“I have tried them … and have found them very serviceable.”: Hale’s Rockets over Charleston

In my opinion, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig’s Civil War career is unfairly marked by his Gettysburg experience.  In the Gettysburg-centric view of the Civil War, he is best known for hiding with the hogs behind the Garlach House while the battle raged. But while not ranking as one of the war’s great generals, Schimmelfennig’s war experience offers more substance than just those three days in July, 1863.

On this day (April 18) in 1864, Schimmelfennig, commanding the garrison on Morris and Folly Islands, reported positive results from trials of Hale’s War Rockets:

Headquarters Northern District,
Folly Island, S.C., April 18, 1864.
Lieut. Col. E. W. Smith,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Dept. of the South:

Colonel: I have the honor to report that I have tried Hale’s war rockets in regard to their correctness of flight, power of penetration, and the best methods of handling and discharging them. I have tried them against targets and against the enemy and have found them very serviceable. I have armed all the outer forts in which I did not wish to expose artillery with these rockets. I have organized a common rocket battery (the men are instructed and drilled), and am now organizing a boat rocket battery to accompany expeditions, &c. I regret to say that there are but 700 rockets on hand, and that they are of the large size (3¼-inch, nearly 32 pounds weight), which are less serviceable than the smaller ones. I beg that the major-general commanding will instruct his ordnance officer to obtain without delay for this district:

First. Three thousand 2¼-inch Hale’s rockets, old construction, with rotation holes in the rear end and a 4-second fuse. With these I require no stands.

Second. One thousand 3 1/4-inch rockets, with 10 stands.

A. Schimmelfennig,
Brigadier-General, Commanding District.

Earlier, I posted a report from the Confederate side, discussing the trials directly against their picket line and some observations of the rockets themselves.  The sizes mentioned by Schimmelfennig correspond to the Ordnance Manual’s 2- and 3-inch rockets, however he was citing the outside diameter of the projectile while the manual used the inside diameter.  The British inventor of this rocket, William Hale, offered several variations of the exhaust vent arrangements as he worked to perfect the weapon.  In A Course of Instruction in Ordnance and Gunnery, James G. Benton offered this diagram of the rocket:


This diagram resembles the description offered by Major Edward Manigault on April 16, 1864.  But with so many variations with Hale’s rockets, I’m not going to call that a positive identification.

The Ordnance Manual of 1862 listed the following particulars for the 3-inch rocket:

  • Whole length of the rocket – 16.9 inches
  • Length of finished case – 14.2 inches
  • Exterior diameter of case – 3.25 inches
  • Interior diameter of case – 3 inches
  • Weight of rocket, complete – 14 pounds

I suspect “weight complete” did not include the propellant or explosive charges.  And adding those two would increase the weight closer to the 32 pounds mentioned by Schimmelfennig.

The stands used for these rockets was a simple setup, almost flimsy looking.  A surviving example in good condition appeared for sale on an antique vendor website recently:


I think any reader who has “experimented” with bottle rockets will understand the principle here.  Benton credited the 2-inch rocket with a range of 1,760 yards, and the 3-inch with 2,200 yards.

The primary advantage of the rockets lay in their light weight and ease of employment.  As Schimmelfennig noted, the “rocketeers” might setup very close to Confederate lines with little preparation.  Furthermore, the rockets were equally at home afloat.  Mounted in small boats, the rockets could be floated well forward into the creeks and marshes in front of James Island.  Other advantages often cited include the psychological impacts.  But such “shock and awe” effects were mostly nullified after the first employment.  The rockets offered ofter tactical advantages also, namely rapidity of fire and lack of recoil.

The main disadvantage of Hale’s War Rockets, as with most unguided rockets, was accuracy.  Too many variables affected the projectile’s path of flight.  Slight variations in the exhaust might send the rocket sailing off course.  Winds played against the rocket’s flight path, and required more adjustment than conventional artillery.  And of course in the days prior to smokeless powder, the exhaust trail of the rockets left a pointer to the battery’s location.

Schimmelfennig mentions forming a rocket battery (and boat rocket battery!) to operate these weapons.  That unit was Company G, 74th Pennsylvania Infantry.  A good writeup on the company’s use of the rockets is on Bret Coulson’s website (part 1 and part 2).  The company employed the rockets during their stay, then trained replacements when the regiment returned north to the defenses of Washington later in 1864.

Rockets, submarines, balloons, mines, and ironclads… the Charleston siege was a showcase of 1860’s military technology.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 60-1.)

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