Captain Ezra Lee
From the Commercial Advisor, Nov. 1821
Died, at Lyme, (Connecticut), on the 29th ult.
Captain EZRA LEE, aged 72, a revolutionary officer.—It is not a little remarkable, that this officer is the only man, of which it can be said, that he fought the enemy upon land–upon water–and under the water; the latter mode of warfare was as follows: --
When the British fleet lay in the North River, opposite to the city of New-York, and while general Washington had possession of the city, he was very desirous to be rid of such neighbors. –A Mr. Bushnell, of Saybrook, (Conn.) who had the genius of a Fulton, constructed a submarine machine, of a conical form, bound together with iron bands, within which one person might sit, and with cranks and skulls, could navigate it to any depth under water.
In the upper part was affixed a vertical screw for the purpose of penetrating ships bottoms, and to this was attached a magazine of powder, within which was a clock, which, upon being set to run any given time, would, when run down, spring a gunlock, and an explosion would follow.
This Marine Turtle, so called, was examined by gen. Washington, and approved; to preserve secrecy, it was experimented within an inclosed yard, over twenty to thirty feet of water, and kept during day-light locked in a vessel’s hold. The brother of the inventor was to be the person to navigate the machine into action, but on sinking it the first time, he declined the service.
Gen. Washington, unwilling to relinquish the object, requested major general Parsons to select a person, in whom he could confide, voluntarily to engage in the enterprise; the latter being well acquainted with the heroic spirit, the patriotism, and the firm and steady courage of the deceased above mentioned, immediately communicated the plan and the offer, which he accepted, observing that his life was at general Washington’s service.
After practicing the machine, until he understood its powers of balancing and moving underwater, a night was fixed upon for the attempt. General Washington, and his associates in the secret, took their stations upon the roof of a house in Broadway, anxiously awaiting the result.
Morning came and no intelligence could be had of the intrepid sub-marine navigator, nor then could the boat who attended him, give any account of him after parting with him the first part of the night.
While these anxious spectators were about to give him up as lost, several barges were seen to start suddenly for Governor’s Island, (then in possession of the British), and proceed towards some object near the Asia ship of the line, --as suddenly they were seen to put about and steer for the Island with springing oars.
In two or three minutes, an explosion took place, from the surface of the water, resembling a water pout, which aroused the whole city and region; the enemy ships too the alarm – signals were rapidly given – the ships cut their cables and proceeded to the Hook, with all possible dispatch, sweeping their bottoms with chains, and with difficulty prevented their frighted crews from leaping overboard.
During this scene of consternation, the deceased came to the surface, opened the brass head of his aquatic machine; rose up and gave a signal for the boat to come to him, but they could not reach him, until he descended under water, to avoid the enemy’s shot from the Island, who had discovered and commenced firing in his wake.
Having forced himself against a strong current under water until within reach of the shot, he was taken in tow and landed at the battery amidst a great crowd, and reported to general Washington, who expressed his entire satisfaction, that the object was effected, without the loss of lives.
The deceased was under the Asia’s bottom more than two hours, endeavoring to penetrate her copper, but in vain. He frequently came up under her stern galleries searching for exposed plank, and could hear the sentinels cry. Once he was discovered by the watch on deck, and heard them speculate upon him, but concluded a drifted log had paid them a visit – he returned to her keel and examined it fore and aft, and then proceed to come to some other ships; but the impossibility of penetrating their coppers, for want of a resisting power, hundreds owed the safety of their lives to this circumstance.
The longest space of time that he could remain under water was two hours – for a particular description of this submarine curiosity, see Silliman’s journal of arts and sciences.
The deceased, during the war, ever had the confidence and esteem of the commander in chief, and was frequently employed by him on secret missions of importance. He fought with him at Trenton and Monmouth; at Brandywine the hilt of his sword was shot away, and his hat and his coat were penetrated with the enemy’s balls.
On the return of peace, he laid aside the habiliments of war, and returned to his farm, where, like Cincinnatus, he tilled his lands, until called by the great commander in chief to the regions above.
He died without an enemy; he was universally beloved. The suavity of his manners – evenness of his temper, and correctness of his principles, was proverbial and pleasing to all his acquaintance.
He enjoyed the confidence of his fellow citizens, to an extent almost unparalleled. – His desk was the repository of deeds, contracts and other evidences of property, as well as the widows and orphans wealth for safekeeping.
He constantly read the papers of the day, and was by many considered to be a political prophet. His christian and moral life was sternly strict; -- his bible his guide and rule of action. "to do unto others, as he would they should do unto him," was his universal maxim and rule of life.
His benevolence and charity was only circumscribed by his means. – Contented and happy, he was a perfect example of the great blessings which flow from the perfect enjoyment of life, regulated by a christian and moral virtue. He has left a widow, (with whom he has lived 51 years), and a numerous offspring to mourn the loss of one of the best of men.
From Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America: Or, An Attempt To Collect And Preserve Some Of The Speeches, Orations, & Proceedings, With Sketches and Remarks On Men and Things, and Other Fugitive or Neglected Pieces, Belonging to the Revolutionary Period in the United States; Which, Happily, Terminated in the Establishment of Their Liberties: With a View to Represent the Feelings That Prevailed in the "Times That Tried Men's Souls," to Excite a Love of Freedon, and Lead the People to Vigilance, as the Condition on which it is Granted.
Compiled and published in 1822 by H. Niles, Printed by William Ogden Niles.