View Full Version : Civil War Rocketry

07-15-2006, 06:16 PM
I was wondering if anyone on here nows anything about Civil War rocketry. I'm not sure if rockets were even used in the ACW, but I know they were used in the War of 1812, pretty extensively by the British. If you know anything anout Civil War rocketry, could you stop by and share some of the knowledge?



Rob Weaver
07-16-2006, 06:01 AM
I can't get to my books at the moment to quote chapter and verse, unit numbers, etc, but there was a NY battery that was armed and trained with congreve rockets at the beginning of the war. It was essentially the same rocket as had been used earlier in the 19th century, wildly inaccurate. They were never fired in any major engagement that I know of, and the above battery eventually gave them up for more conventional long guns.

Rob Weaver
Pine Rivier Boys
Co I 7th Wisconsin

NJ Sekela
07-16-2006, 06:51 AM
There was a show on cable TV, called Myth busters, where they created a reproduction of a Civil War rocket, to basically test the effective range.

It was interesting to see that the design did in fact work.

I am &c,

NJ Sekela,


07-16-2006, 12:17 PM
I recently read an old article in Civil War Times Illustrated about Stuart's ride around McClellen. It seems to be common (or at least often) practice that when the cavalry troopers were spread out a rocket (probaly not an assault weapon. Rather, a large flare) would be fired up in the air to recall the men.
I also have read articles regarding use of rockets by Confederates along the coast in naval actions. Little if any effect, they nevertheless were used by some frequency by the south.

07-16-2006, 04:19 PM
If someone had just thought of some handles, crude sights or a shield the bazooka may have been born.

07-16-2006, 05:12 PM
... if they'd a haddit they'd a used it!

07-16-2006, 05:26 PM
If you have the ORs on a CDrom, do a search o the keyword "rocket". You will be amazed at the nuimber of hits you have. They were used almost exclusively as signal devices, and were found as far west as Sterling Price's army in Missouri and at Island #10 all the way back to the east coast.

Ask the Critters about Secret Weapon #1
sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, whooooosh, BOOM

07-16-2006, 05:39 PM
From http://www.spaceline.org/history/2.html

The U.S. Civil War Sees Limited Use Of Rockets

By the start of the Civil War in 1860, military rockets had all but disappeared. Rockets declined in importance due to the deadly accuracy of conventional artillery, most notably weapons with rifled barrels and breech loading.

However, both sides in the Civil War remembered how well rockets served armed forces during the Mexican War two decades earlier. But, it was quickly discovered that Hale, and even Congreve, rockets that had been stored for long periods of time were rendered useless because their gunpowder charges failed to remain properly bonded to their casings.

This forced both sides to develop new rockets if rockets were to be used at all. The resulting rockets were considered primitive, even by the standards of the day, due to their inaccuracy and unreliability. But, a variety of rockets were used during the Civil War by both sides.

On July 3, 1862 Confederate forces under the command of Jeb Stuart fired rockets at Union troops during the Battle of Harrison's Landing. Colonel James T. Kirk of the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves later wrote that one of his men was wounded by a projectile carried on a rocket fired from "a sort of gun carriage".

Rocket batteries of this type were most often used by Confederate forces in Texas during campaigns in 1863 and 1864. These rockets and their launchers were first manufactured in Galveston, and later in Houston.

The New York Rocket Battalion was the first Union force to be issued rockets. The group was organized by British officer Major Thomas W. Lion and was made up of 160 men. Rockets employed ranged in size from 12 to 20 inches long by 2 to 3 inches wide.

The rockets could be launched from light carriages carrying four wrought iron tubes, each of which was about 8 feet long. They could also be launched from 3.25-inch diameter guiding rods bound together in an open framework, or from individual 3-inch diameter sheet-iron tubes.

Each rocket was primarily designed to deliver flammable compounds, but could carry musket balls placed in a hollow shell and exploded by a timed fuse. Although the New York Battalion rockets could fly a remarkable maximum distance of 3 miles, they were extremely erratic and were never used in combat.

Union troops under the command of General Alexander Schimmelfennig did fire rockets against Confederate forces in South Carolina. He found the rockets most useful for driving enemy picket boats out of creeks and harbors.

From http://www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/civil/artillery/rocket/rocketMain.htm

Rocket Battalion of Artillery
(General Barry's)
Civil War

The following is taken from New York in the War of the Rebellion, 18th ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912.

Mustered in: December 6-7, 1861.
Disbanded: February 11, 1863. The companies were designated the 23rd and 24th batteries.

This battalion was organized at Albany, December 5, 1861, and there mustered in the United States service for three years, December 6 and 7, 1861. The three companies recruited originally, Ransom's, Lee's and Sauer's, were consolidated into two companies December 5, 1861, and the battalion, commanded by Maj. Thomas W. Lion, left the State December 9, 1861. It served at and near Washington, D. C., from December, 1861, and in North Carolina, i8th Corps, from May, 1862. February 11, 1863, the battalion organization was discontinued, and the two companies, A and B, were designated the 23d and 24th Batteries, Light Artillery, having served provisionally as such from November 1, 1862. The loss and engagements of the battalion are included in the record of the batteries into which its two companies were converted.

Two links related to the use of rockets by the 74th PA, Co G.

07-16-2006, 08:42 PM
Navy blockade ships used rocket flares to signal each other when a runner was sighted and to illuminate the runner as they chased it.

Rob Weaver
07-20-2006, 05:37 PM
We're talking about two different things, though: rockets, like the Congreve, and signal flares.

07-20-2006, 08:31 PM
This is truth; rockets used as direct-fire weapons and those used to carry a flare aloft are two different things. Given their inherent inaccuracy, I can't imagine launching a rocket from the rolling, pitching deck of a ship and having any chance of hitting another vessel more than a few rods away.

07-24-2006, 08:42 AM
I have a rather long quote from the SCARD web-site (Signal Corps Association - Reenactors Division) which deals with Signal Rockets/Flares from this URL:


I "STRONGLY" suggest that you visit the web-site listed above to see the PICTURES that accompany this article should you want to learn about Signaling using rockets/torches during the ACW.

I must also say that AS a Signal Corps Reenactor I have never seen signal rockets used. Event organizers barely allow us to use Torches at night for communications let alone shooting pyrotechnics up into the air at night without the proper licensure. It would, however, be quite impressive to see a working live demonstration of this system.

If you have any questions - please dont hesitate to ask!


[Coston Flares]


This is a very ingenious and effective semaphore, which commends itself from its simplicity. Three lights of different colors, white, red, and green, are so flashed or burned in combinations representing the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, and also two letters A and P —in all twelve combinations. The light is produced by the combustion of a peculiar pyrotechnic composition for each of the desired colors. A handle or holder is all that is necessary, ordinarily, to hold the selected color:

When a communication is to be made, the white, red, and white are, quickly and successively flashed, indicating the letter P, (prepare, [or preparatory]) and, when answered by red, white, and red, indicating the letter A [assent]; the correspondence commences by flashing the respective colors of the numbers desired to be sent. Experience has demonstrated the usefulness of the "Coston Fire Signals," and they have passed the practical test with success."
~ S.F.B. Morse

Martha Coston was born in Baltimore, in 1826. She was widowed at age twenty one and was left with four children to take care of. Even though her husband had died, she was determined to work and earn money. In 1859, she came up with an idea of a signal flare, based upon on her deceased husband's notebook. Since the plans of her husband's didn't work, she was determined to find a successful way to make the signal flare to work. Signal flares were very hard to make, they had to be both durable and simple. They also needed to last long enough to be viewed from ship to ship or ship to land communications. The flare also had to be simple enough to use and in colored combinations. Martha soon discovered that she could use pyrotechnics to make her flare. The green, red, and white flares worked so well that the navy bought them from her for $20,000.


Composition Fires are pyrotechnic compositions which burn with great intensity of light and color. The colors, red, white, and green, are found to be best suited for signalling. A very convenient arrangement is as follows:

These signals prepared in the form of cartridges, are burned from a holder. The signals while burning will show the colors and correspond with the numbers above indicated. P or White~Red~White, is the challenge or preparatory signal; if answered by the A or Red~White~Red, it shows that the preparatory signal was seen. If it is then desired to send the message indicated by 2-9-3, the cartridges are discharged corresponding with those numbers (as illistrated in the code example above). A signalist should be careful not to look at the brilliant flame of the signal burning near him, as thereby the eye is not fitted to discern accurately the colors of distant lights.

The signal cartridges are made to be fired by the explosion of the percussion cap upon the signal-pistol. The colors of the cartridges are indicated by the colors painted on the outside of the cases or shells.

If the signalist be provided with only three kinds of lights, as red, white, and green, he can indicate nine different messages by burning one or two cartridges. By burning three or less than three at one time, tewnty-seven messages can be sent; by burning four or less, eighty-one messages. If four lights are furnished, as a red, a white, a green and a red-white, the same number of cartridges will furnish sixteen, sixty-four, and two hundred and fifty-six messages, respectively. If five are used the number is increased to one thousand and twenty-four!

bob 125th nysvi
07-24-2006, 08:14 PM
There was a show on cable TV, called Myth busters, where they created a reproduction of a Civil War rocket, to basically test the effective range.

It was interesting to see that the design did in fact work.

I am &c,

NJ Sekela,


The Congreve worked in India there is no reason to assume it wouldn't work in America. But the Congreve was designed for use against troops (a little trick the British picked up from the Indians= India Indians) but not really as a substitute for guns against fortifications. It didn't work at New Orleans because they were trying to take out a fortification.

But the range of a rifle would have made the crews very very vulnerable to counter fire.

Bob Sandusky
Co C 125th NYSVI
Esperance, NY