Bushnell’s Mine Nearly Sinks a Ship

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 4, 2014
by Christian McBurney Also by this Author


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When the Royal Navy fleet of warships and transports, carrying a British army of more than 7,000 soldiers, passed New London, Connecticut, on December 6, 1776, the British were just a few days from easily capturing Newport, Rhode Island and bottling up the privateers and commercial vessels from Providence, Bristol, Warren, Swansea and other ports in Narragansett Bay and Mount Hope Bay. The British navy turned its attention as well to New London, which had the most active port in southeastern New England during the war, sending out many commercial vessels in the West Indies trade and privateers to prey on British shipping.

During the Revolutionary War, New London had in action fifty-nine privateers, which captured more than 150 British vessels and 300 prizes overall. Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., the leading merchant and patriot in New London, acted as a naval agent for the Continental navy and the state navy of Connecticut. He owned outright ten privateers and owned interests in two more, which brought in fifty-seven prizes. New London merchant Thomas Mumford also owned ten privateers and interests in two others. New London’s John Deshon, who served on the Continental Navy Board of the Eastern Department and a Connecticut state navy committee, owned eight privateers and an interest in one other that captured eight prizes.[1] Sir George Collier, an admiral of the British fleet out of New York, called New London “a famous receptacle for privateers, and was thought on that account to injure British trade as much as any harbor in America.”[2]

The British naval command commenced a blockade of New London using a single frigate—the 28-gun HMS Cerberus—from the time that the British fleet arrived in Black Point Bay west of New London on its way to Newport in early December 1776. She captured the following: on December 11, the Lyon out of New London, carrying lumber and horses; on December 30, the brig Liberty bound from New London to the West Indies, carrying horses, flour and lumber; and on January 30, a commercial brig out of New London, also bound for the West Indies. The Cerberus carried the brig into Newport.[3]

The 32-gun frigate Amazon replaced Cerberus for the months of February and March, bringing New London commerce to a halt and creating panic in the town from fear that British marines would stage a raid. On February 3, 1777, the Amazon captured a schooner commanded by Captain Andrew Palmer who was nearing his home port of Stonington after returning from the West Indies with arms, ammunition and dry goods. The Amazon’s captain, Maximillian Jacobs, generously exchanged Palmer shortly afterwards and turned the schooner into a tender that cruised for more prizes.[4] The same day, Jacobs’ frigate chased a prize of one of Nathaniel Shaw’s privateers onto a beach at nearby Westerly, Rhode Island, and on February 16, another vessel bound for New London was chased onto a Westerly beach. On March 13, the Amazon seized a small sail boat from Stonington owned by Samuel Beebe, carrying salt, sugar and rum. The next day, a crew of twenty armed men, with two swivel guns, used the captured boat to take near Plumb Island the commercial schooner Olive, carrying rum and sugar, bound for New London from the West Indies.[5]

In February, New London merchant Nathaniel Shaw wrote that trade in the port town was at a standstill due the British blockade.[6] The next month, Shaw advised one of his ship captains to avoid a British frigate stationed off Fishers Island by running into Stonington.[7]

Connecticut authorities could not do much to stop the blockade by British frigates, but steps were taken to insure that they were not provided with food, supplies or intelligence by local Tories or others. The Connecticut General Assembly enacted a law prohibiting any person from taking a small craft on the water without written permission from a town selectman.[8] On March 6, New London selectmen went further, ordering all vessel owners to bring their boats to New London harbor above Fort Trumbull.[9] In April, Governor Trumbull and the Connecticut Council of Safety inspected Fort Trumbull at New London and Fort Griswold across the river in Groton, as well as the newly-constructed state frigate Oliver Cromwell in New London harbor.[10]

Surprisingly, given New London’s active role in privateering and supplying the American army with provisions brought into its port, British ships were not permanently stationed outside of the port. The New London blockade ended in late March 1777, coinciding with the departure of Admiral Lord Richard Howe’s fleet from its winter station at Newport. The failure to blockade New London permanently was a strategic error on the part of the British navy’s high command, although Admiral Howe may have believed that he lacked a sufficient number of warships. With no British frigate stationed outside New London, Connecticut privateers from there and other ports were able to intercept ships sailing between the British headquarters at New York and the Newport garrison. For example, in early May 1777, two British supply ships on their way from New York to Newport were captured by American privateers and brought into a safe Connecticut port. One of the ships carried prominent Newport Loyalist John Freebody, who was reportedly carrying $20,000 in cash and notes.[11]

Still, British cruisers hunted American vessels outside the New London harbor with some frequency. For example, on April 21, 1777, two vessels coming out of New London and Stonington were captured by a British frigate near Block Island.[12] In mid-July 1777, Captain Andrew Palmer, who had been quickly released by the HMS Amazon’s captain in a prisoner exchange, while commanding a small sloop from Stonington, was again captured and “carried into Newport.”[13] This time Palmer was not so fortunate, as he died of small pox in a British prison ship in Newport.[14] Other members of his crew also died resulting from the deplorable conditions on board the Newport prison ship and an outbreak of disease, including his lieutenant, a gunner and the vessel’s cooper.[15]

The cat-and-mouse game continued. On July 20, twenty-three British war ships and transport ships were spotted sailing to the east towards New London. Alarm guns were fired in New London, and the local militia gathered to defend against an invasion, but the fleet continued on its way eastward.[16] Not missing any opportunity, the next day, the armed schooner Spy slipped out of New London harbor and captured two vessels from the fleet that had stayed back to pick up some wood on Long Island.[17]

Full-size model of the Turtle submarine at the Royal Navy submarine museum. Photo by Geni via Wikipedia.
Full-size model of the Turtle submarine at the Royal Navy submarine museum. Photo by Geni via Wikipedia.

In early August 1777, with the HMS Cerberus back patrolling outside New London harbor, David Bushnell had an idea of how to destroy the frigate. This led to one of the most unusual naval attacks not only of the entire Revolutionary War, but in all of naval history. The instigator, David Bushnell, was an inventor and Yale College graduate from the coastal village of Westbrook, Connecticut. At Yale, he had experimented with underwater explosions and timed bombs. In September 1776, he had engaged in a brilliant but failed attempt to use what is called the first submarine to attach a time bomb to a British warship. The attempt failed because the operator of his vessel, called the Turtle, could not bore a hole into the submerged vessel’s hull. While he is today renowned for that effort, he is less known for experimenting with a “water bomb,” which essentially was a stationary drift mine loaded with gun powder. During Governor Trumbull’s and the Connecticut Council of Safety’s visit to troubled New London in April 1777, they visited with Bushnell. It was probably at this time that the inventor gave the following demonstration:

To show that powder could be made to explode under water, I first demonstrated before some noted personages in Connecticut, with 2 ounces of gunpowder placed 4 feet under water, and then by using 2 pounds of gunpowder placed in a wooden bottle under a hogshead, with a 2-inch plank between the hogshead and the powder. The hogshead was loaded with stones . . . A wooden pipe, descending through the lower head of the hogshead and through the plank into the powder in the bottle, was primed with powder. A match put to the priming exploded the powder with great effect, splintering the wood plank, demolishing the hogshead, and casting the ruins of the hogshead, stones, and a column of water many feet in the air.[18]

Impressed by the display and intrigued by a chance to retaliate against a British war ship, the Council of Safety provided Bushnell with supplies and encouragement for his new “invention for annoying ships, etc….”[19]

On the night of August 13, Bushnell laid plans for sinking the British frigate Cerberus, which was then anchored in Black Point Bay. Just that morning, the frigate had captured and burned a schooner off Plumb Island.[20] Bushnell personally sat in the whale boat while oarsmen rowed in the darkness, towing two of his mines toward the Cerberus. Each mine was loaded with powder and was to be detonated by a flintlock mechanism; and each one was connected by a line of about 600 yards long, buoyed by small sticks of wood at intervals. As Bushnell later described his device, “The machine was loaded with powder, to be exploded by a gun-lock, which was to be unpinioned by an apparatus to be turned by being brought alongside of the frigate.”[21] It is not clear from his description if this mine had a timed mechanism to trigger the explosion, as did his bomb for his submarine. Stealthily, Bushnell released one of the mines and let it float towards the unsuspecting Cerberus. Next, allowing the line to trail behind the boat, the whaleboat crew rowed ahead of the British frigate until the entire length of the line had been reached. Then they dropped the other mine in the water, allowing the tide to do the rest of the work. Bushnell’s goal was for a mine to attach itself to the Cerberus without being noticed by the British and for the flintlock mechanism to trigger the explosion of the mine.

Bushnell mine destroying a British ship.
Bushnell mine destroying a British schooner.

One of the mines was spotted by alert British sailors before it became attached to the Cerberus. At about 10 p.m., the commander of the Cerberus, Captain John Symons, ordered the line of one of the mines to be towed in. The other end of the mine’s line was spotted by sailors aboard a schooner, which Bushnell had not seen in the night, that was anchored next to the Cerberus. Thinking it was a fishing line, the sailors aboard the schooner hauled it in. When they got to the strange heavy iron mechanism, three men struggled to bring it onto the schooner’s deck. About five minutes after it was hauled aboard, while three sailors were tinkering with the mechanical device in the stern of the schooner, the mine exploded. The explosion destroyed the schooner, instantly killed the three men, and blew a fourth man in the bow of the vessel into the water, wounded. Captain Symons immediately dispatched a boat to rescue the survivor and ordered the line towing the second mine to be cut.[22]

The log of the Cerberus stated the explosion set the schooner “on fire and burst the sides of her out so that she sank immediately.”[23] Bushnell’s attempt to sink the Cerberus, while failing through bad luck, did result in the Cerberus returning immediately to Newport so that Symons could inform Admiral Peter Parker of the incident and warn other British naval officers of the threat. “[T]he ingenuity of these people is singular in their secret modes of mischief,” complained Symons to his superior.[24]

The schooner was the first vessel ever destroyed by an exploding mine. Despite the promise of the mine as a weapon, no more of them were used in southeastern New England. Mines would increase in effectiveness once they were triggered by a ship contacting them, as opposed to using Bushnell’s timed or other mechanism. Bushnell later applied other innovative ideas to floating mines in the Philadelphia theater.

The crew of the Cerberus was shaken but not deterred from its task of blockading New London harbor. Back in action on August 16, it ran a commercial schooner, the Olive, on its way back from the West Indies to New London, onto a Rhode Island beach. The next day, it drove a sloop from Connecticut heading for home onto the same beach. The same day, a sloop out of New London was taken by a tender of the Cerberus, but crew members managed to escape in a small boat to Block Island and eventually made their way back to Connecticut.[25] The dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the Royal Navy and New London privateers would continue for the remainder of the war.


[1] Decker, Robert Owen, The Whaling City, A History of New London (Chester, CT: Pequot Press, 1976), 46-50; see also Caulkins, Frances Manwaring, History of New London, Connecticut (New London, CT: H. D. Utley, 1895), 505-12 and 524-27. Shaw’s most successful privateer, the American Revenue, commissioned on October 9, 1776, had fourteen guns, was manned by seventy men, and was commanded by Samuel Champlain, Jr. Lincoln, Charles (ed.), Naval Records of the American Revolution, 1776-1788 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1906), 225. For a narrative of a cruise by a seaman aboard the American Revenue out of New London, who earned $2,000 in prize money, see Crawford, Michael J. (ed.), The Autobiography of a Yankee Marine, Christopher Prince (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2002), 141-45.

[2] Quoted in Middlebrook, Louis F., History of Maritime Connecticut during the American Revolution, vol. 1 (Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1925), ix.

[3] “A List of Prizes Taken, and Vessels Retaken, by His Majesty’s Ships under the Command of the Commodore Sir Peter Parker, R.I., Jan. 11, 1777,” in Morgan, William J. and Michael J. Crawford (eds.), Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 7 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Naval Department, 1976), 926-27; Connecticut Gazette, Jan. 30, 1777.

[4] Connecticut Gazette, Feb. 7 and 14, 1777; “Howe’s List of Vessels Seized as Prizes, and of Recaptures Made, by the American Squadron, between January 1, 1777 and May 22, 1777,” in Morgan & Crawford (eds.), Naval Docs. 8:1058.

[5] Connecticut Gazette, March 21, 1777; Log of the Amazon, March 13-14, 1777, in Morgan & Crawford (eds.), Naval Docs. 8:111; “Howe’s List of Vessels Seized as Prizes, and of Recaptures Made, by the American Squadron, between January 1, 1777 and May 22, 1777,” in id., 1058.

[6] N. Shaw to R. Morris, Feb. 4, 1777, in Rogers, Ernest E. (ed.), “Nathaniel Shaw Letter Book,” New London Historical Society Collections, vol. 2 (1933), 296-97.

[7] N. Shaw to W. Powers, March 13, 1777, in id., 298.

[8] Connecticut Gazette, Feb. 7, 1777.

[9] Ibid., March 7, 1777.

[10] Conn. Council of Safety Minutes, April 22-23, 1777, in Hoadley, Charles J. (ed.), Public Records of the State of Connecticut. . . ., vol. 1 (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood and Brainard Co., 1894), 212.

[11] Boston Gazette, May 19, 1777. Frances Caulkins, in her helpful History of New London, wrote that “Through the whole year 1777, New London was blockaded almost with the strictness of a siege.” Id., 525. But this statement does not appear to be accurate after March 1777.

[12] Connecticut Gazette, April 25, 1777.

[13] Id., July 18, 1777.

[14] See J. Spencer to J. Trumbull, Dec. 9, 1777, copied in Peter Force Transcripts, Jonathan Trumbull Papers, Series 7E, microfilm reel #47, Library of Congress.

[15] See McBurney, Christian, “British Treatment of Prisoners During the Occupation of Newport, 1776-1779: Disease, Starvation and Death Stalk the Prison Ships,” vol. 79, no. 263 (Fall 2010), 8-9.

[16] Connecticut Gazette, July 25, 1777.

[17] Caulkins, History of New London, 525.

[18] David Bushnell recollections, quoted in Sueter, Murray, F., The Evolution of the Submarine Boat Mine and Torpedo (Portsmouth, England: Gieve’s, 1907), 262.

[19] Conn. Council of Safety Minutes, April 22, 1777, in Hoadley (ed.), Public Records of Conn. 1:212.

[20] Log of the HMS Cerberus, Aug. 13, 1777, in Morgan (ed.), Naval Docs. 9:740-41.

[21] David Bushnell Paper, June 8, 1798, quoted in Sueter, Evolution of the Submarine Boat Mine, 263.

[22] For material related to Bushnell’s attempt, see ibid.; J. Symons to P. Parker, Aug. 15, 1777, in id. 746-47; Bushnell, David, “General Principles and Construction of a Submarine Vessel, Communicated by D. Bushnell of Connecticut, the Inventor, in a Letter of October, 1787, to Thomas Jefferson,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 4, no. 37 (1799), 311-12; Wagner, Frederick, Submarine Fighter of the American Revolution: the Story of David Bushnell (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead, 1963), 79-81. A copy of Captain Symon’s August 15th letter was seized when the HMS Syren was beached in a storm and captured off Point Judith, Rhode Island, on November 6, 1777. Connecticut Gazette, Dec. 5, 1777.

[23] Log of the HMS Cerberus, Aug. 13, 1777, in Morgan (ed.), Naval Docs. 9:741.

[24] J. Symons to P. Parker, Aug. 15, 1777, in Morgan (ed.), Naval Docs. 9:747.

[25] Log of the HMS Cerberus, Aug. 15-16, 1777, in Morgan (ed.), Naval Docs. 9:763; Connecticut Gazette, Aug. 22, 1777; Middlebrook, Maritime Conn. During the Am. Rev. 2:8.

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