the back, just as he had done when he returned from
college with his first award.
As for Madam Bushnell, she smiled down upon Lady Fenwick and did her
great reverence in her heart, while she said to the boat-builder:
David, dear, wait a few minutes, and I'll give you something nice
and warm for your supper. Your father, Ezra and I had ours long ago.
That night Mr. Bushnell did not lie awake to listen for the stealthy
stepping in the upper room. He slept all the sounder, because he had at
last seen one stroke of honest work, as he called it, as the result of
his endeavors to help David on in life.
As for David himself, he went to sleep, saying in his heart: It is
a good stepping-stone at least; which conclusion grew into form in
sleep, and shaped itself into a mighty monster, that bored itself under
mountains, and, after taking a nap, roused and shook itself so mightily
that the mountain flew into fragments high in air.
If you go, to-day, into the Connecticut River from Long Island
Sound, you will see on its left bank the old town of Saybrook, on its
right the slightly younger town of Lyme, and you will have passed by,
without having been very much interested in it, an island lying just
within the shelter of either bank.
In the summer of 1774 a band of fishermen put up a reel upon the
island, on which to wind their seine. Over the reel they built a roof
to protect it from the rains. With the exception of the reel, there was
no building upon the island. A large portion of the land was submerged
at the highest tides, and in the spring freshets, and was covered with
a generous growth of salt grass, in which a small army might readily
The little fishing band was now sadly broken and lessened by one of
the Washingtonian demands upon Brother Jonathan. For reasons that he
did not choose to give, David Bushnell joined this band of fishermen in
the summer of 1775. Gradually he made himself, by purchase, the owner
of the larger part of the reel and seine. In a few weeks' time he had
induced his brother Ezra to become as much of a fisherman as he himself
As the days went by, the brothers fairly haunted this island. They
gave it a name for their own use, and, early in the day-dawn of many a
morning, they pulled the Lady Fenwick wearily up the Pochaug, to snatch
a few winks of sleep at home, before the sun should fairly rise and
call them to their daily tasks, for David assumed to help Ezra on the
farm, even as Ezra helped him on the island.
The two brothers owned the reel and the seine before the end of the
month of August in 1775. As soon as they became the sole owners, they
procured lumber and enclosed the reel, and very seldom took down the
seine from its great round perch; they used it just often enough to
allay any suspicion as to their real object in becoming owners of the
About that time a story grew into general belief that the tomb of
Lady Fenwick was haunted. Boatmen, passing in the stillness of the
solemn night hours, asserted that they heard strange noises issuing
from the hill, just where the lady slept in her lonely burial-place.
The sounds seemed to emerge from the earth, and timid men passed up the
river with every inch of sail set to catch the breeze, lest the solemn
thud should sound, that a hundred persons were willing to testify had
been heard by each and every one of them, at some hour of the night,
coming from the tomb.
One evening in late September, the two brothers started forth as
usual, nominally to go fishing. As they stepped down the bank, Mr.
Bushnell followed them.
Boys, said he, it's an uncommon fine night on the water. I
believe I'll take a seat in your boat, with your permission. I used to
like fishing myself when I was young and spry.
And leave mother alone! objected David.
She's been out with me many a night on the Sound. She's brave, and
won't mind a good south-west wind, such as I dare say breaks in on the
shore this minute. Go and call her.
And so the family started forth to go fishing.
This was a night the two brothers had been looking forward to during
weeks of earnest labor, and nowwell, it could not be helped, and
there was not a moment in which to hold counsel.
Mr. Bushnell had planned this surprise early in the day, but had not
told his wife until evening. Then he announced his determination to
learn what all these midnight and all-night absences did mean.
As the Lady Fenwick came out from the Pochaug River into the Sound,
the south-west wind brought crested waves to shore. The wind was
increasing, and, to the great relief of David and Ezra, Mr. Bushnell
gave the order to turn back into the river.
The next day David Bushnell asked his mother whether or not she knew
the reason his father had proposed to go out with them the night
Yes, David, was the reply, I do.
Will you tell me?
He does not believe that you and Ezra go fishing at all.
What do you believe about it, mother?
I believe in you, David, and that when you have anything to
tell to me, I shall be glad to listen.
And father does not trust me yet; I am sorry, said David, turning
away. And then, as by a sudden impulse, he returned and said:
If you can trust me so entirely, mother, we can trust
you. To-day, two gentlemen will be here. You will please be ready
to go out in the boat with us whenever they come.
To my fishing ground, mother.
The strangers arrived, and were presented to Mrs. Bushnell as Dr.
Gale and his friend, Mr. Franklin.
At three of the clock the little family set off in the row-boat.
Down at Pochaug harbor, there was Mr. Bushnell hallooing to them to be
taken on board.
I saw my family starting on an unknown voyage, he remarked, as the
boat approached the shore as nearly as it could, while he waded out to
Ah, Friend Gale, is that you? he said, as with dripping feet he
stepped in. And whither bound? he added, dropping into a seat.
For the far and distant land of the unknown, Mr. Bushnell. Permit
me to introduce you to my friend, Mr. Franklin.
Franklin! Franklin! exclaimed Mr. Bushnell, eyeing the stranger a
little rudely. Doctor Benjamin Franklin, if you please,
Benjamin Gale! he corrected, to the utter amazement of the party.
The oars missed the stroke, caught it again, and, for a minute, poor
Dr. Franklin was confused by the sudden announcement that he existed at
all, and, in particular, in that small boat on the sea.
Yes, sir, even so, responded Dr. Gale, cheerfully adding, and
we're going down to see the new fishing tackle your son is going to
catch the enemy's ships with.
Fishing tackle! Enemy's ships! Why, David is the laziest man
in all Saybrook town. He does nothing with his first summer but fish,
fish all night long! The only stroke of honest work I've ever
known him to do was to build this boat we're in.
During this time the brothers were pulling with a will for the
Arrived there, the boat was drawn up on the sand, the seine-house
unlocked, and, when the light of day had been let into it, fishing-reel
and seine had disappeared, and, in the language of Doctor Benjamin
Gale, this is what they found therein:
THE AMERICAN TURTLE.
The body, when standing upright, in the position in which it is
navigated, has the nearest resemblance to the two upper shells of
the tortoise, joined together. It is seven and a half feet long,
and six feet high. The person who navigates it enters at the top.
It has a brass top or cover which receives the person's head, as
he sits on a seat, and is fastened on the inside by screws.
On this brass head are fixed eight glasses, viz: two before, two
on each side, one behind, and one to look out upwards. On the
brass head are fixed two brass tubes to admit fresh air when
requisite, and a ventilator at the side, to free the machine from
the air rendered unfit for respiration.
On the inside is fixed a barometer, by which he can tell the
depth he is under water; a compass by which he knows the course
steers. In the barometer, and on the needles of the compass, is
fixed fox-firethat is, wood that gives light in the dark. His
ballast consists of about nine hundred-weight of lead, which he
carries at the bottom and on the outside of the machine, part of
which is so fixed as he can let run down to the bottom, and
as an anchor by which he can ride ad libitum.
He has a sounding lead fixed at the bow, by which he can take the
depth of water under him, and a forcing-pump by which he can free
the machine at pleasure, and can rise above water, and again
immerge, as occasion requires.
In the bow he has a pair of oars fixed like the two opposite arms
of a windmill, with which he can row forward, and, turning them
the opposite way, row the machine backward; another pair, fixed
upon the same model, with which he can row the machine round,
either to the right or left; and a third by which he can row the
machine either up or down; all of which are turned by foot, like
spinning wheel. The rudder by which he steers he manages by hand,
All these shafts which pass through the machine are so curiously
fixed as not to admit any water.
The magazine for the powder is carried on the hinder part of the
machine, without-board, and so contrived that, when he comes
the side of a ship, he rubs down the side until he comes to the
keel, and a hook so fixed as that when it touches the keel it
raises a spring which frees the magazine from the machine, and
fastens it to the side of the ship; at the same time it draws a
pin, which sets the watch-work a-going, which, at a given time,
springs the lock, and an explosion ensues.
Thus wrote Dr. Benjamin Gale to Silas Deane, member of Congress at
Philadelphia. His letter bears the date November 9, 1775, and, after
describing the wonderful machine, he adds:
I well know the man. Lately he has conducted matters with the
greatest secrecy, both for the personal safety of the navigator,
and to produce the greater astonishment to those against whom it
is designed; and, you may call me a visionary, an enthusiast, or
what you please, I do insist upon it that I believe the
inspiration of the Almighty has given him understanding for this
very purpose and design.
When the seine-house door had been fastened open, when Dr. Franklin
and Dr. Gale had gone within, followed by the two brothers, Mr.
Bushnell and his wife stood without looking in, and wondering in their
hearts what the sight they saw could mean; for, of the intent or
purpose of the curious, oaken, iron-bound, many-paddled, brass-headed,
window-lighted thing, they, it must be remembered, knew nothing. It
must mean something extraordinary, of course, or Doctor Franklin would
never have thought it worth his while to come out of his way to behold
Father, whispered Mrs. Bushnell, it's the fish David has
been all summer catching.
Fish! ejaculated Mr. Bushnell, it's more like a turtle.
That's good! spoke up Dr. Gale, from within. Turtle it shall be.
It is the first submarine boat ever madea grand idea,
wrought into substance, slowly pronounced Dr. Franklin; let us have
it forth into the river.
And run the risk of discovery? suggested David, pleased that his
work approved itself to the man of science.
We meant to try it last night, but failed, said Ezra Bushnell.
There, now, father, don't you wish we had staid at home? whispered
No! growled the father. They would have killed themselves getting
it down alone.
He stepped within and laid his hand on the machine, saying:
Anna, you keep watch, and, if any boat heaves in sight, let us
know. Does the Turtle snap, David? he questioned, putting forth his
hand and laying it cautiously upon the animal.
Never, until the word is given, replied the son, and then ten
strong hands applied the strength within them to lift the curious piece
of mechanism and carry it without.
The seine-house was close to the river-bank, and in a half-hour's
time the American Turtle was in its native element.
Madam Anna Bushnell kept strict watch over the shores and the river,
but not a sail slid into sight, not an oar troubled the waters of the
tide, as it tossed back the tumble of the down-flowing river.
It was a hard duty for the mother to perform; for, at a glance
toward the bank, she saw David step into the machine, and the brass
cover close down over his head. She felt suffocating fears for him, as,
at last, the thing began to move into the stream. She saw it go out,
she saw it slowly sinking, going down out of sight, until even the
brass head was submerged.
Then she forsook her post, and hastened to the bank to keep watch
with the rest.
One, two, three minutes went by. The men looked at the surface of
the waters, at each other, grew thoughtful, pale; the mother gasped and
dropped on the salt grass, fainting; the brother gave to Lady Fenwick a
running push, bounded on board, and clutched the oars to row swiftly to
the spot where David went down.
Mr. Bushnell filled his hat with water, and sprinkled the pale face
in the sedge.
There! there! cried Dr. Franklin, with distended eyes and
Where? where? ejaculated Dr. Gale, striving to take into
vision the whole surface of the river, at a glance.
It's all right! He's coming up plump! shouted Ezra, from
his boat, as he rowed with speed for the spot where a brass tube was
rising, sun-burnished, from the Connecticut.
Presently the brass head, with its very small windows, emerged, even
the oaken sides were rising,and Mr. Bushnell was greeting the
returning consciousness of his wife with the words:
It's all right, mother. David is safe.
Don't let him know, were the first words she spoke, that his own
mother was so faithless as to doubt!
And now, paddle, paddle, toward the river-bank came the Turtle,
David Bushnell's head rising out of its shell, proud confidence shining
forth from his eyes, as feet and hands busied themselves in navigating
the boat that had lived for months in his brain, and now was living, in
very substance, under his control.
As he neared the bank a shout of acclamation greeted him.
He reached the island, was fairly dragged forth from his seat, and
carried up to the spot where his mother sat, trying to overcome every
trace of past doubt and fear.
Now, said Dr. Gale, let us give thanks unto Him who hath given
this youth understanding to do this great work.
With bared heads and devout hearts the thanksgiving went upward, and
thereafter a perfect shower of questions pelted David Bushnell
concerning his device to blow up ships: how he came to think of
it at allwhere he got this idea and that as to its
constructionto all of which he simply said:
You'll find your answer in the prayer you've just offered!
But, said practical Mr. Bushnell, the Lord did not send you money
to buy oak and iron and brass, did he?
Yes, returned David, by the hand of my good friend, Dr. Gale. To
him belongs half the victory.
Pshaw! pshaw! impatiently uttered the doctor. I tell you it is
no such thing! I only advanced My Lady here, turning to Madam
Bushnell, a little money, on her promise to pay me at some future
time. I'm mightily ashamed now that I took the promise at all.
Madam Bushnell, I'll never take a penny of it back again, never,
as long as I live. I will have a little of the credit of this
achievement, and no one shall hinder me.
How is that, mother? questioned Mr. Bushnell. You borrow
money and not tell me! and David and Ezra looked at her.
II stammered forth the woman, I only guessed that
David was doing something that he wanted money for, and told Dr. Gale
if he gave it to him I would repay it. Do you care, father?
Before he had a chance to get an answer in, David Bushnell stepped
forward, and, taking the little figure of his mother in his arms,
kissed her sharply, and walked away, to give some imaginary attention
to the Turtle at the bank.
It is a fair land to work for! spoke up Doctor Franklin, looking
about upon river and earth and sea; worthy it is of our highest
efforts; of our lives, even, if need be. God give us strength as our
need shall be.
With many a tug and pull and hearty heave-ho, the Turtle was hoisted
up the bank and safely drawn into the seine-house. The door was locked,
and Lady Fenwick's tomb gave forth no sound that night.
Doctor Franklin went his way to Boston. Doctor Gale returned to
Killingworth and his waiting patients, and the Bushnells, father,
mother and sons, having put the two gentlemen on the Saybrook shore,
went down the river into the Sound, along its edge, and up the small
Pochaug to their own home by the sycamore tree.
Mr. Bushnell and Ezra did the rowing that night. David's white hands
had, somehow, a new radiance in them for his father's eyes, and did not
seem exactly fitted for rowing just a common boat and every-day oars.
The young man sat in the stern, beside his mother, one arm around
her waist, and the other clasped closely between her little palms,
while, now and then, her finding eyes would penetrate his consciousness
with a glance that seemed to say, I always believed in you, David.
* * * * *
If you go to-day and stand upon the site of the old fort, built at
the mouth of the Connecticut River, in the year 1635, by Lion Gardiner,
once engineer in the service of the Prince of Orange, and search the
waters up and down for the island on which David Bushnell built the
American Turtle in 1775, you will not find it.
If you seek the oldest inhabitant of Saybrook, and ask him to point
out its locality, he will say, with boyhood's fondness for olden
play-grounds in his tone:
Ah, yes! It is Poverty Island that you mean. It used to be
there, but spring freshets and beating storms have washed it away.
The unexpected visit of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, to see the machine
David Bushnell was building, gave new force to that young gentleman's
confidence in his own powers of invention.
He worked with increased energy and hope to perfect boat and
magazine, that he might do good service with them before winter should
fall on the waters of the Massachusetts Bay, where the hostile ships
At last came the day wherein the final trial-trip should be made.
The pumps built by Mr. Doolittle, but not according to order, had
failed once, but new ones had been supplied, and everything seemed
propitious. David and Ezra, with their mother in the boat, rowed once
more to Poverty Island. On the morrow the great venture should begin,
The time was mid-October. The forests had wrapped the cooling coast
in warmth of coloring that was soft and many-hued as the shawls of
Cashmere, while the sun-made fringe of goldenrod fell along the shores
of river and island and sea.
Mrs. Bushnell's heart beat proudly above the fond affection that
could not suppress a shiver, as the Turtle was pushed into the stream.
She could not help seeing that David made a line fast from the
seine-house to his boat ere he went down. They watched many minutes to
see him rise to the surface, but he did not.
Mother, said Ezra, the pump for forcing water out when he wants
to rise don't work, and we must pull him in. He feared it.
As he spoke the words he laid hold on the line, and began gently to
draw on it.
Hurry! hurry! do! cried Mrs. Bushnell, seizing the same
line close to the water's edge, and drawing on it with all her
strength. She was vexed that Ezra had not told her the danger in the
beginning, and she knew very well that SHE would not have stood
there and let David die of suffocation, in that horrid, brass-topped
Hold, mother! cried Ezra; pull gently, or the line may part on
some barnacled rock if it gets caught.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Bushnell pulled in as fast as she could.
The tide was sweeping up the river, and a shark, in hard chase after
a school of menhaden, swam steadily up, with fin out of water.
Just as the shark reached the place, he made a dive, and the rope
Mrs. Bushnell screamed a word or two of the terror that had seized
her. Ezra looked up, amazed to find the rope coming in so readily, hand
over hand. He cast it down, sprang to the boat, and pushed off to the
possible rescue, only to find that the Turtle was making for the
river-bank instead of the island.
He rowed to the spot. His brother, for the first time in his life,
was overcome with disappointment and disinclined to talk.
II, said David, wiping his forehead. I grew tired, and made for
shore. The tide was taking me up fast.
Did you let go the line? questioned Ezra.
The pump works all right, then?
You've frightened mother terribly.
Have I? I never thought. I forgot she was here. Let us get
back, then; and the two brothers, without speaking a word, rowed down
against the sweep of tide, the great Turtle in tow.
The three went home, still keeping a silence broken only by briefest
possible question and answer.
The golden October night fell upon the old town. Pochaug River, its
lone line of silver gathered in many a stretch of interval into which
the moon looked calmly down, lay on the land for many a mile.
Again and again, during the evening, David Bushnell went out from
the house and stood silently on the rough bridge that crossed the river
by the door.
Let David alone, mother, urged Ezra, as she was about to follow
him on one occasion. He is thinking out something, and is better
That which the young man was thinking at the moment was, that he
wished the moon would hurry and go down. He longed for darkness.
The night was growing cold. Frost was in the air.
As he stood on the rough logs, a post-rider, hurrying by with
letters, came up.
Holloa there! he called aloud, not liking the looks of the man on
It's I,David Bushnell, Joe Downs! You can ride by in safety, he
responded, ringing out one of his merriest chimes of laughter at the
very idea of being taken for a highwayman.
I've news, said Joe; want it?
Joe Downs opened his pocket, and, by the light of the moon, found
the letter he had referred to.
Dr. Gale told me not to fail to put this into your hands as I came
by. I should kind o' judge, by the way he spoke, that the
continent couldn't get along very well 'thout you, if I hadn't known a
thing or two. Howsomever, here's the letter, and I've to jog on to
Guilford afore the moon goes down. So good-night.
Good night, Joe. Thank you for stopping, said David, going into
Were you expecting that letter, David? questioned Mr. Bushnell,
when it had been read.
No, sir. It is from Dr. Gale. He asks me to hasten matters as far
as possible, but a new contrivance will have to go in before I am
There! That's what troubles him, thought both Mrs. Bushnell
and Ezra, and they exchanged glances of sympathy and satisfactionand
the little household went to sleep, quite care-free that night.
At two of the clock, with nearly noiseless tread, David Bushnell
left the house.
As the door closed his mother moved uneasily in her sleep, and awoke
with the sudden consciousness that something uncanny had happened. She
looked from a window and saw, by the light of a low-lying moon, that
David had gone out.
Without awakening her husband she protected herself with needful
clothing, and, wrapped about in one of the curious plaid blankets of
mingled blue and white, adorned with white fringe, that are yet to be
found in the land, she followed into the night.
Save for the sleepy tinkle of the water over the stones in the
Pochaug River, and an occasional cry of a night-bird still lingering by
the sea, the air was very still.
With light tread across the bridge she ran a little way, and then
ventured a timid cry of her own into the night:
Now David Bushnell hoped to escape without awakening his mother. He
was lingering near, to learn whether his going had disturbed anyone,
and he was quite prepared for the call.
Turning back to meet her he thought: What a mother mine
is. And he said, Well, mother, what is it? I was afraid I might
O David! was all that she could utter in response.
And so you are troubled about me, are you? I'm only going to
chase the will-o'-the-wisp a little while, and I could not do it, you
know, until moon-down.
O David! and this time with emphatic pressure on his arm,
David, come home. I can't let you go off alone.
Come with me, then. You're well blanketed, I see. I'd much rather
have some one with me, only Ezra was tired and sleepy.
He said this with so much of his accustomed manner that Mrs.
Bushnell put her hand within his arm and went on, quite content now,
and willing that he should speak when it pleased him to do so, and it
pleased him very soon.
Little mother, he said, I am afraid you are losing faith in me.
Never! David; onlyI was a little afraid that you were
losing your own head, or faith in yourself.
No; but I am afraid I've lost my faith in something else. I
showed you the two bits of fox-fire that were crossed on one end of the
needle in the compass, and the one bit made fast to the other? Well,
to-day, when I went to the bottom of the river, the fox-fire gave no
light, and the compass was useless. Can you understand how bad that
would be under an enemy's ship, not to know in which direction to
You must have fresh fire, then.
That is just what I am out for to-night. I had to wait till
the moon was gone.
Oh! is that all? How foolish I have been! but you ought to
tell me some things, sometimes, David.
And so I will. I tell you now that it will be well for you to go
home and go to sleep. I may have to go deep into the woods to find the
fire I want.
But his mother only walked by his side a little faster than before,
and on they went to a place where a bit of woodland had grown up above
They searched in places wherein both had seen the fire of decaying
wood a hundred times, but not one gleam of phosphorescence could be
found anywhere. At last they turned to go homeward.
What will you do, David? Go and search in the Killingworth woods
to-morrow night? she asked, as they drew near home.
It is of no use, he said, with a sigh. It must be that the
frost destroys the fox-fire. Unless Dr. Franklin knows of a light that
will not eat up the air, everything must be put off until spring.
The next day David Bushnell went to Killingworth, to tell the story
to Dr. Gale, and Dr. Gale wrote to Silas Deane (Conn. Historical Col.,
Vol. 2), begging him to inquire of Dr. Franklin concerning the
possibility of using the Philosopher's Lantern, but no light was found,
and the poor Turtle was housed in the seine-house on Poverty Island
during the long winter, which proved to be one of great mildness from
late December to mid-February.
In February we find David Bushnell before Governor Jonathan Trumbull
and his Council at Lebanon, to tell about and illustrate the marvels of
his wonderful machine.
During this time the whole affair had been kept a profound secret
from all but the faithful few surrounding the inventor. And now, if
ever, the time was drawing near wherein the labor and outlay must
either repay laborer and lender, or give to both great trouble and
I cannot tell you with what trepidation the young man walked into
the War Office at Lebanon, with a very small Turtle under his arm.
You will please remember the situation of the colonists at that
moment. On the land they feared not to contend with Englishmen. Love of
liberty in the Provincials was strong enough, when united with a trusty
musket and a fair supply of powder, to encounter red-coated regulars of
the British army; but on the ocean, and in every bay, harbor and river,
they were powerless. The enemy's ships had kept Boston in siege for
nearly two years, the Americans having no opposing force to contend
Could this little Turtle, which David Bushnell carried under his
arm, do the work he wished it to, why, every ship of the line could be
blown into the air!
The inventor had faith in his invention, but he feared, when he
looked into the faces of the grave Governor and his Council of War,
that he could never impart his own belief to them.
I cannot tell you with what trust of heart and faith of soul Mrs.
Bushnell kept the February day in the house by the bridge at Pochaug.
Even the strong-minded, sturdy-nerved Mr. Bushnell looked often up the
road by which David and Ezra would approach from Lebanon, with a keen
interest in his eyes; but he would not let any word escape him, until
darkness had fallen and they were not come.
He said he would be here at eight, at the very latest, said the
mother at length, and she went to the fire and placed before the
burning coals two chickens to broil.
I'm afraid David won't have much appetite, unless his model
should be approved, and money is too precious to spend on
experiments, said Mr. Bushnell, as she returned to his side.
Do you mean to tell me you doubt?
Of course I doubt. Jonathan Trumbull is a man not at all likely to
give his consent to anything that does not commend itself to common
Mr. Bushnell was saved the pain of saying his thought, that he was
afraid, if David's plan was a good one, somebody would have
thought of it long ago, for vigorous knuckles were at work upon the
As soon as it was opened the genial form of good Dr. Gale stood
Are the boys back yet? he asked, stepping within.
No, but we expect them every minute, said Mr. Bushnell.
Well, friends, I had a patient within three miles of you to visit,
and I thought I'd come on and hear the news.
Ere he was fully made welcome to hearth and home, in walked David,
with the little Turtle under his arm. Without ado he went up to his
mother and said:
Madam, I present this to you, with Governor Trumbull's compliments.
He has ordered your boy money, men, metals and powder without stint to
work with. Wish me joy, won't you?
I do not anywhere find a record of the words in which the joy was
wished, on that 2nd of February, a hundred years ago, but it is easy to
imagine the very tones in which the good, God-loving Dr. Gale gave
thanks for the new blessing that had that day fallen on his friend's
It is impossible to follow David Bushnell in his many journeys to
the iron furnaces of Salisbury, in the spring and early summer of 1776,
during which time the entire country was aroused and astir from the
removal of the American army from Boston to New York; and our friends
at Saybrook were busy as bees from morning till night, in getting ready
perfect machines for duty.
David Bushnell's strength proved insufficient to navigate one of his
Turtles in the tidal waters of the Sound, and his brother Ezra learned
to do it most perfectly.
In the latter end of June, the British fleet, which had sailed out
of Boston harbor so ingloriously on the 17th of March, for Halifax,
there to await re-inforcements, appeared in waters adjacent to New
The signal of their approach was gladly hailed by the inventor and
by the navigator of the American Turtle.
A whale-boat from New London, her seamen sworn to inviolable
secrecy, was ordered to be in the river at a given point, on a given
night, for a service of which the men were utterly ignorant.
On the evening previous, Ezra Bushnell, overworn by many attempts at
navigating the machine, was taken seriously ill. At midnight he was
deliriousat day-dawn Dr. Gale was sent for.
When night fell he was in a raging fever, with no prospect of rapid
David set off alone, and with a heavy heart, to meet the boatmen. In
the seine-house on Poverty Island the brothers had stored provisions
for a cruise of several days. To this spot David Bushnell went alone,
and with a saddened heart, for he knew that it must be many days ere he
could learn of his brother's condition.
The New London boatmen were promptly at the appointed place of
When they saw the curious thing they were told to take in tow, their
curiosity knew no bounds; and it was only when assured that it was
dangerous to examine it, that they desisted from their determination to
know all about it, and consented to obey orders.
When, at last, a departure was made, the hour was midnight, the tide
served, and no ill-timed discovery was made of the deed.
The strong-armed boatmen rowed well and long, and, as daylight
dawned, they were directed to keep a look-out for Faulkner's Island, a
small bit of land in the Sound, nearly five miles from the Connecticut
The flashing light that illumines the waters at night for us, did
not gleam on them, but nevertheless, the high brown bank and the little
slope of land looked inviting to weary men, as they cautiously rowed
near to it, not knowing whom they might meet there.
They landed, made a fire, cooked their food, ate of it, and lay down
to sleep until night should come again.
They set out early in the ensuing twilight, and rowed westward all
night, in the face of a gentle wind.
If there were only another Faulkner's Island to flee to, said Mr.
Bushnell, as morning drew near. Do you know (to one of the men) a safe
place to hide in on this coast?
They were then off Merwin's Point, and between West Haven and
There's Poquahaug, was the reply, with a momentary catch of the
oar, and incline of the head toward the south-west.
What is Poquahaug?
A little island, pretty well in, close to shore, as it were, and,
After deliberate council had been held it was resolved to examine
A few years after New Haven and Milford churches were formed under
the oak-tree at New Haven, this little island, to which they were
fleeing to hide the Turtle from daylight, was granted to Charles Deal
for a tobacco plantation, provided that he would not trade with the
Dutch or Indians; but now Indians, Dutch and Charles Deal alike had
left it, the latter with a rude, sheltering building in place of
Ansantawae's big summer wigwam that used to adorn its crest.
To this spot, bright with grass, and green with full-foliaged trees
of oak on its eastern shore, the weary boatmen, who had had a long,
hard pull of twenty miles to make, came, just as the longest day's sun
was at its rising.
They were so glad and relieved and satisfied to find no one
The Turtle was left at anchor near the shore; the whale-boat gave up
of its provisions, and presently the little camp was in the enjoyment
of a long day of rest and refreshment.
Should anyone approach from the seaward or from the mainland, it was
determined that the party should resolve itself into a band of
fishermen, fishing for striped bass, for which the locality was well
As the day wore on, and the falling tide revealed a line of stones
that gradually increased, as the water fell, to a bar a hundred feet
wide, stretching from the island to the sands of the Connecticut shore,
David Bushnell perceived that the locality was just the proper place in
which to learn and teach the art of navigating the Turtle. He examined
the region well, and then called the men together.
They were staunch, good-hearted fellows, accustomed to long pulls in
northern seas after whales, and that they were patriotic he fully
believed. The Turtle was drawn up under the grassy bank, where the long
sedge half hid, and bushels of rock-weed and sea-drift wholly concealed
it, and then, in a few carefully-chosen words, David Bushnell entrusted
it to the watch and care of the boatmen.
I am going to leave it here, and you with it, until I return, he
said. Guard it with your lives if need be. If you handle it, it will
be at the risk of life. If you keep it well, Congress will
The mystery of the whole affair enchanted the men. They made
faithful promises, and, in the glorious twilight of the evening, rowed
David Bushnell across the beautiful stretch of Sound that to-day
separates Charles Island from the comely old town of Milford.
As the whale-boat went up the harbor, a sailing vessel was getting
ready to depart.
Finding that it was bound to New York, David Bushnell took passage
in it the same night.
Two days later, with a letter from Governor Trumbull to General
Washington as his introduction, the young man, by command of the
latter, sought out General Parsons, and requested him to furnish him
with two or three men to learn the navigation of his new machine.
General Parsons immediately sent for Ezra Lee, then a sergeant, and two
others, who had offered their services to go on board a
fireship; and, on Bushnell's request being made known to them, they
enlisted themselves under him for this novel piece of service.
Returning to Poquahaug (the Indian name of Charles Island), the
American Turtle was found safe and sound. Here the little party spent
many days in experimenting with it in the waters about the island; and
in the Housatonic River.
During this time the enemy had got possession of a portion of Long
Island, and of Governor's Island in the harborthus preventing the
approach to New York by the East River.
When the appalling news of the battle of Long Island reached David
Bushnell, he resolved, cost what it might of danger to himself, or
hazard to the Turtle, to get it to New York with all speed.
To that end he had it conveyed by water to New Rochelle, there
landed and carried across the country to the Hudson River, and
presently we hear of it as being on a certain night, late in August,
ready to start on its perilous enterprise.
If you will go to-day and stand where the Turtle floated that night
(for the land has since that time grown outward into the sea), on your
right hand across the Hudson River, you will see New Jersey. At your
left, across the East River, Long Island begins, with the beautiful
Governor's Island in the bay just before you, and, looking to the
southward, in the distance, you will discern Staten Island.
Let us go back to that day and hour.
The precise date of the Turtle's voyage down the bay is not given,
but the time must have been on the night of either the thirtieth or
thirty-first of August. We will choose the thirtieth, and imagine
ourselves standing in the crowd by the side of Generals Washington and
Putnam, to see the machine start.
Remember, now, where we stand. It is only last night that
our army, defeated, dispirited, exhausted by battle, lay across the
river on Brooklyn Heights. Behind it, busy with pickaxe and shovel, the
victorious troops of Mother England were making ready to finish the
Americans on the morrow.
There were supposed to be twenty-four thousand of the enemy, only
nine thousand Continentals; and, just ready to enter East River and cut
them off from New York, lay the British fleet to the north of Staten
As happened at Boston in March, so happened it last night in New
York, a friendly fog held the heights of Brooklyn in its grasp, while
at New York all was clear.
Under cover of this fog General Washington withdrew across the
river, a mile or more in width, nine thousand men, with all
their baggage, stores, provisions, horses, and munitions of war, and
not a man of the enemy knew that they were gone until the fog lifted.
Now, as we stand, Long Island, Governor's Island, Staten Island, one
and all are under the control of Britons.
David Bushnell is in a whale-boat, down close to the Turtle, giving
some last important words of direction to brave Ezra Lee, who has
stepped within it. David Bushnell could not help wishing, as he did so,
that he could take his place and guide the spirit of the child of his
own creation, in its first great encounter with the world.
The word is given. The brass top of the Turtle is shut down.
Watchful eyes and swift rowers belonging to the enemy are keeping guard
on Governor's Island, by which Ezra Lee must row, and it is safer to go
under water. How crowded this little pier would be, did the inhabitants
but know what is going on!
The whale-boats start out, David Bushnell in one of them. They mean
to take the Turtle in tow the minute it is safe to do so and save Ezra
Lee the labor of rowing it until the last minute.
It is eleven o'clock. All silently they dip the oars, and hear the
sentinels cry from camp and shore.
Past the island, in safety, at last. They look for the Turtle. Up it
comes, a distant watch-light gleaming across its brass head disclosing
its presence. Once more it is in tow, and Lee is in the whale-boat.
Down the bay they go, until the lights from the fleet grow
On the wide, wind-stirred waters of New York Bay, Ezra Lee gets into
the Turtle, and is cast off, and left alone, for the whale-boats return
to New York.
With the rudder in his hand, and his feet upon the oars, he
pursues his way. The strong ebb tide flows fast, and, before he is
aware of it, it has drifted him down past the men-of-war.
However, he immediately gets the machine about, and, by hard
labor at the crank for the space of five glasses by the ships' bells,
or two and a half hours, he arrives under the stern of one of the ships
at about slack water.
Day is now beginning to dawn. He can see the people on board, and
hear them talk.
The moment has come for diving. He closes up quickly overhead, lets
in the water, and goes down under the ship's bottom.
He now applies the screw and does all in his power to make it enter,
but in vain; it will not pierce the ship's copper. Undaunted, he
paddles along to a different part, hoping to find a softer place; but,
in doing this, in his hurry and excitement, he manages the mechanism so
that the Turtle instantly arises to the surface on the east side of the
ship, and is at once exposed to the piercing light of day.
Again he goes under, hoping that he has not been seen.
This time his courage fails. It is getting to be day. If the ship's
boats are sent after him his escape will be very difficult, well-nigh
impossible, and, if he saves himself at all, it must be by rowing more
than four miles.
He gives up the enterprise with reluctance, and starts for New York.
Governor's Island must be passed by. He draws near to it, as
near as he can venture, and then submerges the Turtle. Alas! something
has befallen the compass. It will not guide the rowing under the sea.
Every few minutes he is compelled to rise to the surface to look out
from the top of the machine to guide his course, and his track grows
very zig-zag through the waters.
Ah! the soldiers at Governor's Island see the Turtle! Hundreds are
gathering upon the parapet to watch its motions, such a curious boat as
it is, with turret of brass bobbing up and down, sinking,
disappearingcoming to the surface again in a manner wholly
Brave Lee knows his danger, and paddles away for dear life and love
of family up in Lyme, eating breakfast quietly now he remembers, not
knowing his peril.
Once more he goes up to take a lookout, to see where White-hall slip
A glance at Governor's Island, and he sees a barge shove off laden
with his enemies.
Down again, and up, and he sees it making for him. There is no
escape! What can he do!
If I must die, he thinks, they shall die with me! and he lets go
Nearer and nearerthe barge is very close. If they pick me
up they will pick that up, thinks Lee, and we shall all be blown to
They are now within a hundred and fifty feet of the Turtle and they
see the magazine that he has detached.
Some horrible Yankee trick! cries a British soldier. Beware!
And they do beware by turning and rowing with all speed for the island
whence they came.
Poor Lee looks out with amazement to see them go. He is well-nigh
exhausted, and the magazine, with its dreadful clock-work going on
within it, and its hundred and fifty pounds of powder, ready to go off
at a given moment, is floating on behind him, borne by the tide.
He strains every muscle to near New York. He signals the shore.
Since daylight Putnam has been there keeping watch. David Bushnell
has paced up and down all night, in keen anxiety.
The friendly whale-boats put out to meet him.
Meanwhile, slowly borne by the coming tide, the magazine floats into
the East River.
It will blow up in five minutes now, says Bushnell, looking at his
watch, and he goes to welcome Ezra Lee.
The five minutes go by.
Suddenly, with tremendous voice, and awful uproar of the sea, the
Columns of water toss high in air, mingled with the oaken ribs that
held the powder but a minute ago.
Consternation seizes British troops on Long Island. The brave
soldiers on the parapet at Governor's Island quake with fear. All New
York rushes to the river-side to find out what it can mean. Nothing, on
all the face of the earth, ever happened like it before, one and
Opinion varies concerning it, from bomb to earthquake, from meteor
to water-spout, and settles down on neither.
Poor Ezra Lee feels that he meant well, but did not act
wisely. David Bushnell praises the sergeant, and takes all the want of
success to himself, in not going to do his own work.
Meanwhile, with astonishment, Generals Washington and Putnam and
David Bushnell himself behold, as did the Provincials, after the
battle of Bunker-Breed's Hill, victory in defeat, for lo!
no British ship sails up the East River, or appears to bombard New
Silently they weigh anchor and drop down the bay. The little
American Turtle gained a bloodless victory that day.
NOTE.The writer has carefully followed, in the account of the
Turtle's attempt upon the Eagle, the statement of Ezra Lee, made
to Mr. Charles Griswold of Lyme, more than forty years after the
occurrence, and by him communicated to the American Journal of
Science and Arts in 1820. For the description of the
mechanism of the machine, the account given at the time by
Gale in his letters to Silas Deane has been chosen, as probably
more accurate than one made from memory after forty years had
* * * * *
David Bushnell was appointed from civil life Captain-Lieutenant of a
Corps of Sappers and Minersrecommended for the position by Governor
Trumbull, General Parsons and others. June 8, 1781, he was promoted
full Captain. He was present at the siege of Yorktown and commanded the
Corps in 1783.
He was also a member of the Society of the Cincinnati.