We Should All Be Blown Up Together - Under The Sea with Ezra Lee

We Should All Be Blown Up Together - Under The Sea with Ezra Lee

Yesterday we spoke of David Bushnell’s submarine, the Turtle.

Today, we will look at the adventures of the man who piloted this vessel, Ezra Lee.

Lee was the first person to attempt a submarine attack in history, and he seems to have been surprisingly calm considering he had only a half-hour’s worth of air on board.

The Turtle

When David Bushnell built the first submarine, Turtle, the expectation was that his brother would pilot the ship. 

Unfortunately, the younger Bushnell fell ill and a replacement was needed quickly.

Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons recommended three people to train in submarine warfare. One of these men was his brother-in-law, Ezra Lee.

Ezra Lee

Much of Ezra Lee’s early life is undocumented.

We do know that, when he was approached for the secret underwater mission, Lee was in his mid-20’s and a Sergeant in the Continental Army.

After a month of training, Lee was chosen over the other two soldiers to make the first attack. The vessel was taken to New York Harbor, dragged out by row boats, Ezra placed inside, the top closed and set adrift.

How It Worked

Lee moved the Turtle by using gears which were similar to modern bicycle pedals.

He moved most of the way with snorkels on top, which could be sealed when he descended.

To sink, Ezra could let water float into the boat from the bottom. Rising took advantage of a pump that spat water back into the sea.

The real challenge for this machine?

He only had a half an hour’s worth of air.

The Mission

It took Ezra Lee two hours of strenuous pedaling to get to his target, General Howe’s flagship HMS Eagle.

Lee’s goal was to attach a mine with a timer (also invented by Bushnell) to the bottom of the ship. He could set the bomb, leave and watch the fireworks explode.

Ezra was able to get into position without issue, however, he ran into problems when attempting to attach the explosive to the Eagle.

The mine was to be secured to the ship with a screw on the outside of the Turtle, but for some reason it would not drill into the wood. Many historians have attempted to explain this trouble, the most likely scenario being that Lee either hit a piece of metal or could not keep the ship steady enough during the process. 

We Should All Be Blown Up Together

Eventually, with air running out, Lee realized he needed to abandon the mission.

When he surfaced, several British sailors noticed the strange contraption in the water. They hopped onto row boats and gave chase.

Ezra fled and decided to let the mine loose, activating the timer. I’ll allow him to explain in his own words: 

“I eyed them, and when they got within 50 or 60 yards of me I let loose the magazine in the hopes that if they should take me they would likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together.”

Fortunately, seeing two odd devices in the water made the Redcoats nervous and they gave up their pursuit.

Shortly thereafter, the bomb exploded, sending water sky high.

Secret Intelligence

Lee’s actions impressed General Washington greatly.

Ezra was assigned to several secret intelligence gathering missions by the Commander-in-Chief, who would note Lee’s clarity in his correspondence.

Ezra Lee would serve with the Continental Army in through the duration of the Revolutionary War. He is the only one of thousands who’s Patriotism was demonstrated under the sea.

If you would like to read Ezra Lee’s own account of his adventure which he documented 40 years later, you can find it for FREE here.

Want more Founders on Secret Missions?

Johann de Kalb Surveys the Revolutionary Landscape

Silas Deane Convinces France to Supply the Continental Army

Conqueror of the Northwest - George Rogers Clark and the Illinois Campaign

To learn even more about the Turtle, you should read ‘Turtle.’

This book discusses the contraption as well as it’s inventor.

If you’d like a copy you can get one through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).

Turtle: David Bushnell's Revolutionary Vessel
By Roy R. Manstan, Frederic J. Frese

Want to get fun American Revolution articles straight to your inbox every morning?

Subscribe to my email list here.

You can also support this site on Patreon by clicking here.

Thanks for your support!

The Vindication of Timothy Bedel - The Embarrassment at The Cedars

The Vindication of Timothy Bedel - The Embarrassment at The Cedars

The First Submarine - David Bushnell's Explosive Career

The First Submarine - David Bushnell's Explosive Career