150 years ago: “… a number of Hale’s War Rockets were thrown from Dixon’s Island…”

For his journal entry on April 15, 1864, Major Edward Manigault noted an uncommon, though not too unusual, weapon employed by the Federals:

At about 5 P.M. a Yankee Gunboat came up the Stono and Commenced Shelling our advanced Pickets about Legare’s Overseer’s House. At the same time a number of Hale’s War Rockets were thrown from Dickson’s [Dixon’s] Island at the Stations occupied by the pickets and a force of probably 200 men was thrown forward from “Horse-Shoe Island” on to Bottany Island. Our Pickets, however, maintained their ground and the enemy soon retired.

Some of the Rockets thrown were picked up. The entire Case included a recess on the side for the escape of gas generated by the Burning Composition, also an opening at the rear end for escape of Gas. These Rocket cases empty, I judged to weigh about 18 pounds.

The cases were entirely of cast iron, the head rivetted on to the body post.

These were not the Congreve Rockets cited in the “Star Spangled Banner.”  Rather, as Manigault indicates, these were the type refined by British inventor William Hale and introduced in the 1840s. The 1861 version of the Ordnance Manual described these:

The war-rocket used in the military service is made after Hale’s patent. It consists, 1st. Of a sheet-iron case lined with paper and charged with rocket-composition. 2d. Of a cast-iron cylindro-conoidal head, with a small cavity communicating with the bore of the rocket, and pierced with three holes, oblique to the surface, for the escape of gas.  3d. Of a wrought-iron plug welded into the rear end of the case, and having a hole in its axis for the escape of gas.

The rocket is driven forward by the escape of gas through the hole in the rear end, and a motion of rotation around its axis is given to it by the escape of gas through the holes in the head, whereby its direction is preserved without the use of a directing-stick.

The composition is pressed solid in the case by means of a powerful press, and the bore of the rocket is drilled and reamed out to the proper size.

The sixes of rockets are indicated by the interior diameter of the cases. The two sizes used are the two-inch and three-inch.

Hale refined the rocket several times, with the main variation being the placement and shape of the vent or hole for propelling gas.  An 1866 patent carries this illustration:

HaleWarRocket

Compared to the War of 1812 Congreve Rocket, Hale’s rocket lacked the stabilizing stick on the rear of the rocket.  The illustration below, from John Scoffern’s Projectile Weapons of War, 1858, compares Congreve’s, Hale’s, and an ordinary signal rocket:

HaleCongreveRockets

While not a “debut” of the rocket as a weapon, the use outside Charleston was a rare employment.  A few days later, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig wrote a very complementary report about the operational tests with rockets (including that of April 15).  Schimmelfennig requested more rockets.  I’ll continue with the “rocket’s trail” in a post discussing that request in a few days.

(Citation from: Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, page 140;  The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1862, page 314.)

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