Captain Bushnell Scares The British


MANY of us, all our lives, have seen vessels of every size and shape

darting to and fro over the water; some with sails spread to the wind,

others with puffing pipes and whirling wheels.

And that is not all. Men have tried to go under water as well as on top.

Some of you may have read Jules Verne's famous story, "Twenty Thousand

Leagues under the Sea." That, of course, is all fiction; but now-a-days

there are vessels which can go miles under the water without once coming

to the top.

We call these submarine boats, and look upon them as something very new.

You may be surprised to learn that there was a submarine boat as long

ago as the War of the Revolution. It was not a very good one, and did

not do the work it was built for, but it was the first of its kind, and

that is something worth knowing.

Those of you who have studied history will know that after the British

were driven out of Boston they came to New York with a large army, and

took possession of that city. Washington and his men could not keep them

out, and had to leave. There the British lay, with their army in the

city and their fleet in the bay and river, and there they stayed for


There was an American who did not like to see British vessels floating

in American waters. He knew he could not drive them away, but he thought

he might give them some trouble. This was a Connecticut man named David

Bushnell, a chap as sharp as a steeltrap, and one of the first American


What Bushnell did was to invent a boat that would move under water and

might be made to blow up an enemy's ship. As it was the first of this

kind ever made, I am sure you will wish to know what it was like and how

it was worked.

He called it The American Turtle, for it looked much like a great

swimming turtle, big enough to hold a man and also to carry a torpedo

loaded with 150 pounds of gunpowder. This was to be fastened to the

wooden bottom of a ship and then fired off. It was expected to blow a

great hole in the bottom and sink the vessel.

Of course, the boat was air-tight and water-tight, but it had a supply

of fresh air that would last half an hour for one man. There was an oar

for rowing and a rudder for steering. A valve in the bottom let in the

water when the one-man crew wanted to sink his turtle-like boat, and

there were two pumps to force the water out again when he wanted to


There were windows in the top shell of the turtle, air pipes to let out

the foul air and take in fresh air, small doors that could be opened

when at the surface, and heavy lead ballast to keep the turtle level. In

fact, the affair was, for the time, very ingenious and complete.

A very important part of it was the torpedo, with its 150 pounds of

powder. This was carried outside, above the rudder. It was so made that

when the boat came under a vessel the man inside could fasten it with a

screw to the vessel's bottom, and row away and leave it there. Inside it

was a clock, which could be set to run a certain time and then loosen a

sort of gunlock. This struck a spark and set fire to the powder, and

up--or down--went the vessel.

You can see that Dave Bushnell's invention was a very neat one; but, for

all that, luck went against it. He first tried his machine with only two

pounds of powder on a hogshead loaded with stones. The powder was set on

fire, and up went the stones and the boards of the hogshead and a body

of water, many feet into the air. If two pounds of powder would do all

this, what would one hundred and fifty pounds do?

In 1776 the Turtle was sent out against a big British ship named the

Eagle, anchored in New York Bay. The man inside rowed his boat very

well under water, and after some time found himself beneath the King's

ship. He now tried to fasten the torpedo to the bottom, but the screw

struck an iron bar and would not go in. Then he moved to another place,

but now he lost the ship altogether. He could not find her again, and he

had to row away, for he could not stay much longer under water.

There is a funny story told about the man in the Turtle. He was a

queer fellow named Abijah Shipman, but called by his companions "Long


As he entered the craft and was about to screw down its cover, he opened

it again and asked for a chew of tobacco. All those present felt in

their pockets, but none of the weed was on hand.

"You will have to go without it, old chap," said General Putnam, who was

present. "We Continental officers can't afford even a plug of tobacco.

To-morrow, after you have sent the Eagle on her last flight, we will

try and raise you a whole keg of the weed."

"That's too bad," growled Bige. "Tell you what, Gineral, if the old

Turtle don't do her duty, it's all along of me goin' out without


After he had gone Putnam and his officers watched anxiously for results.

Time passed. Morning was at hand. The Eagle rode unharmed. Evidently

something had gone wrong. Had the torpedo failed, and was "Long Bige"

resting in his wrecked machine on the bottom of the bay? Putnam swept

the waters near the Eagle with his glass. Suddenly he exclaimed.

"There he is." The top of the Turtle had just emerged, some distance

from the ship.

Abijah, fearing that he might be seen, had cast off the torpedo that he

might go the faster. The clock had been set to run an hour, and at the

end of that time there was a thundering explosion near the fleet,

hurling up great volumes of water into the air.

Soon there were signs of fright in the ships. The anchors were raised,

sails were set, and off they went to safer quarters down the bay. They

did not care to be too near such dangerous affairs as that.

Boats were sent out to the aid of the Turtle and it was brought ashore

at a safe place. On landing Abijah gave, in his queer way, the reasons

for his failure.

"It's just as I said, Gineral; it went to pot for want o' that cud of

tobacco. You see, I'm mighty narvous without my tobacco. When I got

under the ship's bottom, somehow the screw struck the iron bar that

passes from the rudder pintle, and wouldn't hold on anyhow I could fix

it. Just then I let go the oar to feel for a cud, to steady my narves,

and I hadn't any. The tide swept me under her counter, and away I

slipped top o' water. I couldn't manage to get back, so I pulled the

lock and let the thunder-box slide. That's what comes of sailing short

of supplies. Say, can you raise a cud among you now?"

Later on, after the British had taken the city of New York, two more

attempts were made to blow up vessels in the river above the city. But

they both failed, and in the end the British fired upon and sunk the

Turtle. Bushnell's work was lost. The best he had been able to do was

to give them a good scare.

But he was not yet at the end of his schemes. He next tried to blow up

the Cerberus, a British frigate that lay at anchor in Long Island

Sound. This time a schooner saved the frigate. A powder magazine was set

afloat, but it struck the schooner, which lay at anchor near the

frigate. The schooner went to pieces, but the Cerberus was saved.

The most famous of Bushnell's exploits took place at Philadelphia, after

the British had taken possession and brought their ships up into the

Delaware River.

One fine morning a number of kegs were seen floating down among the

shipping. What they meant nobody knew. The sailors grew curious, and a

boat set out from a vessel and picked one of them up. In a minute it

went off, with the noise of a cannon, sinking the boat and badly hurting

the man.

This filled the British with a panic. Those terrible kegs might do

frightful damage. They must be some dreadful invention of the rebels.

The sailors ran out their guns, great and small, and began to batter

every keg they saw with cannon balls, until there was a rattle and roar

as if a mighty battle was going on. Such was the famous "Battle of the


This was more of Dave Bushnell's work. He had made and set adrift those

powder kegs, fixing them so that they would explode on touching

anything. But he did not understand the river and its tides. He intended

to have them get among the ships at night, but it was broad day when

they came down, and by that time the eddying waters had scattered them

far and wide. So the powder kegs were of no more account than the

torpedoes. All they did was to give the British a scare.

Philadelphia had a poet named Francis Hopkinson, who wrote a poem

making fun of the British, called "The Battle of the Kegs." We give a

few verses of this humorous poem:

'Twas early day, as poets say,

Just as the sun was rising;

A soldier stood on a log of wood

And saw the sun a-rising.

As in amaze he stood to gaze

(The truth can't be denied, sir),

He spied a score of kegs, or more,

Come floating down the tide, sir.

A sailor, too, in jerkin blue,

The strange appearance viewing,

First "dashed" his eyes in great surprise,

Then said: "Some mischief's brewing.

"These kegs, I'm told, the rebels hold,

Packed up like pickled herring;

And they've come down to attack the town

In this new way of ferrying."

* * * * *

The cannons roar from shore to shore,

The small arms make a rattle;

Since wars began, I'm sure no man

E'er saw so strange a battle.

The fish below swam to and fro,

Attacked from every quarter.

"Why sure," thought they, "the devil's to pay

'Mong folks above the water."

From morn to night these men of might

Displayed amazing courage;

And when the sun was fairly down,

Retired to sup their porridge.

Such feats did they perform that day,

Against those wicked kegs, sir,

That years to come, if they get home,

They'll make their boasts and brags, sir.

And so it went on, verse after verse, with not much poetry in it, but a

good deal of fun. The British did not enjoy it, for people did not like

to be laughed at then any more than now.

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