A wooden barrel vs. the British navy

Cramped quarters make me anxious. I’m also a lousy swimmer. No matter how compelling the cause, I can’t imagine going underwater in a 3-by-6-foot wooden barrel, but Ezra Lee did just that during the American Revolution. It was the first chapter in New London County’s rich submarine history.

Ezra’s ancestor, Thomas Lee, was one of Lyme’s founders. At one point, the Lees owned 12% of all the land in Lyme, which probably explains why we have Lee Road, Lee Farm Drive, and North Lee Road. Thomas’ house, circa 1660, still stands on Route 156, thanks to the preservation efforts of the East Lyme Historical Society. They currently have a project underway to confirm or revise the date of the house, using dendrochronology, a technique that determines age by tree ring analysis.

Ezra was born in 1744. Few details of his early life are known, but his extensive military service is well documented. Among other engagements, Ezra fought at Germantown, Brandywine, and Monmouth, and wintered at Valley Forge and Morristown. However, he’s best known for operating a tiny submarine in a failed but gutsy venture.

It all started when David Bushnell, from Saybrook, hit on the idea of building a one-man submersible craft that could deliver explosive charges beneath British warships. David built and tested the device in secret on Poverty Island in the Connecticut River. He called the strange invention the Turtle because she looked like one, with two wooden half shells held together with steel bands and tar.

The plan was to pilot the submarine beneath the waters of New York harbor and blow British warships to smithereens. David’s brother was supposed to be the pilot, but when he got sick, David selected Ezra Lee to replace him. It took courage to agree.

Operating the Turtle required coordination and hard labor. The propeller providing forward motion was turned by a crank. An upper propeller, in conjunction with a foot valve and pumps, was designed for controlling the submarine’s depth. Light came in through six pieces of glass, inadequately augmented by foxfire (luminous fungus from decaying tree bark). The vessel had a compass and a clock. The clock’s function was to time the detonation of the explosives so the operator could get away. Every half hour, the vessel had to surface for fresh air; this, of course, increased the odds of being spotted by the British.

The first attempt to blow up an enemy ship took place on September 8, 1776. Around 11 p.m., colonists towed the Turtle by rowboats as close as they dared to their target, the Eagle. Once the Turtle submerged, Ezra fought the currents for more than two hours before getting into position beneath the ship. Hampered by exhaustion, possible oxygen deprivation, and other complications, Ezra wasn’t able to attach the explosives to the hull. The attempt had to be abandoned.

A few nights later, another mission was undertaken that also failed. This time, Ezra barely escaped, and the colonists’ sloop carrying the Turtle away was captured and sunk. Still, the incident must have shaken the British, because afterwards they repositioned their fleet farther out in New York harbor.

After the war, Ezra spent the rest of his life in Lyme. Despite his service in the Turtle caper and the numerous other sacrifices he’d made during the Revolution, as an arthritic old man, Ezra had to petition the government for payment of the pension his country owed him.

Today, you can get your own sense of the extraordinary creativity, courage — and wacky optimism — that was required to build and operate the Turtle. View a cut-away model of her at the Submarine Force Library Museum in Groton, or two full-sized replicas at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. (One replica was successfully tested underwater during the Bicentennial!)

Years later, George Washington said of the Turtle, “I thought then, and still think, that it was an effort of genius.”

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