A Forgotten Patriot – Remembered
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On June 28th, 2014, the Atlanta Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution dedicated a cenotaph (memorial) to Capt. David Bushnell/Dr. David Bush in the City Cemetery in Warrenton, Georgia. In 1826 when Dr. David Bush died in Georgia and having left no family, it was discovered by the executor of his will Mr. George Hargraves that he was really Capt. David Bushnell inventor of the Revolutionary War Submarine “The American Turtle.”
The Atlanta Chapter President Terry Manning found a reference that Capt. Bushnell died in Georgia and didn’t have a grave marker so the Atlanta Chapter decided to correct the oversight. With the help of the State Society, funds were obtained to commission a sculpted granite marker by sculptor Mr. Ron Clamp (Memorial Designs, Pelion SC) depicting the submarine for all to see. Registrar David Noble researched the little known life the Dr. David Bush during his thirty years in Georgia after hiding his true identity.
David Bushnell was born in 1740 in Saybrook, CT and in 1771 after his father’s death used his inheritance to go to Yale. During his studies to become a physician he became interested in and discovered how to blow up gunpowder under water to sink a ship (1). He communicated this with Thomas Jefferson. One of his class mates was Patriot Abraham Baldwin of Georgia. After graduating from Yale in 1775 with the help of his brother Ezra and others he built the first wooden wartime one – man submarine “The American Turtle (1, 8).” To accomplish this he invented the propeller, used water as a ballast, made snorkels for air, devised a waterproof rudder, and invented a timed detonator using a clock mechanism and a flintlock (8). He communicated with Thomas Jefferson for advice on making depth gauge and Benjamin Franklin on the use of foxfire to illuminate the compass. He also designed an auger to attach the underwater mine to the ship’s hull. Some say it was made of two halves of a tree trunk (1) It has a brass tower with eight windows on the top and 700 pounds of lead as a ballast on the bottom. He purchased Poverty Island to test the submarine in secret. He used his own money to accomplish this and it is probable that Benjamin Franklin visited the submarine at Poverty Island (3). Congressman John Adams was informed of the underwater machine as well as the British spy William Tyron. The Connecticut Council provided 60 Pounds of financial help (1).
In July 1776, “The American Turtle” was towed to New York Harbor to General Washington’s Camp under Gen. Israel Putnam, Aides-de Camp David Humphries and Aaron Burr. Ezra Bushnell, the pilot of the submarine became ill and was replaced as the submarine’s operator by Ezra Lee. On Sept. 7, 1776 the Turtle” attacked the HMS Eagle, the Flagship of the British Navy in New York Harbor. At 10 PM it was spotted and a warning shot fired but Mr. Lee submerged the “Turtle” under the hull but was unable to attach the mine. He then floated to South Ferry Landing so the submarine could be recovered and let the mine explode with a massive water spout that surprised the British (3, 8).
On Sept. 14, 1776, “The American Turtle” attacked the British Frigates Phoenix, Roebuck and Tartar but was spotted and the mission had to be aborted. Later an American sloop carrying the submarine was sunk ending the saga of the submarine “The American Turtle.”
In 1777 David Bushnell invented a floating mine (keg) and attempted to blow up the HMS Cerberus, but it struck a smaller ship killing four sailors. On Dec.29, 1777 he let 20 floating mines (infernals) loose in the Delaware River and by Jan 5, 1778 they reached the British Fleet ensuing mayhem that caused a popular satiric poem to be written by Francis Hopkinson called “British Valour Displayed or the Battle of the Kegs”. It was a popular American rallying point and an embarrassment to the British Navy. On May 6, 1779 Bushnell was taken prisoner and one week later was released in a prisoner exchange arranged by Gen. Israel Putnam.
In Aug. 1779 he was appointed Capt. – Lieut. in the Corps of Sappers and Miner and in June 1781 made Capt. and worked on Redoubt 10 at the siege of Yorktown. Alexander Hamilton commanded the attack on redoubt No. 9 (7, 8, 9). Later he was appointed the first Commander of the Corps of Engineers.
He was a founder of the Society of Cincinnatus. In 1785 President George Washington sent a letter to French Ambassador Thomas Jefferson attesting to Capt. David Bushnell’s submarine. In 1787 Bushnell had correspondence with Thomas Jefferson in France about a patent for his screw propeller used in the submarine (3).
Around 1795 David Bushnell moved to Columbia County Georgia and moved in with the Abraham Baldwin family (founder of the University of Georgia and member of the Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress) and changed his name to Dr. David Bush. He taught at the Citizens Academy, Columbia Academy and Warrenton Academy (2,3). His most famous student was Daniel Appling, who was one of the state of Georgia’s heroes in the War of 1812. He practiced as a physician in Warrenton, Georgia for at least 14 years. In 1810 he was on the council that started the city of Warrenton Georgia. He bought property in Warren County in 1804 and was on the tax list in 1817 (5,6). He never married and in 1826 when he died left an estate of $9,000 to his four nephews in Saybrook CT (4).
The Atlanta Chapter thanks all who made this tribute to Capt. David Bushnell possible and we will work to keep his patriotic service remembered forever. He was not from Georgia but proudly he was “of” Georgia.
- Arthur D. Lefkowitz, Bushnell’s Submarine. Scholastic Inc. 2006
- Rev. George White, Historical Collections of Georgia 1855. Prepared by Alpha Dutton 1969
- Ray Chandler, Mysterious Dr. David Bush. Georgia Backroads, Winter 2010
- Norwich Courier, Norwich CT. obituary, Aug 16, 1826, issue 20, page 2Georgia Property Tax Digest 1793-1892. Ancestry.com database
- Dan N. Crumpton, Cemeteries and Genealogy of Warren Count Georgia 1792-1987. (1987)
- Connecticut Historical Society, The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Services During the American Revolution
- Dive, Lincoln Diamont, Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns NY 2003
- Private Yankee Doodle, Joseph Plumb Martin, edited by George E. Scheer, Eastern National 1962
- 1820 Federal Census Habersham County Georgia pg. 114
- Augusta Chronicle, Augusta, Georgia, 19 Nov. 1826; notice by George Hargraves, executor