Thursday, April 26, 2007

It really does take a rocket scientist

References to signal rockets in the Civil War era are not uncommon, and I know the British really did employ rockets (perhaps even causing a red glare) ineffectively at Fort McHenry, but I confess I did not know until recently that the state of rocketry in 1860 was such that both sides in the Civil War formed (relatively short-lived) rocket batteries. They were organized like light artillery, but with new-fangled ordnance, and in the case of a N.Y. battalion at least, with tubes on their gun carriages.

These units renewed service with British-designed rockets first deployed in the Mexican War, mainly the Hale Rocket, or modified variations. Though tail fins caused the weapon to spin in flight, Hale rockets were far too unreliable and inaccurate to supplant more useful projectiles from rifled artillery pieces.
I stumbled upon a fascinating article in Military Affairs journal, by Ralph W. Donnelly: "Rocket Batteries of the Civil War" (vol. 25, No. 2, Civil War Issue. (Summer, 1961), pp. 69-93, available on J-STOR). Donnelly credits men (Pelham's Horse Artillery) under J.E.B. Stuart with the first known case of using rockets in the war. He writes,

The story of the first actual use of war rockets by the Confederate Army has almost been lost in obscurity, the report of Captain John C. Tidball, then lieutenant of Battery A. 2nd U.S. Artillery, of operations between June 27 and July 7 in the Peninsula Campaign contains this revealing statement:

On the morning of July 3 the enemy, taking position with artillery on the high ground (now our front), commenced shelling the low ground which was occupied by our troops. They also threw with great precision a score or so of war rockets.
[O.R. 11, part 2, page 246]

This description is obviously of "Jeb" Stuart's shelling of the Federal encampment on the bank of the James River from Evelington Heights, but only one further reference could be found in either the Union or Confederate reports in confirmation of the use of rockets. Colonel James T. Kirk [he's dead, Jim] 10th Pennsylvania Reserves, also reported that "On Thursday, the 3d instant, while standing in line of battle, I had one man wounded by a missile from a rocket from a rebel battery." [Ibid, 425] One might question the opinion of a volunteer officer this early in the war, but Tidball, a Regular Army officer and a West Point graduate, was too good an officer to summarily dismiss his observations as mere intellectual fulminations. So the search for confirmation went on, and it was found in the remarks of a Confederate eye-witness, Lieut.-Colonel William W. Blackford, then a captain of engineers on the staff of General J.E. B. Stuart, that after shelling the Federal camp for a while with his horse artillery guns. Stuart opened fire with a Congrieve [sic.] rocket battery for the first and last time he ever used this type of field piece. He says it was managed and operated by "some foreign chap" The rockets were described as "huge" with an explosive shell at the end loaded with a liquid combustible nicknamed by the men "liquid damnation."

But what would the story of Civil War rocketry be without an old-fashioned myth. Tonight on the Discovery Channel I saw an old episode of the endlessly entertaining program, Myth Busters:

Episode 40: Confederate Rocket The American Civil War was fought with bayonets, muskets and cannons. But was that all? Not according to the MythBusters. So Adam, Jamie and the build team join forces to find out if the Confederate Army had a secret deadly weapon — the world's first long-range missile, which according to rumor, was launched from Richmond, Va., and aimed at the White House over 100 miles away. Premiere: Oct. 26, 2005

Though Adam and Jamie were able to get a Hale rocket to fly several hundred yards, and a Boxer rocket twice that far (detailed results here), they didn't have much luck reproducing the Great Rebel Missile Attack on Washington.
When I first heard the premise for this episode, I thought to myself, busting a myth would be a whole lot more dramatic if it were a myth you'd ever heard of. This missile attack was a new one on me. Surfing the web, I came across this NASA site, which tells the incredible tale, quoting one of Burke Davis' lesser offerings (in the vein of Ripley's Believe it or Not). Make of it what you will.

According to the author, Jefferson Davis witnessed the event at which a 12-foot-long, solid-fueled rocket, carrying a 10-pound gunpowder warhead in a brass case engraved with the letters C.S.A., was ignited and seen to roar rapidly up and out of sight. No one ever saw the rocket land. It's interesting to speculate whether, almost 100 years before Sputnik, a satellite marked with the initials of the Confederate States of America might have been launched into orbit.


Jim Schmidt said...

One of my interests is in the history of chemistry in America (esp. as it relates to militray history).

In doing some research on the history of the chemistry departemnt at the USMA (West Point), the archivists there provided me with a copy of the handwritten text "Military Pyrotechny at the USMA" from the 1850s which was a text there.

It is a fantastic look at rocketry in the antebellum era.

dw said...


That sounds pretty fascinating. State of the art stuff, no doubt. I guess the Civil War era provides a lot of fodder for your interest in the history of chemistry in this country.

Thanks for the note.