A replica of The Turtle submarine from the American Revolutionary War as seen in the show TURN in AMC
In our Secrets of Governors Island compilation, we covered The Turtle, the world’s first submarine used in military combat. This onion/acorn shaped one-man submarine appeared in New York harbor on September 6, 1776 for an attack on the HMS Eagle, which was moored off of Governors Island.
Yale was a fresh breeding ground for Patriot activity, and counts among its graduates Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s head of intelligence, responsible for creating the first spy ring in the United States that took down Benedict Arnold. In addition to these military men, Yale freshman David Bushnell constructed the first Turtle in Connecticut, which could carry explosives to put onto British ships.
Full sized replica of the Turtle submersible at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. Photo by Geni via Wikimedia Commons
The Turtle was manufactured with two oak shells bound by iron hoops, somewhat similar to the ubiquitous water tanks which are made of cedar and held together through the pressure of steel hoops. The Turtle was further waterproofed along the seam using oakrum, a fiber. As the TURN website explains, “The Turtle was piloted by using a hand-cranked propeller to move the vessel forward, and a bilge and crank to submerge and resurface the sub. In calm seas, the Turtle had a top speed of about three miles per hour.” A tower fixed with panes of glass gave viewing capability to the driver and the gauges in the The Turtle will lit using Foxfire, a bioluminescent fungus.
Benjamin Tallmadge was part of the Culper Spy Ring (based out of Setauket, Long Island) now memorialized in the AMC television show TURN. While the show departs somewhat from the actual story, recounted in the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose, it is impressive the number of actual historical moments that are interwoven into the plot, to add drama to the story.
Screenshot from TURN
In Episode 8 of the second season, The Turtle submarine makes a notable entry in TURN when it shows Caleb Brewster, another Setauket native of the Culper Spy Ring uses the submersible to rescue Abraham Woodhull, who is being held in a sugar house prison run by the British in Manhattan under suspicion of spying. None of this happened in real life, but the accuracy of the portrayal of the The Turtle was a fun detail.
Nearly five minutes of air time are used to show Brewster inside The Turtle, going below the surface of the water and navigating around the ships, and emerging in lower Manhattan where there were still buildings built in the Dutch style. Brewster detonates the explosive and The Turtle as a distraction to escape the two British redcoats who have stopped him.
In real life, a sergeant Ezra Lee commanded the Turtle and made it all the way to the HMS Eagle but was unable to attach the explosive. The Turtle was spotted by British soldiers on Governors Island, who rowed out into the harbor. Lee released the charge into the harbor which drifted into the East River and detonated “with tremendous violence,” according to Lee (although there have been no corroborating stories of this incident on the British side). A month later, after an attempt on anther British vessel, the Turtle was sunk on a transport vessel off Fort Lee, New Jersey.