Sgt. Ezra Lee, 1st to operate a sub in battle

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Ezra Lee

Birthplace: Lyme, New London County, Connecticut Colony
Death: October 29, 1821 (72)
Lyme, New London County, Connecticut, United States
Place of Burial: Old Lyme, New London County, Connecticut, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Abner Lee and Elizabeth Lee
Husband of Deborah Lee
Father of Elizabeth Hill
Brother of Samuel Lee

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Sgt. Ezra Lee, 1st to operate a sub in battle

Sergeant Ezra Lee (1749 - 1821) was an American Colonial soldier in the American Revolution, who made naval history as the first person to operate a US submarine in battle. Ezra piloted the "Turtle" in New York Harbor in an attempt to torpedo a British warship on September 6, 1776. Although he was unsuccessful in damaging the ship, he scared the sailors enough to cause them to withdraw their vessels a distance further from the harbor.

Source: Pararas-Carayannis, George. Turtle: A Revolutionary Submarine. Sea Frontiers, Vol 22, No. 4, pp. 234, July-August, 1976 -- a source cited in an online article downloaded 2008 from about this story

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Ezra Lee (August 1749 – October 29, 1821) was an American Colonial soldier, best known for commanding the "Turtle" submarine.

Lee was born in Lyme, Connecticut. In August 1776 he was selected by brother-in-law Brig. General Samuel Holden Parsons, also of Lyme, as one of several volunteers to learn to operate the Turtle, an early submarine invented by Saybrook, Connecticut native David Bushnell (1742 - 1842). When General George Washington authorized an attack on British Admiral Richard Howe's flagship HMS Eagle, then lying in New York harbor, Lee was chosen to operate the "infernal machine."

Bushnell said his submarine was called the Turtle because it was shaped like one. Here, however, the resemblance ended. The Turtle was about 7 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet from its keel to the top of its conning tower. Made of oak, its clam shaped hull was coated with tar. When in surface trim, it metal conning tower protruded about 8 inches out of the water. As it had no periscope, the conning tower contained six glass ports in the circular casting. The interior of the vessel included equipment which was the forerunner of equipment to be used in later-day submarines. There was a depth gauge for indicating depth below the surface; a compass for steering. These were marked with a phosphorescent "foxfire" so their dials could be read in the dark. Other innovations included a crank for hand operation of the propeller; a tiller for operating the rudder; 700 pounds of lead ballast, 200 pounds of which could be quickly lowered about 50 feet in case of emergency; an immersion chamber for flooding when additional ballast was desired; two brass forcing pumps for forcing water out of the immersion chamber; and two tubes which passed through the conning tower hatch for use in obtaining fresh air when near the surface which was frequently done, for the air soon became foul when the submarine was in the submerged condition.

Governors Island attack

On the night of September 6, 1776, Lee piloted the Turtle up to the Eagle, which was moored off what is today called Governors Island, due south of Manhattan. A common misconception was that Lee failed because he could not manage to bore through the copper-sheeted hull. In practice, it has been shown that the thin copper would not have presented any problem to the drill, and that he likely struck an iron rudder support.

Another possible scenario is that Lee's unfamiliarity with the vessel made him unable to keep the Turtle stable enough to work the drill against the Eagle's hull. When he attempted to drill into another spot in the hull, he was unable to stay beneath the ship, and eventually abandoned the attempt. Governors Island is off the southern tip of Manhattan, and where the Hudson River and the East River merge. The currents at this point are apt to be strong and complex. The Turtle would only be able to attack ship moored here during a short period of time when the incoming tide balanced the river currents. It is possible that during the attack the tide turned and Lee was unable to compensate. On heading back toward land, British troops occupying Governor's island spotted the Turtle, and set out in small boats to confront the little submarine, whereupon Lee released his torpedo. It drifted toward the East River and, in Lee's words, "went off with a tremendous explosion, throwing up large bodies of water to an immense height." Before preparations for another attempt could be made against the enemy, the British ships withdraw the fleet to a safer anchorage nearer to Staten Island.

Lee landed safely after remaining several hours in the water, and received General Washington's congratulations.

Lee made a second attempt to pilot Bushnell's machine in order to destroy a British frigate that lay opposite Bloomingdale, New York, but was discovered and compelled to abandon the enterprise. The submarine was soon after sunk by the British as it sat on its tender vessel, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Years later in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Bushnell reported he had salvaged the Turtle; its final fate is unknown.

After these events, Lee was congratulated by Washington and General Israel Putnam and moved into the secret service/special forces.

Later action

Lee subsequently participated in the battles of Trenton, Brandywine, and Monmouth. He had his sword handle shot off and received many bullet holes in his coat at Brandywine.

Lee is buried in the Duck River Cemetery in modern day Old Lyme, Connecticut. The inscription on this gravestone: "EZRA LEE. / DIED / Aged 72 Years. / He was a Revolutionary / Officer, / and esteemed by / Washington."


   * Appletons Encyclopedia & A Lyme Miscellany- Willauer & Wesleyan University Press 1976

Source: Downloaded 2011 from Wikipedia.

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A CHAPTER of early American maritime history that has often been overlooked is that of early submarines and, in particular, the story of the first American submarine in the War of Independence. She was called Turtle and was designed by David Bushnell (1742-1842), who also developed the naval mine. Turtle's first engagement was also the first naval battle in history involving a submarine and took place in New York Harbor in 1776.

While pondering the idea of a vessel to transport and attach timed explosives to enemy warships, Bushnell considered using a submarine. There were, however, many engineering and design problems, which he had to solve with the limited technology of that time-problems such as building a watertight, pressure-proof hull, providing for vertical and horizontal propulsion, vertical stability, variable ballast, steering controls, and a weapons-delivery system, to name a few. Bushnell eventually solved these problems and introduced some innovations. For example, he was the first submarine designer to equip such a vessel with a snorkel breathing device and to use a two-bladed propeller for ship propulsion.

Although the submarine that Bushnell designed and built has been called many different names by historians, Turtle is the one most commonly used. Turtle had an unusual appearance, resembling two upper tortoise shells of equal size, joined together. She measured 7 feet in depth from the bottom of her detachable keep to the top of her upper "shell,' and was constructed of oak timbers, which were carefully shaped, joined together, and caulked at the joints. To insure watertightness, the vessel was bound with iron bands and entirely covered with pitch on the outside.

A LITTLE EGG-SHAPED wooden submarine held together by iron straps, Turtle bobbed like a cork in rough surface winds and seas even though she was lead weighted at the bottom. In this hand- and foot-operated contraption, one person could descend by operating a valve to admit water into the ballast tank and ascend with the use of pumps to eject the water.. Two flap-type air vents at the top opened when the hatch was clear of wafer and closed when it was as not. The air supply lasted only 30 minutes.

The submarine was capable of carrying one person who sat upright on a seat resembling that of a bicycle. Turtle s supply of air, in the submerged state, would last about 30 minutes. Located at the bottom of the submarine were a lead weight for ballast and an aperture with a valve to admit water for descent. Two brass forcing pumps served to eject the water from within for ascent. In front of the seated operator was a screw type oar for propelling the vessel forward or backward while, above him, there was a similar oar for ascending, descending, or maintenance of depth. The rudder, located behind the operator, was operated by foot. Furthermore, Turtle was equipped with a depth gauge, a compass to direct the course, and a ventilator to supply the vessel with fresh air at the surface.

Turtle was built at Saybrook, Connecticut, by David Bushnell and his brother, Ezra. After the vessel's completion in 1775, they tested her in the Connecticut River. Unfortunately, the tests indicated that Turtle was not ready to be used against the ships of the British fleet which were blockading Boston Harbor. Problems ranged from the failure of a ballast pump to the need for phosphorescent fox-fire to light the interior of the submarine.

In the spring of 1776, Turtle was ready to be transported by a sloop to Boston to fight the British fleet. By that time, however, the news was received that the British had broken off their blockade there and had moved their ships north to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since there were still British warships in New York Harbor, Turtle was secretly transported there and stationed at The Battery in Manhattan, which was still under the control of America's General Putnam, with his army of about 9,000 men.

The waters of New York Harbor, between The Battery and Governor's Island, had complex patterns of currents and tides, presenting navigational problems completely different from those in the Connecticut River. Ezra, who operated Turtle, trained through June, 1776 until he and David were satisfied that he was familiar with the tidal conditions. General Putnam gave them permission to attack the 64-gun British warship Eagle at the first opportunity.

The opportunity presented itself on July 12 when Lord Howe, the commander of the British naval forces, anchored Eagle off Staten Island, but one adversity followed another. Ezra Bushnell became ill with fever and was unable to operate Turtle. Since General Putnam and George Washington agreed that the submarine should be tried against the enemy, Sergeant Ezra Lee of Old Lyme, Connecticut was selected from a group of volunteers to operate her. For the next two months, Ezra Lee trained intensively.

Near midnight of September 6, the moon and the tide were favorable for attack. Turtle was towed by a small rowboat toward Eagle. Halfway to Staten Island, the rowboat stopped, and Lee entered Turtle and fastened the hatch over his head. For the first time in the history of naval warfare, a submarine was engaged in a war against an enemy ship.

After diligent pedaling, Lee brought Turtle on the side of Eagle. After taking some ballast, he submerged completely. When he thought he was under his target, he pumped out a small quantity of water from the ballast tank, until a jarring bump indicated he was beneath Eagle. For the next few minutes, Lee vainly tried to attach a torpedo to her hull. When the air in his little cabin was almost used up, Lee had no choice but to abandon his attempt and surface. After replenishing the air in the cabin and resting, he again descended underneath Eagle to try to affix a torpedo on her hull. He failed. A metal plate covered the area where he was trying to drill. Having consumed his air, he was forced to abandon his goal and surface.

An Inglorious Victory

Lee was exhausted, and the outgoing tide threatened to take the small craft out to sea. Desperately, he ejected all the ballast water and began pedaling with all his remaining strength. With the ballast water pumped out, one third of Turtle's hull stuck out of the water, making it clearly visible in daylight. In fact, as dawn broke, two British soldiers set out from Governor's Island in a patrol skiff to investigate the floating object. To divert the patrol and to lighten his craft, Lee released a time operated 250-pound (250 pounds = 113 Kilograms) torpedo and, picking up speed, reached The Battery and safety.

Soon thereafter, the torpedo exploded, shattering the silence of the early morning and arousing the British fleet. Quickly, the British raised their anchors and hurriedly moved their ships to the safer waters of lower New York Bay.

Although Turtle s original mission was unsuccessful, some historians claim that the venture was not a complete failure. They suggest that the incident drove the British ships to a new location from which they could not maintain an effective blockade of New York. Also, although Turtle inflicted no damage to any British vessel, an intangible psychological victory might have been attained, simply through her use as a weapon.

Turtle was equally unsuccessful in two subsequent efforts against Eagle and another British frigate. In both instances, the tides and tricky currents of New York Harbor frustrated the ventures. In an effort to move the submarine to areas where attacks could occur under more favorable conditions, Bushnell loaded Turtle aboard a fast sloop, hoping that the sloop could slip unnoticed past the British into Long Island Sound and back to Connecticut. A British frigate discovered the sloop, however, and, according to the British, sank her and her precious cargo. The Americans claimed that she was dismantled and moved inland to keep her out of enemy hands. Whatever the final fate of Turtle, as the first American war submarine, she came to a premature end and closed a not-so-glorious chapter of maritime history in the American Revolution.


Pararas-Carayannis, George. Turtle: A Revolutionary Submarine. Sea Frontiers, Vol 22, No. 4, pp. 234, July-August, 1976.

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Birth: 1749 Old Lyme New London County Connecticut, USA Death: Oct. 29, 1821 Old Lyme New London County Connecticut, USA

Revolutionary War Continental Army Soldier. In August of 1776, then a Sergeant, he volunteered to man the “Marine Turtle”, the one-man submarine invented and built by David Bushnell and his brother Ezra. In an under water attempt that lasted more than two hours, he tried to drill into the hull and fasten a bomb on the 64-gun “HMS Eagle”, flagship of Vice Admiral Richard "Black Dick" Howe, anchored with the British squadron in New York Harbor off Staten Island. However, because of the thickness of the ship’s copper sheathing the mission failed. Nevertheless, General George Washington later congratulated Lee for his courage and employed him on secret service. In 1777 Lee used the “Turtle” again in an attempt to destroy the British frigate “HMS Cerberus”, but was discovered and forced to retreat. Sergeant Lee later participated in the Battles of Trenton, Brandywine and Monmouth. His obituary in the “Commercial Advisor” (November 1821) stated: "Died, at Lyme, on the 29th ult. Captain Ezra Lee, aged 72, a revolutionary officer.—It is not a little remarkable, that this officer is the only man, of which it can be said, that he fought the enemy upon land–upon water–and under the water..."

Source: Text by Carl W. McBrayer, downloaded 2011 from

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Sgt. Ezra Lee, 1st to operate a sub in battle's Timeline

January 21, 1749
Lyme, New London County, Connecticut Colony
August 31, 1774
Age 25
October 29, 1821
Age 72
Lyme, New London County, Connecticut, United States
Old Lyme, New London County, Connecticut, United States