Defense Media Network

The Navy and New York City

To those who don’t know its history well, New York City may not appear to be a Navy town. However, the connection between the U.S. Navy and New York goes back to the dawn of the country. In fact, New York Harbor was a site of major military action during the American Revolution, and the relationship has continued to the present.

Washington was approached by a young Yale graduate named David Bushnell, who had the preposterous idea of attacking the British fleet from underwater.

The first naval engagement in New York was not a battle between warships but rather a joint operation where sailors transported soldiers. George Washington knew that, after being forced to evacuate Boston in March 1776, the British would probably attack New York next, because New York City was America’s most important port, and if the British could capture the Hudson River, it would split the colonies in two.

Turtle Submarine

David Bushnell’s Turtle. Sgt. Ezra Lee attacked the Royal Navy’s HMS Eagle unsuccessfully in New York Harbor with the submarine. U.S. Navy Historical Center photo

As Washington anticipated, on June 28, 1776, Gen. William Howe landed an army on Staten Island, and during July, the Royal Navy under Howe’s brother, Adm. Lord Richard Howe, brought more troops and more ships. An eyewitness wrote: “The whole bay was full of shipping as it could be. I thought all London afloat.”

Because then-New York City and the immediately surrounding area was ringed by water, the British could strike where they wished. Washington’s 20,000 men were positioned along a line running from Flatbush in Brooklyn, across the East River, to the southern tip of Manhattan and then up to Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. Washington’s artillery at the tip of Manhattan made an attack on the American center a poor option, and also precluded the British sailing up the Hudson and attacking Washington’s right flank. However, if the British could take Brooklyn Heights – the highest point in the area – Washington’s position would be untenable.

Realizing the importance of the Heights, Washington deployed the majority of his army to Brooklyn. But on Aug. 22, using nearly 90 frigates, the British moved 20,000 men from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Over the next few days, the British inflicted heavy casualties, and the Americans retreated to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.

Because of the casualties they had sustained attacking fortified positions during the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British decided not to assault Brooklyn Heights immediately. After all, Washington had his back to the East River and the Royal Navy controlled the waters. To the British, Washington’s position was unsustainable.

Bushnell called his craft “The Turtle” because it looked like two turtle shells glued together.

While Washington did not have any ships to challenge the Royal Navy, he did have sailors. A regiment of seamen from Marblehead, Mass., had come down to fight in New York. Washington directed the Marbleheaders to secure some small boats and ferry the Continental Army across the East River during the night of Aug. 29-30. Everything had to be done in complete silence to avoid alerting the encircling British Army or the Royal Navy. Accordingly, the sailors tied their shirts around the oars to muffle the sound. In the morning, a thick fog covered the final stages of the evacuation. Washington was in the last boat across.

The significance of what these sailors did cannot be overstated. If the Continental Army had been forced to surrender in Brooklyn, the rebellion would have been only a footnote in British history textbooks.

Within a few days of the evacuation the Americans struck back against the British fleet in New York Harbor with the first attack by an American submarine on an enemy warship.

During the Boston campaign, Washington was approached by a young Yale graduate named David Bushnell, who had the preposterous idea of attacking the British fleet from underwater. “Although I wanted faith myself,” Washington wrote, “I furnished him with money and other aids to carry it into execution.”

Bushnell called his craft “The Turtle” because it looked like two turtle shells glued together. Since she was only 7 feet high and 4 feet in diameter, there was only room for one man inside. By moving handles inside the craft, the driver operated two screw-like oars. One moved Turtle forward and backward, while the other helped the craft to ascend and descend. Diving and surfacing were also facilitated by foot-operated valves that allowed water to be pumped in and out of tanks in the hull. Normally, Turtle traveled along with a snorkel extending 6 inches above the surface, but she also had the ability to dive deeper for short periods.

Turtle’s armament consisted of a 50-pound keg of gunpowder with a time-delayed flintlock detonator. After diving under an enemy ship, the sub’s driver would drill a hole in the enemy hull and attach the bomb with a chain. Then Turtle would pull away before the bomb exploded.

On Sept. 6, 1776, Turtle was ready to challenge the British fleet in New York Harbor.

On Sept. 6, 1776, Turtle was ready to challenge the British fleet in New York Harbor. With Sgt. Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle attacked HMS Eagle, Lord Howe’s 64-gun flagship, not far from Liberty Island.

Commodore Stephen Decatur

Commodore Stephen Decatur’s unsuccessful sortie in command of USS President also originated in New York Harbor. Library of Congress

Lee dove under Eagle, but his drill could not penetrate the British ship’s hull, either because of the copper sheathing used to protect the wood against marine growth or because of the hull’s curvature. With his air supply running out, Lee gave up and surfaced. When a patrol boat spotted her, the sentries fired muskets as their boat rowed after the strange craft. Lee released Turtle’s bomb, which exploded near the mouth of the East River. The ensuing geyser so startled the British that they did not pursue Turtle any farther.

Bushnell “labored for some time ineffectively and though advocates for his scheme continued sanguine, he never did succeed,” Washington recalled. However, he continued, “I then thought and still think that it was an effort of genius.”

The War of 1812 also created connections between the U.S. Navy and New York. By December 1814, the war was a stalemate. The Royal Navy, the largest navy in the world, blockaded America’s ports, crippling the American economy. What remained of the small United States Navy was bottled up in ports along the East Coast. In New York Harbor, Commodore Stephen Decatur waited for a chance to break out. Decatur’s bold exploits during the Barbary Coast war had won him international fame, and his victory over HMS Macedonian while commanding USS United States had been one of the bright spots for America in the war.

Decatur’s current ship, USS President, had been built in New York Harbor in 1800, and was a technological marvel. She was bigger and more powerful than any British frigate and faster than the British ships of the line. On the open ocean, she could outrun anything that could sink her and sink anything that could catch her.

“I then thought and still think that it was an effort of genius.”

Decatur’s orders were to take President to the Indian Ocean to attack the commerce between Britain and her Asian colonies, in order to force the Royal Navy to deploy ships away from America. The only obstacle was a powerful British flotilla, which included a modified ship of the line, blockading just outside New York Harbor.

When an early winter storm blew the British flotilla out to sea, Decatur seized the opportunity and brought President out into the outer bay, but the ship ran aground off Sandy Hook. The crew lightened President, but the waves merely lifted her and then smashed her keel down against the hard sand. Finally, after hours of toil, the badly damaged President was free, but the gale was blowing her away from New York Harbor.

Given the damage and the proximity of the enemy, Decatur could have scuttled the ship and taken the crew back to the safety of the shore. However, America did not have ships to spare, and he took President along Long Island’s coast toward New England in hope of finding a safe place for repairs.

Suspecting that the Americans might use the gale to break out, Commodore John Hayes, in command of the British flotilla, scouted the surrounding waters before returning to station. As luck would have it, Hayes’ frigates spotted the crippled President and he gave chase with his squadron.

It was clear that President could not outrun the pursuers, so Decatur launched a desperate plan to turn, board, and capture the lead British frigate, Endymion. However, although Decatur succeeded in putting Endymion out of action, she kept far enough away to prevent Decatur from boarding.

Decatur took what was, for him, undoubtedly the more difficult path, and he struck his colors.

With two more British frigates about to come within range, Decatur had no choice but to break off. However, President was suffering not only damage caused by the grounding but also from the fight with Endymion. Decatur had taken several calculated risks: leaving New York under the cover of the storm, continuing on after the grounding, and giving battle to Endymion. He could turn again, hope to defeat the two frigates before Hayes in his modified ship of the line arrived, and then outrun the capital ship. However, that would further risk the lives of his crew with little chance of success. Rather than go down in a blaze of glory for pride’s sake, Decatur took what was, for him, undoubtedly the more difficult path, and he struck his colors.

USS Monitor

The USS Monitor after her fight with the Merrimack. Near the gunport can be seen the dents made by the heavy steel-pointed shot from the guns of the Merrimack. Monitor’s hull was forged at nine locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. National Archives photo

One of the more unusual connections between New York City and the Navy involves the only American capital ship lost during World War I, a ship that now lies just outside of New York Harbor, 13.5 miles south of Fire Island Inlet. USS San Diego (ACR 6) was an “armored cruiser” – a class of warship just short of being a battleship. During World War I, her primary role was Atlantic convoy duty.

On July 19, 1918, she was returning to New York to pick up another convoy when a lookout spotted what appeared to be a periscope in the water. San Diego’s captain, Harley H. Christy, sent the crew to battle stations and after several shots were fired, the submarine disappeared. Nonetheless, Christy continued to zig-zag at approximately 15 knots and kept his crew at alert.

Less than an hour later, an explosion sent smoke a hundred feet high, and water began pouring into San Diego’s port engine room. In an attempt to save his ship, Christy decided to try to beach San Diego on Long Island. However, the engine spaces flooded and the ship sank within 30 minutes of the explosion. After abandoning ship, her crew reportedly sang “The Star Spangled Banner” as their ship went down.

Being a battleground is not New York City’s only connection to the Navy. For example, New Yorkers have built a long line of Navy ships; many were innovative and many helped shape America’s sea services.

After abandoning ship, her crew reportedly sang “The Star Spangled Banner” as their ship went down

USS Monitor, the most famous Civil War warship, was a consequence of the Union’s Anaconda Plan, which sought to end the rebellion by encircling the Southern states. Vital to this strategy was a naval blockade that would prevent the Confederacy from trading with countries such as Britain and France.

The Confederate States had no pre-existing navy and no realistic hope of building one. Instead, it looked to technology. Lt. J.M. Brooke, CSN, proposed to take the remains of a steam frigate that had been burnt to the waterline when the Navy abandoned its base at Norfolk, Va., and turn her into an ironclad ram. Such a ship would be impervious to round shot fired from the wooden-hulled Navy blockaders, and she would be able to sink such ships by gunfire or by ramming. Commissioned as CSS Virginia, she is more often remembered by her original name: Merrimack.

When news of the Southern plan leaked out, leaders in Washington called for proposals for a ship to counter Merrimack. New Yorker John Ericsson submitted a plan for a radically different ship with no sails or elaborate rigging – just steam power. She would be made almost entirely of iron and would be only 173 feet long, with a beam of 41 feet. Rather than rows of guns along the sides, she would have a revolving turret with two 11-inch guns, and her freeboard would be so low that the sea would wash across her decks, making her a very difficult target.

To save time, Monitor’s hull was forged at nine locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and she was built in only 120 days. On March 6, 1862, she left New York and proceeded to Hampton Roads, Va., where Merrimack had just begun attacking the blockading Union ships. Two days later, the two ships met and battled for four hours until Merrimack withdrew. Although Merrimack was only damaged, she was never again able to attack the blockade fleet, and the crucial Union blockade continued.

John Holland was an Irish immigrant who taught school on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor, and he was at the center of another naval technological advance associated with New York City. He had always been interested in the sea, and in his spare time Holland studied the work of ship designers, eventually developing his own design for a workable submarine. However, when he sent the design to the Navy in 1875, it was rejected.

“There is scarcely anything required of a good submarine boat that this one did not do well enough, or fairly well.”

Undaunted, Holland found funding from an unusual source. The Fenian Brotherhood wanted to oust Britain from Ireland, and Holland persuaded them that with his submarine, they would be able to challenge the Royal Navy. Impressed by a 30-inch model that Holland demonstrated at Coney Island, the Fenians funded the construction of two full-size submarines.

USS Holland

New Yorker John P. Holland’s USS Holland was the world’s first fully operational submarine and was built in Elizabeth, N.J. National Archives photo

“There is scarcely anything required of a good submarine boat that this one did not do well enough, or fairly well,” Holland said of the second of these boats. She was built in Manhattan and launched in the Hudson in 1881. Holland’s design is widely-recognized as the first modern submarine.

Over time, the Fenians withdrew their support, but various other backers came and went while the Navy vacillated about whether or not it needed submarines. Meanwhile, Holland tested and improved his design in New York harbor. Finally, after Adm. George Dewey, the hero of the Battle of Manila Bay, testified before Congress in 1900 in support of Holland’s submarines, the United States made a firm commitment. Its first true submarine, USS Holland (SS 1), was built in Elizabeth, N.J., part of New York Harbor.

In 1952, USS Antietam (CVA 36) was modified in Brooklyn to become the Navy’s first angled deck aircraft carrier.

New York Naval Shipyard, generally called the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is another important chapter in New York City’s connection with the Navy. In 1801, the federal government purchased 40 acres along the East River in Brooklyn for a shipyard, and by the time the yard was decommissioned in 1966, New Yorkers had built many famous Navy ships there, including USS Fulton (the Navy’s first steam-powered ship), USS Maine (BB 2, one of the first battleships and whose sinking led to the Spanish-American War), USS New York (BB 34, which fought in World War I and World War II), USS Arizona (BB 39, which still lies at Pearl Harbor), and USS Missouri (BB 63, where the Japanese surrender was signed), as well as the aircraft carriers Bennington (CV 20), Bon Homme Richard (CV 31), Kearsarge (CV 33), Oriskany (CV 34), Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42), Saratoga (CV 60) and Independence (CV 62). The last capital ship built in Brooklyn, USS Constellation (CV 64), left the U.S. fleet in 2003.

In addition to building them, ships were repaired and upgraded at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. For example, Dr. Lee Forrest’s radiotelephone was tested there in 1907 and then installed throughout the Great White Fleet. The yard installed the radar that enabled the battleship Washington (BB 56) to turn back a more powerful force in a night battle in November 1942, helping thwart the Japanese in their efforts to retake Guadalcanal. In 1952, USS Antietam (CVA 36) was modified in Brooklyn to become the Navy’s first angled deck aircraft carrier.

USS New York

A 1915 photo of USS New York (BB 34) in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she was built. Her keel was laid on Sept. 11, 1911. Library of Congress photo

The fact that the Navy has been shaped by people from New York is yet one more connection between New York City and the Navy. For example, Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most influential advocates for a strong U.S. Navy, was born in Manhattan in 1858. Teddy Roosevelt influenced naval strategy, and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he fought to rebuild the Navy, which had been allowed to deteriorate following the Civil War. He also advocated new technologies, and as president he continued to strengthen the Navy and deployed the Great White Fleet to sail around the world to demonstrate that America had become a world power.

Beyond famous individuals, many thousands of New Yorkers have helped shape the sea services by serving in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, and 76 sailors and Marines from New York State have received the Medal of Honor. Thousands of New York civilians worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and in satellite industries that supplied the Navy yard. And to these numbers must be added the thousands of families that have sacrificed to support loved ones who served directly in the nation’s sea services.

Twenty-five years ago, New York City began an annual tradition called Fleet Week, a few days that focus on those who are currently serving the United States in its sea services. During that week each year, the Navy arranges for several ships to spend some of their liberty time in “the Big Apple,” and the city turns out to express its appreciation for the visiting sailors and Marines.

When all is said and done, it seems that New York City really is a Navy town.

This article was first published in First Responder: USS New York.

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