A Brief History of Rocketry – Early Rockets to Goddard

Rocketry and Manifest Destiny

United States Rocket Artillery outside of the Mexican city of Veracruz, 1847.

Although Hale rockets originated in Great Britain, they played an important role in the history of rocketry in the United States. Hale rockets were the first rockets used by United States armed forces in battle. On November 19, 1846 Major General Winfield Scott was selected to lead an expeditionary force to Veracruz, Mexico and on to Mexico City. His force included a brigade of rocketeers, the first in the history of the United States armed forces. Volunteers for this rocket brigade were solicited via posters beginning on December 4, 1846. Posters requested, “Active, brave young men to serve with rocket and mountain howitzer batteries, now preparing by the Ordnance Department for immediate departure.” Training of this brigade was conducted at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The battery, including the rocketeers, was placed under the command of First Lt. George H. Talcott. The rocket brigade itself was placed under the command of Brevet Second Lt. Jesse Lee Reno. The rocket brigade consisted of 150 men and their equipment, which included a number of 2.25-inch, 6-pound versions of the Hale rocket. The rocket brigade departed Fort Monroe on February 1, 1847 on the bark Saint Cloud. The rocket brigade joined Scott’s expeditionary forces on the island of Lobos, 200 miles north of Veracruz, in late February.

Portrait of Major General Winfield Scott, 1855, by Robert Walter Weir.

The force sailed on to Anton Lizardo, then to Sacrificios, located just three miles southeast of Veracruz. The main landing at Veracruz took place on March 9, 1847 when 67 surf boats, each carrying 75 to 80 men including the rocket brigade, sailed ashore. Troops quickly advanced to Veracruz, which was placed under siege. The first Hale rockets were launched on March 24, 1847 against Veracruz fortifications. The city surrendered on March 29, 1847. On April 8, 1847 the rocket brigade moved inland, having been transferred to the command of General David Twiggs. The force quickly advanced along a route discovered by Captain Robert E. Lee. A rocket battery was established at La Atalaya after its occupation. About 30 rockets were fired against El Telegrafo Hill on April 18, 1847.

In August, 1847 rockets were being fired against Mexican forces in and around Mexico City, most notably at Churubusco. On September 12 and 13, 1847 a rocket barrage was effectively used to soften Mexican positions during the storming of Chapultepec. The rocket brigade was disbanded in 1848 as the Mexican War drew to a close. United States forces made good use of Hale rockets, and may have also defended themselves against Mexican rockets. A number of Congreve rockets were included in the captured arsenals of Santa Anna, although there are no specific accounts of the rockets being fired in battle.

From the conclusion of the war with Mexico to 1861 and the beginning of the US Civil War, rockets had declined in importance. Improvements in conventional artillery such as breech loading and rifling of barrels has increased their accuracy and lethality dramatically. Even so, both Union and Confederate armies attempted to use both Congreve and Hale rockets. Unfortunately, this proved unsuccessful, as the gunpowder charges no longer worked properly after long-term storage. Because of this, both sides developed their own rockets – much cruder and less effective than the British rockets. Nevertheless, on July 3, 1862, Confederate troops under Jeb Stuart used them against Union troops during the Battle of Harrison’s Landing, with Colonel James Kirk later writing that one of his 10th Pennsylvania Reserves soldiers was injured by a rocket projectile fired from a gun carriages.

Battle of Malvern Hill, by Robert Sneden, 1862.

During Confederate campaigns in Texas, rockets and carriages manufactured in Galveston, later Houston, were used in 1863 and 1864. The first Union rocket unit was organized in 1861, when the New York Rocket Battalion’s 160 men were mustered in at Albany on December 6 and 7. Initially recruited as three companies, it consolidated as two under the command of Major Thomas Lyon and left for Washington D.C. in late December. By May 1862, part of the Battalion had moved to North Carolina. The rockets used were up to 20 inches long, with a 3 inch diameter, and were launched from eight-foot-long tubes – four of which were mounted on each carriage. Other methods of deployment consisted of an open framework guiding rod system, or individual three-inch tubes. Though mainly an incendiary device, the “warhead” could be modified to carry and timed-fuse explosive charge packed with musket balls. Though they had an incredible range – for the time – of three miles, they were too erratic for use and never fired in combat.

By November 1862, the unit was disbanded and re-designated a light artillery unit. Union forces used rockets against a Confederate army in one instance, however. In South Carolina, General Alexander Schimmelfennig used them to drive enemy picket boats away.

The American Civil War marked a turning point in modern warfare, as many historians consider it the beginning of “modern” warfare and the first truly industrialized conflict. Such advances as the use of the telegraph to convey information, the movement of troops and material by train, balloons for high-altitude observation, and iron-clad warships and submarines changed warfare for good. Small arms technology like the repeating rifle and the “minie ball” round changed how quickly men could shoot, and the ability to mass-produce rifled-bore tubes for artillery meant larger numbers of more accurate weapons could be produced.

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