The Turtle and the Battle of the Kegs


Here is the account of Doctor Thacher, who served as a surgeon during the war, of the worlds first attack on shipping by a submarine and some ship mines used against the British, both in the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. These do not directly associate with New Jersey, but happened in the rivers of her boundries.


Feburary 1778

10th.-I have now obtained a particular description of the American Torpedo, and other ingenious submarine machinery, invented by Mr. David Bushnell, for the purpose of destroying shipping while at anchor, some account of which may be found in this Journal. The external appearance of the torpedo bears some resemblance to two upper tortoise shells, of equal size, placed in contact, leaving at that part which represents the head of the animal, a flue or opening, sufficiently capacious to contain the operator, and air to support him thirty minutes. At the bottom, opposite to the entrance, is placed a quantity of lead for ballast. The operator sits upright, and holds an oar for rowing forward or backward, and is furnished with a rudder for steering. An aperture at the bottom, with its valve, admits water for the purpose of descending, and two brass forcing pumps serve to eject the water within, when necessary for ascending. The vessel is made completely water-tight, furnished with glass windows for the admission of light, with ventilators and air-pipes, and is so ballasted, with lead fixed at the bottom, as to render it solid, and obviate all danger of oversetting. Behind the submarine vessel, is a place above the rudder for carrying a large powder magazine; this is made of two pieces of oak timber, large enough, when hollowed out, to contain one hundred and fifty pounds of powder, with the apparatus used for firing it, and is secured in its place by a screw turned by the operator. It is lighter than water, that it may rise against the object to which it is intended to be fastened. Within the magazine, is an apparatus constructed to run any proposed length of time under twelve hours; when it has run out its time, it unpinions a strong lock, resembling a gun-lock, which gives fire to the powder. This apparatus is so pinioned, that it cannot possibly move, till, by casting off the magazine from the vessel, it is set in motion. The skilful operator can swim so low on the surface of the water, as to approach very near a ship in the night, without fear of being discovered; and may, if he choose, approach the stern or stem, above water, with very little danger. He can sink very quickly, keep at any necessary depth, and row a great distance in any direction he desires without coming to the surface. When he rises to the surface, he can soon obtain a fresh supply of air, and, if necessary, he may then descend again and pursue his course. Mr. Bushnell found that it required many trials and considerable instruction to make a man of common ingenuity a skilful operator. The first person, his brother, whom he employed, was very ingenious, and made himself master of the business, but was taken sick before he had an opportunity to make use of his skill. Having procured a substitute, and given him such instruction as time would allow, he was directed to try an experiment on the Eagle, a sixty-four-gun ship, on board of which Lord Howe commanded, lying in the harbor of New York. He went under the ship, and attempted to fix the wooden screw into her bottom, but struck, as he supposes, a bar of iron which passes from the rudder hinge, and is spiked under the ship's quarter. Had he moved a few inches, he might have done without rowing, there is no doubt he would have found wood where he might have fixed the screw; or if the ship had been sheathed with copper, he might easily have pierced it. But not being well skilled in the management of the vessel, in attempting to move to another place, he lost the ship. After seeking her in vain, for some time, be rowed some distance, and rose to the surface of the water, but found day-light had advanced so far, that he durst not renew the attempt. He says that he could easily have fastened the magazine under the stern of the ship, above water, as he rowed up to the stern and touched it before he descended. Had he fastened it there, the explosion of one hundred and fifty pounds of powder, the quantity contained in the magazine, must have been fatal to the ship. In his return from the ship to New York, he passed near Governor's Island, and thought he was discovered by the enemy on the island. Being in haste to avoid the danger he feared, he cast off the magazine, as he imagined it retarded him in the swell, which was very considerable. After the magazine had been cast off one hour, the time the internal apparatus was set to run, it blew up with great violence, throwing a vast column of water to an amazing height in the air, and leaving the enemy to conjecture whether the stupendous noise was produced by a bomb, a meteor, a water-spout, or an earthquake. Some other attempts Were made in Hudson's river, in one of which the operator, in going towards the ship, lost sight of her and went a great distance beyond her, and the tide ran so strong as to baffle all his efforts. Mr. Bushnell being in ill health, and destitute of resources, was obliged to abandon his pursuit at that time, and wait for a more favorable opportunity, which never occurred. In the year 1777, Mr. Bushnell made an attempt from a whale-boat, against the Cerberus frigate lying at anchor, by drawing a machine against her side, by means of a line. The machine was loaded with powder, to be exploded by a gun-lock, which was to be unpinioned by an apparatus to be turned by being brought alongside of the frigate. This machine fell in with a schooner at anchor astern of the frigate, and concealed from his sight. By some means it became fixed and exploding, demolished the schooner. Commodore Simmons, being on board the Cerberus, addressed an official letter to Sir Peter Parker, describing this singular disaster. Being at anchor to the westward of New London, with a schooner which he had taken, discovered about eleven o'clock in the evening a line towing astern from the bows. He believed that some person had veered away by it, and immediately began to haul in. A sailor, belonging to the schooner, taking it for a fishing-line, laid hold of it, and drew in about fifteen fathoms. It was buoyed up by small pieces of wood tied to it at stated distances. At the end of the rope a machine was fastened, too heavy for one man to pull up, for it exceeded one hundred pounds in weight. The other people of the schooner coming to his assistance, they drew it on deck. While the men were examining the machine, about five minutes from the time the wheel had been put in motion, it exploded, blew the vessel into pieces, and set her on fire. Three men were killed, and the fourth blown into the water, much injured. On examining round the ship, after this accident, the other part of the line was discovered, buoyed up in the same manner. This the commodore ordered to be instantly cut away, for fear of hauling up another of the infernals, as he termed it. These machines were constructed with wheels, furnished with irons sharpened at the end, and projecting about an inch, in order to strike the sides of the vessel when hauling them up, thereby setting the wheels in motion, which in the space of five minutes causes the explosion. Had the whole apparatus been brought to operate on a ship at the same time, it must have occasioned prodigious destruction. Mr. Bushnell contrived another ingenious expedient to effect his favorite object. He fixed a large number of kegs under water, charged with powder, to explode on coming in conflict with any thing while floating along with the tide. He set his squadron of kegs afloat in the Delaware, above the English shipping, in December, 1777. The kegs were in the night set adrift, to fall with the ebb, on the shipping; but the proper distance could not be well ascertained, and they were set adrift at too great a distance from the vessels, by which means they were obstructed and dispersed by the ice. They approached, however, in the day time, one of them blew up a boat, and others exploded, which occasioned among the British seamen the greatest alarm and consternation. They actually manned the wharves and shipping at Philadelphia, and discharged their small arms and cannon at every thing they could see floating in the river, during the ebb tide. This incident has received the name of the Battle of the Kegs, and furnished a subject for an excellent


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