“Yankey Torpedo” Adventures


When Congress approved the declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1812, it was committing a very small standing army and navy to fight against the world’s largest navy and a professional army of long experience. Even with the British Army and the Royal Navy largely engaged in confining and defeating Napoleon’s forces in Europe, if the US had any chance of achieving its aims in the war, a civilian effort would be necessary. The first step was calling up each state’s militia to support the regular army, which was done immediately (and was resisted by several New England states that opposed the war, including Connecticut). A second step, initiated a week after the declaration of war, was to legislate the use of private armed vessels—privateers and letter-of-marque traders—to make war on Britain’s merchant marine. These privateers fought for a combination of profit and patriotism. The third step, in March 1813, was passage of “an act to encourage the destruction of the armed vessels of war of the enemy,” popularly known as the Torpedo Act, to reward civilian attacks on British warships.


In North America, the idea of using a waterproof underwater bomb to destroy a ship was introduced by David Bushnell of Westbrook, Connecticut, during the American Revolution. Bushnell designed and built a one-man wooden submarine to attach a waterproof bomb with clockwork detonator to a warship’s hull. Operated by Sergeant Ezra Lee of Lyme, Connecticut, Bushnell’s submarine, the Turtle, made several attempts in New York Harbor in 1776 to attach the bomb—which Lee called a torpedo—to a warship’s keel, but Lee was unable to drill a hole to attach his bomb. Bushnell also developed floating mines—waterproof kegs of gunpowder—that were used unsuccessfully on several occasions, including the “Battle of the Kegs” on the Delaware River in 1778. Thanks to inventor Robert Fulton, these efforts would be renewed in the second war with Great Britain.1


Outrage over the “ungentlemanly” use of torpedoes quickly made its way to Great Britain. In November 1813 Thomas Tegg published William Elmes’s "The Yankey Torpedo.” The exploding barrel alludes to the schooner EAGLE, while the mention of “torpedo capers under his bottom” refers to Silas Halsey and other submarine efforts. In his defense, the British figure mentions the embarrassing HMS Shannon victory over the USS CHESAPEAKE. (Eon Images, 001549)


Pennsylvanian Robert Fulton experimented with submarines and underwater munitions in both France and Great Britain, attempting to blow up vessels with floating mines, or torpedoes, before returning to America in 1806. In 1807 Fulton demonstrated a successful torpedo in New York Harbor, and in 1810 he made presentations to the US Navy and to Congress on the practical use of torpedoes. Fulton’s torpedoes were copper cylinders containing about 100 pounds of gunpowder, with a brass box to contain the flintlock firing mechanism. In 1812 he recommended the use of torpedoes, and the award of prize money for their successful use, to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, asking “How can government get rid of 74 or 80 Gun Ships so Cheap as by this means?”2


Fulton’s proposal was embodied in the Torpedo Act, which specified that during the war it was lawful for anyone to “burn, sink, or destroy” British warships, for which the public treasury would pay them half the value of the vessel and its contents. Passed by Congress on March3, 1813, it legalized and encouraged a maritime version of “asymmetric” or guerrilla war on the American coast.3


Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy’s squadron established itself off New London in April 1813 and moved in close once Captains Decatur, Jones, and Biddle brought the USS United States, Macedonian, and Hornet into the Thames River on June 1. With the British warships anchored so near, and British barges seizing so much coastal commerce on Long Island Sound, there were both reason and opportunity for civilians to attack.


In local waters, most of the men who attempted to operate under the Torpedo Act held personal grudges against Great Britain in general or the Royal Navy specifically.  The first attempt, in June 1813, was more an improvised explosive device than a high-tech weapon. Enraged about civilian deaths in the west where his relatives lived, for which he blamed the British and their Indian allies, New Yorker John Scudder Jr. was persuaded by Commodore Jacob Lewis of the New York gunboat flotilla to outfit the coasting schooner Eagle as a floating bomb. New York Captain Riker sailed the Eagle down the Sound and anchored her off Millstone Point in Waterford. As the expected British barges surged in, Riker retired ashore with just enough resistance that the British cut the anchor cable and towed the Eagle off toward Hardy’s flagship, the 74-gun HMS Ramillies. But wind and tide prevented them from bringing her alongside the Ramillies, so they finally moored her next to a small vessel about three-quarters of a mile away from the Ramillies. An officer and ten men began to inspect the Eagle’s cargo of food and naval stores. Apparently, they did not notice cords running from small flour barrels in the hatch to a large cask in the hold. Those cords were attached to flintlocks on the heads of the cask, which was filled with 400 pounds of gunpowder, together with combustible sulphur and turpentine. At some point they moved the small casks, the cords fired the flintlocks, and the Eagle and the men on board were blown to fragments.4


The next day, a shaken Captain Hardy sent a letter to militia General Jirah Isham of the Connecticut militia at New London, warning, “I am under the necessity of requesting you to make it publicly known that I cannot permit vessels or boats of any description (flags of truce excepted) to approach or pass the British squadron, in consequence of an American vessel having exploded yesterday, three hours after she was in our possession.”5


Only days later, the Ramillies was targeted from underwater. Captain Silas Plowden Halsey, 25, had no clear grudge against the British except for the Royal Navy making his livelihood difficult. The son of a Preston, Connecticut, lawyer, militia officer, and Revolutionary War veteran, Halsey had gone to sea in 1804 and was a captain at age 19, usually commanding schooners in the West Indies and transatlantic trades. Late in June 1813 he became captain and crew of a very different vessel, variously called a “diving boat” and a “diving bell.” Unnamed “proprietors”—probably New London merchants—financed the boat in hopes of loosening the blockade of New London and profiting from the estimated $150,000 return for sinking the Ramillies. The term proprietors emphasizes that these torpedo missions were commercial undertakings somewhat like a privateering voyage. It is not clear, however, if an operator like Halsey was an investor in the project or was simply offered a share of the reward if he was successful.6

In the 1840s Samuel Colt determined that Halsey’s submarine included a water cock to let in water to submerge, a hand-operated force pump to evacuate the water and return to the surface, a hand-operated propeller crank that also served as an auger to attach a torpedo to an enemy ship’s hull, a “conning tower” with some kind of windows around the operator’s head, and an air tube. These features were similar to David Bushnell’s Revolutionary War submarine Turtle. It was reported that Halsey’s propelling “paddles” were efficient enough to move the craft at three miles an hour, making a trip out to the Ramillies feasible. New London metalworker John Sizer built Halsey’s torpedo, presumably with a clockwork trigger mechanism as in Bushnell’s and Fulton’s designs.7


While the Connecticut Gazette indicated that the submarine was for defensive purposes, in case British vessels tried to enter New London Harbor, Halsey reportedly made three voyages into the Sound to attach his torpedo to the keel of the Ramillies. Robert Fulton doubted the reports of Halsey and his boat. “Did you see him and it?” he asked Decatur. He claimed that New Yorkers thought it was “a farce to create alarm in the enemy,” and he doubted that the craft could withstand the pressure of descending to the 22-foot depth of the Ramillies’s keel. Perhaps he was correct, as Halsey drowned in his submarine during his last attempt.8


Editor Samuel Green of the Connecticut Gazette reported on July 21, 1813, “Since the attempt of the renowned Halsey of Preston, in a Torpedoe, the British ships have taken new ground for anchorage; & for some time before tripped their anchors every few hours. The commodore [Hardy] has frankly confessed that the apprehensions of some yankee trick has given him great anxiety. He knew of the Halsey Torpedoe, and mentioned the names of persons whom he said were the proprietors. He confesses that the torpedoes are among the acknowledged weapons of national warfare; altho’ personally opposed to them. He never having used even hand grenades in any vessel he has commanded.”9


But Hardy was learning about Yankee ingenuity and willingness to use this new form of warfare. Over by Three Mile Harbor on the south fork of Long Island, Captain Joshua Penny nursed a grudge against the Royal Navy, which had pressed him aboard a warship back in 1793, considering it the “scourge of the terrestrial globe.” By July 1813 Penny was working for Captain Stephen Decatur and piloted the unsuccessful attempt to capture Captain Hardy on Gardiner’s Island late that month. Hardy was more concerned about Penny’s participation in a torpedo scheme led by Thomas Welling of Sag Harbor. Hardy had been informed that Welling had obtained a torpedo in New York and was readying a whaleboat to tow it out and attack the Ramillies. Welling is probably the same man as “your man Welden” mentioned by Captain Decatur in a letter to Robert Fulton early in August. Decatur confirmed that Welden/Welling, whom he considered “prudent & percervering,” was in New London, but he reported, “the moon (unless overcast) will prevent any immediate attempt” at a night attack.10


Hardy sent a force to seize Joshua Penny on August 20, confining him on the Ramillies. Incensed by the threat of Welling’s torpedo boat, “a mode of warfare practiced by individuals from mercenary motives, and more novel than honorable,” three days later Hardy threatened “the inhabitants of the towns along the coast of Long Island, that wherever I hear this boat or any of her description has been allowed to remain after this day, I will order every house near the shore to be destroyed.” No more was heard of the torpedo, but Hardy made an example of Penny, carrying him to Halifax where he was imprisoned for nine months.11


Another man with a grudge was Captain Berrien of New York, whose small coaster was seized by Hardy’s squadron in June 1813. It cost him $500 to ransom his vessel. On August 24 a semisubmersible torpedo boat came down the Sound from New York, but was chased off by British barges, which pursued the boat for nine miles. This was almost certainly the first appearance of Berrien’s Turtle, a vessel that could earn Berrien many times the value of his coaster if he could sink the Ramillies. The Turtle would reappear in 1814.12


Like Joshua Penny, Jeremiah Holmes had been impressed by the Royal Navy. He escaped after three years, settled in Mystic, and continued as a mariner until the war. In 1813 he had served on the Mystic privateer Hero, used his Royal Navy artillery training to man the guns defending Mystic, and served as lieutenant in the private armed boat True Blooded Yankee. Early in 1814, Holmes took command of a 16-oar boat owned by Mott & Williams of New York, which he named Young Hornet. “Mr. Riker”—possibly Captain Riker of the Eagle scheme—provided the torpedo. Riker’s torpedo design was a 30-foot tube just seven inches in diameter, with buoys to keep it horizontal at the water’s surface. Filled with 75 pounds of “superfine” gunpowder, it would lie along a vessel’s waterline and blow a long hole in the hull. The torpedo had a 12-foot crossbar with hooked ends that passed through it at one end. When a crossbar hook snagged a ship’s anchor cable or curve of its bow, the crossbar would pivot, causing a spring to trigger the flintlock firing mechanism. It was not easy to handle this awkward weapon. Holmes planned to choose a dark night with the right combination of wind and tide, place his boat in a suitable spot, and then let the torpedo drift down on an enemy ship, adjusting its path with the long line attached to it.13


Holmes brought the Young Hornet and its torpedo up the Thames River to Gales Ferry, where he gathered his crew of Mystic men and discussed his plan with Captain Decatur. After a couple of nighttime reconnaissance trips downriver, Holmes picked an early March evening to attack a frigate—probably HMS Endymion—anchored off the Dumplings on the north side of Fishers Island. His crew got into position a little too late, and as the torpedo drifted slowly toward the frigate, the heavy, stiff control line sank and got fouled on the bottom, pulling the torpedo down. Unable to salvage it, Holmes cut the line and departed.


Returning to New York, Holmes had Riker build two more torpedoes and then brought the Young Hornet back up the Thames. On the night of March 24, Holmes and his crew headed out to attack the 74-gun HMS La Hogue, anchored off New London. Circling the ship as they gauged the wind and tide, they anchored several hundred yards to the northwest and let the torpedo drift downwind. When it seemed to be in position, they tried to move eastward to make it strike the ship, but they drifted too close to La Hogue in the dark. When they tried to haul in the torpedo for another try, the crossbar caught on La Hogue’s anchor cable. Riker’s torpedo exploded in a geyser of water nearly 100 feet high, but La Hogue escaped injury. Her marines instantly lined the rails and fired their muskets into the darkness, lantern signals were exchanged between ships, and La Hogue fired cannons. Even the American militiaman on guard at Eastern Point in Groton fired on the Young Hornet as she retired up the Thames.


With the British ships off New London all on high alert for torpedo attacks, Holmes decided to take his last torpedo east to Vineyard Sound, another center of British activity. He and his crew spent a week stalking a British frigate but never got close enough to deploy their torpedo. After the Young Hornet headed home to Mystic, Jeremiah Holmes hid the torpedo under his house until he finally returned it to New York. He would get his chance to damage British warships at the Battle of Stonington in August 1814. But perhaps these torpedo adventures were actually more damaging to Connecticut, because torpedoes became the justification for the attacks on Pettipauge in April and on Stonington in August.14


In June 1814, Berrien’s semisubmersible Turtle reappeared in Long Island Sound. Turtle was an apt name for this vessel. It was 23 feet long and fully 10 feet wide, with a six-foot depth but only a foot of hull exposed above the waterline. Her very strong arched deck was covered with half-inch iron plates and painted a dirty white for camouflage. In operation, her deck was nearly awash, like a turtle. Inside, 12 men operated a crank mechanism to drive her paddle or propeller wheel. Behind her she towed five torpedoes on separate tethers, an arrangement reminiscent of one of Fulton’s designs. The Turtle was laboring to round Horton’s Point on the north shore of Long Island on June 26 when she was sighted by HMS Maidstone and Sylph, which sent barges after her. As the Turtle stranded, one man drowned when he tried to swim ashore. The others washed up with their vessel, then joined the local militia in trying to drive off the barges. They salvaged her propulsion device before the British forced their way ashore and studied the Turtle before blowing her up.15


Elsewhere, stationary torpedoes were deployed to protect a couple of ports, and two other active torpedo attempts were made by US Navy personnel against British warships. In July 1813, US Navy Sailing Master Elijah Mix tried to destroy the 74-gun HMS Plantagenet near Norfolk, Virginia. Six times he released pairs of linked Fulton torpedoes and missed the target. The seventh time the torpedoes exploded prematurely. The final unsuccessful attempt came in November 1814, when Midshipman James McGowan on Lake Ontario attempted to destroy HMS St. Lawrence off Kingston, Upper Canada.16


In the end, the threat of torpedoes was real, even if the technology was so rudimentary that they failed on every occasion during the war. Nevertheless, the Torpedo Act offered another way for civilians to combine patriotism and profit in the ongoing battle against the Royal Navy, and torpedoes altered both the Royal Navy’s procedures and its perception of American commitment to the war.



1. See Alex Roland, Underwater Warfare in the Age of Sail (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979); Bushnell was still alive during the War of 1812, but he was living under an assumed name in Georgia.

2. See Roland, Underwater Warfare in the Age of Sail; Mark Collins Jenkins and David A. Taylor, The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2012), 222, 224; by 1813, however, Fulton was more interested in the underwater use of cannons and the development of a steam-powered warship, which he discussed with Captain Decatur, and which was eventually built as the USS Demologos.

3. “An act to encourage the destruction of the armed vessels of war of the enemy.

Be it enacted &c., That, during the present war with Great Britain, it shall be lawful for any person or persons to burn, sink, or destroy, any British armed vessel of war, except vessels coming as cartels or flags of truce; and for that purpose to use torpedoes, submarine instruments, or any other destructive machine whatever: and a bounty of one-half the value of the armed vessel so burnt, sunk, or destroyed, and one-half the value of her guns, cargo, tackle, and apparel shall be paid out of the Treasury of the United States to such persons who shall effect the same, otherwise than by armed or commissioned vessels of the United States.” Approved, March 3, 1813, Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 2nd sess., 1346, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage.

4. Lewis to Secretary of the Navy Jones, June 28, 1813, in William S. Dudley, The War of 1812: A Documentary History, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985), 161; Lewis claimed his original idea was to find a vessel with a mast suitable for use as a topmast for a 74-gun ship of the line, so the British would bring the vessel alongside the Ramillies and the explosives would be triggered when the mast was lifted out; Rocellus S. Guernsey, New York City and Vicinity during the War of 1812-15, vol. 1 (New York: Charles L. Woodward, 1890), 279-81; Niles’ Register, July 24, 1813, 344.

5. Connecticut Gazette, June 30, 1813.

6. See Connecticut Ship Database, http://library.mysticseaport.org/initiative/CuPeople; Niles’ Register, July 17, 1813, 326-27; Connecticut Gazette, July 21, 1813; in a letter to Robert Fulton on August 9, 1813, Captain Decatur named Major Frink and Mr. Richard as proprietors of a New London torpedo expedition, but the context of the letter suggests this may have been another local, unfulfilled initiative rather than Captain Halsey’s, Decatur to Fulton, August 5, 1813, Dudley, The War of 1812, 2:212.

7. Colt’s notes are discussed in Roland’s Underwater Warfare in the Age of Sail; the source of the vessel’s design is unknown, but since the Turtle’s operator Ezra Lee was still alive in Lyme, and his brother, Dr. Samuel H.P. Lee, was a prominent resident of New London, it is possible that the proprietors were informed of details of Bushnell’s Turtle; indeed, Halsey was referred to as “Bushnell the second” in the Connecticut Gazette, July 21, 1813.

8. Connecticut Gazette, July 21, 1813; Niles Register, July 17, 1813, pp. 326-27; Fulton to Decatur, August 5, 1813, Dudley, The War of 1812, 2:211.

9. Connecticut Gazette, July 21, 1813.

10. Jenkins and Taylor, The War of 1812, 9-11, 90-91; Niles’ Register, September 11, 1813, 27; Decatur to Fulton, August 9, 1813, Dudley, The War of 1812, 2:212.

11. Guernsey, New York City and Vicinity during the War of 1812-15, 1:283-87; Jenkins and Taylor, The War of 1812, 90-91; Connecticut Gazette, September 15, 1813.

12. Niles Register, July 3, 1813, 288; Connecticut Gazette, September 1, 1813; it is informed speculation that Captain Berrien was the same Berrien who produced the semisubmersible Turtle, and that the “diving” New York torpedo vessel chased in the Sound in August 1813 was the same as the Turtle of June 1814; the full identity of Captain Berrien/Berrian has not been determined, but he was most likely from the Queens, New York, Berrien family, which was intermarried with the Riker family.

13. Rev. Frederic Denison, “Narrative of Capt. Jeremiah Holmes of Mystic Bridge, Conn. 1859,” VFM 390, G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport, http://library.mysticseaport.org/initiative/PageImage.cfm?BibID=25275; Rev. Frederic Denison, “The Torpedo Adventures,” Mystic Pioneer, June 18, 1859; the full identity of Capt./Mr. Riker has not been determined, but he was most likely from the Queens, New York, family for which Riker’s Island was named.

14. Denison, “Torpedo Adventures,” Mystic Pioneer, June 18, 1859.

15. Berrien’s Turtle is described in detail in James Tertius de Kay, The Battle of Stonington: Torpedoes, Submarines, and Rockets in the War of 1812 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), and in abbreviated form in de Kay’s “Battle of Long Island Sound,” in Glenn S. Gordinier, The Rockets’ Red Glare: The War of 1812 and Connecticut (New London: New London County Historical Society, 2012), 49, 53; there are conflicting claims as to who blew up the Turtle, as the Long Island militia reported they removed her weighty components to get her off the beach, then placed the charge that destroyed her when the British approached, Connecticut Gazette, July 6, 1814.

16. Robert Malcomson, Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006), 561-62.