By Philip R. Devlin
(January 6, 2023) — During the years of American involvement in the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device, often referred to as an IED, became a common part of our recent vocabulary. IEDs have accounted for more than 50 percent of the thousands of American deaths and grievous wounds in those engagements. IEDs can take many forms; basically, they can be thought of as the use of any explosive device in a non-conventional delivery system. For example, an artillery shell, which is normally delivered to its target from the barrel of a gun, can be hidden in a wrecked car or strapped to an animal and then exploded remotely using cellphone technology. Understood in this way, IEDs have a long history that predates their use in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In fact, one can make a compelling case that the first IED used in warfare originated right here in Connecticut as a consequence of Saybrook resident David Bushnell’s invention of the first submarine, the Turtle. I refer more specifically to Bushnell’s attack on the British fleet in Philadelphia on January 6, 1777 — 246 years ago this week.
The Yale-educated Bushnell (pictured above) had made an important discovery in 1775: gunpowder could be exploded underwater. Henry Howe’s book Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics (1852) described Bushnell’s experiments with exploding gunpowder in this way:
The first experiment was made with about two ounces of gunpowder, to prove to some influential men that powder would burn under water. In the second trial there were two pounds of gunpowder enclosed in a wooden bottle, and fixed under a hogshead, with a two-inch oak plank between the hogshead and the powder. The hogshead was loaded with stones as deep as it could swim; a wooden pipe primed with powder descended through the lower head of the hogshead, and thence through the plank into the powder contained in the bottle. A match put to the priming exploded- the powder with a tremendous effect, casting a great body of water with the stones and ruins many feet into the air.
Furthermore, Bushnell was able to devise a timing device for his underwater explosive device. His plan for the Turtle was to have its operator paddle underwater to an enemy ship, pierce the hull of the ship with a drilling device, and deposit a powder keg with a timing device in it that would blow up the ship after the operator of the sub had safely paddled away.
Well, it didn’t work out quite as planned. The first attack on a British ship occurred in New York harbor in September of 1776. The target was a 64-gun frigate known as the Eagle — Admiral Howe’s flagship. The pilot, Sgt. Ezra Lee of Old Lyme, could not pierce the metal sheathing on the underside of the hull with his drill. With a limited air supply, Lee had to make his escape. While doing so, he released his “torpedo” to lessen the drag on the sub and to hasten his retreat. His IED floated to the surface and drifted in New York harbor. With the timing device engaged by its release, the keg of powder soon exploded in the East River near Governor’s Island “with a report like thunder.” General Israel Putnam of Connecticut was among those who witnessed the explosion. Though their ships were not harmed, the British were sufficiently frightened to move their fleet.
Though the attack on Howe’s flagship had largely failed, the successful explosion gave rise to another guerrilla tactic. Nearly a year later, in August of 1777, Bushnell attempted to attack the British in a new way. This time the target was the Cerberus, anchored in Niantic Bay next to a schooner it had seized. The intrepid Lee paddled in close to the two ships and released his IED with a tether. Curious British sailors pulled it in and brought it aboard the schooner. In short order, the device exploded, killing several British sailors, causing a fire, and sinking the schooner. The captain of the Cerberus, J. Simmons, disturbed at such unconventional tactics, wrote to British Admiral Parker about “the mode these villains… have taken…as the ingenuity of these people is singular in their secret modes of mischief.”
Bushnell’s next attack occurred on January 6, 1778. He rigged a number of IEDs and floated them down the Delaware River, hoping that they would contact ships of the British fleet anchored there. However, the ships had been anchored in such a way as to avoid floating ice, so the attack was largely unsuccessful. One floating IED did contact a British barge and exploded it, killing four Brits and wounding several others. So unnerved were the British, that their officers ordered infantrymen to shoot their muskets at anything that floated down the river. This command resulted in Francis Hopkinson penning the very sarcastic ballad, “Battle of the Kegs,” which pokes fun at the “courage” of the British for shooting floating pieces of wood in the Delaware River. Though the attack was largely unsuccessful, it did boost morale and marked a propaganda victory for the rebels, as Hopkinson’s popular ditty was read widely throughout the colonies. Following are several stanzas from Hopkinson’s ballad. They just drip with sarcasm:
“The motley crew, in vessels new,
With Satan for their guide, sir,
Packed up in bags, or wooden kegs,
Come driving down the tide, sir.
“Therefore, prepare for bloody war,
These kegs must all be routed,
Or surely we despised shall be,
And British courage doubted.”
The kegs, ’tis said, though strongly made,
Of rebel staves and hoops, sir,
Could not oppose their powerful foes,
The conquering British troops, sir.
From morn to night these men of might
Displayed amazing courage,
And when the sun was fairly down,
Retired to sup their porridge.
A hundred men with each a pen,
Or more upon my word, sir,
It is most true would be too few,
Their valor to record, sir.
Such feats did they perform that day,
Against these wicked kegs, sir,
That years to come, if they get home,
They’ll make their boasts and brags, sir.
Impressed with the possibilities of such attacks, several months later General George Washington created a corps of “sappers and miners” for the Continental Army and made David Bushnell of Connecticut its captain. Sappers, essentially combat engineers who often use explosives in demolition work, have remained an important part of the armed forces ever since. Of course, eventually the submarine evolved over time and became an important part of modern warfare, too. Long after the war, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington said of David Bushnell’s submarine: “I then thought and still do that it was an effort of genius.” The long-term consequences of Bushnell’s invention — some of them unintended — have proven the truth of Washington’s words.