Dread Tribunal – A Review by Mark James Miller

Mark James Miller is an educator, columnist, and author of The White Cockade: A Novel of the American Revolution, available for pre-order at Amazon.

The Civil War was America’s greatest agony, and almost all of the characters in Brian Kaufman’s Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort feel that pain, one way or another.  “All dead. They’re all dead. The war killed them all,” Decker Brown, Kaufman’s protagonist, sadly muses as he ponders the loss in lives the war has brought about. Even those who survived are scarred either by the death of a family member, the loss of a limb, or the psychological damage of war. Even Paula, whom Brown loves and intends to marry, suffers not only the mental anguish the war brings but also from starvation, when, near the end of the war, another suitor, a rival with Decker for her hand, notices her “skeletal arm.”

Brown in many ways represents the division of the country. A Virginian, he loves the “Republic” and does not want to see the South triumph and tear the country apart. But he also feels a loyalty to the state he was raised in, and does not want to see it invaded and laid waste. He reflects the feelings of many on both the north and the south, put most famously by Robert E. Lee when he wrote to his son:

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives…” “Lee,” Bruce Catton wrote, “was tidewater Virginia…he saw himself in relation to his own region.”

Near the end of the novel, Brown strikes a prescient chord when he says,

“But the fight is over, and the outcome is murky.” Even though the Civil War ended 156 years ago, many of the issues for which the war was fought—the status of African-Americans, states’ rights, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacy—are still very much with us today. “I fear my efforts were wasted,” Decker opines.

Kaufman’s excellent novel makes us the reader feel that pain. Kaufman is an accomplished writer, author of novels such as Sins In Blue and Dead Beyond the Fence. We take a tour of the young, growing country, from Boston to Virginia to Utah, and see the changes sweeping over the land. A gripping read, Dread Tribunal reminds us not only of the agony of the Civil War but the torment it inflicted on those who had to fight it. The pain lives on.     

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The Confederate Rocket

One of the more intriguing rocketry legends involves reports of a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket fired at Washington in the twilight of the Civil War.

According to the story, a Confederate agent enlisted overseas help from Lord Kelvin to deliver liquid oxygen, and Ernst Mach for a turbine engine design and gyroscope. Constructed along the banks of the James River, the rocket would be fired from a tube buried in the mud, fashioned from a string of naval gun barrels. Matthew Fontaine Maury, chief of harbor defenses, calculated the trajectory for the hundred-mile missile flight, scheduled for March of 1865.

The Confederate rocket of legend was beyond the available technology.

On the day of the launch, Jefferson Davis and other officials signed their name to the warhead and then stepped back to watch the launch. Scouts were placed at intervals to track the flight. The first stage was recovered and hidden, though observers lost contact with the second stage. Perhaps the rocket gained orbit, or so the story goes.

Two-stage rockets date back as far as 1300 A.D. But liquid oxygen is generally thought to be first manufactured in 1877, oxygen being one of six gasses that resisted the liquification efforts of Michael Faraday.

Mach, a physicist known for his study of shock waves (the ratio of speed to that of the speed of sound was named for him), was a professor of mathematics at the University of Graz as the Civil War neared its end. William Thompson, 1st Baron Kelvin, a physicist known for his studies of thermodynamics (the scale of absolute temperatures was named for him), was busy working on the transatlantic cable. Great names to drop, but not likely candidates for anything beyond fiction.

Recently, the MythBusters television show tackled the legend. Could they build a rocket that would perform according to the story? They used nitrous oxide (because of the difficulty of working with oxygen). They fashioned fins for stabilization, since the gyroscope device in the legend seemed so unlikely. For ignition, they used an extremely volatile composition called gun cotton. Despite predictions of possible disaster, the MythBuster team got their rocket airborne.  It flew about 500 yards. Myth busted.

The first mention I could find of the legend was author Burke Davis’s book “Our Incredible Civil War.” If there were any records of an actual attempt, they were destroyed when the Confederates burned files before the fall of Richmond.

But the basic story came from somewhere, right? In my novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, Decker Brown is a fledgling scientist who wonders aloud about the possibility of using liquid gas in a rocket design. The officer he is speaking to is intrigued, and promises to mention the idea to the War Department. And that’s where I leave things…a snippet of conjecture meant to fuel a legend—my take on the story of the Confederate rocket.

(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)


“Annotated Mythbusters.” Kwc.org. 29 Oct. 2019 <http://kwc.org/mythbusters/2005/10/mythbusters_confederate_rocket.html&gt;.

Davis, Burke. The Civil War, strange & fascinating facts: Our Incredible Civil war. New York: Fairfax P, 1982.

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Rockets were an unsuccessful part of Civil War weaponry. Fledgling rocket technology lagged behind established ordnance (such as the staple 12-pounder Napoleon, a brass smooth-bore cannon). Some of the men put in charge of rocketry projects brought dubious credentials and a lack of expertise to the table. But another persistent problem can be illustrated by the fate of the Texas rocket battery based in Houston.

Julius G. Kellersberger was born in Switzerland. He studied engineering and military science in Austria. He came to the United States in 1847. Crossing the ocean, he fell in love with his future wife, Caroline. Serving in a number of jobs in search of a future for himself and his family, Kellersberger settled into a job with a Mexican railroad. When the Civil War started, he was commissioned as a Captain and assigned to the construction of the defenses of Galveston.

By April of 1864, Kellersberger was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He’d befriended a lieutenant named Schroeder who had served in a German rocket battery. Schroeder claimed expertise in all facets of rocketry. Indeed, he must have had some understanding, because he was able to build a half dozen rockets with six-pounds of explosives in the grenade heads. A preliminary test was conducted in front of General John Magruder, and in light of apparent success, a rocket battalion was formed with fifty men and two lieutenants, the senior of which was Schroeder.

Materials stood in the way of success. A bed of saltpeter was discovered in San Antonio, solving part of the procurement problem. Other available necessaries, including copper, lead, and brimstone, were of mixed quality, and the official demonstration of the rocket’s capabilities was a disaster. Onlookers who settled into a picnic lunch went running for their lives. That night, General Magruder returned the men of the Confederate Rocket Battalion to their previous assignments.

Because the initial tests were successful, the subsequent failure seems safely blamed on materials.

In my novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, I visit two (other) disastrous demonstrations, both of which took place in the north. What makes the Confederate Rocket Battalion particularly frustrating is that Schroeder seems to have understood rocketry and simply couldn’t obtain what he needed to make the project work. Kellersberger tried to postpone the final demonstration, but guests had already been invited. The poor lieutenant colonel was so convinced of failure that he excused himself from the demonstration with a “crushing headache.’

Meanwhile, the men had helped to construct more than a thousand rockets, all of which were dumped into the river to rot, ending the last chance for a rocket battalion to see action against the Federal army.

(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)


Broadwater, Robert P. Civil War special forces: The elite and distinct fighting units of the Union and Confederate armies. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

Kellersberger, Getulius. Memoirs of an engineer in the Confederate Army in Texas. A.J. Schroeter, 1964.

Lowry, Thomas Power. Civil War rockets. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2012.

Winter, Frank H. The first golden age of rocketry: Congreve and Hale rockets of the nineteenth century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

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A Dream of Spaceflight

“The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but mankind can’t stay in the cradle forever.”

— K. E. Tsiolkovsky

In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers designed a hot air balloon. Unmanned test flights were relatively successful. On the 19th of September, the brothers sent a tethered flight airborne, “manned” by a sheep, a duck, and a cockerel. There was some concern about the possibility of damage from “high altitude” (about 600 meters), and when the animals returned to earth unharmed, there was a great sense of relief. Having vouched for the safety of aerostatic flight, the balloon was ready for a human passenger.

Jules Verne’s Rocket

On the 21st of September, physician Pilâtre de Rozier entered the basket beneath the balloon. With an audience of Louis-Joseph, the Dauphin at Château de La Muette, the French physician became a French aeronaut.

Was he the first man to be borne aloft? Depends on how much credence you give to legend. Wan Hu, a Chinese official who lived around 2,000 B.C., supposedly built a rocket chair powered by 47 rockets. Some stories say that after ignition, the chair and the official had “disappeared.” Another account had him burned by the rockets and then paddled by the displeased Emperor, who had been in the expectant audience.

Abbas Ibn Firnas lived in what is now Spain. In the year 875, at the age of seventy, he allegedly tested a self-designed glider. According to the story, he’d not given much thought to landing. He survived the subsequent crash and lived another twelve years.

Lagari Hasan Celebi supposedly made the first rocket flight in the year 1633. Accounts differ, but legend has it that the flight, enabled by 140 pounds of gunpowder, was successful; Celebi’s return to earth facilitated by a hand-tossed parachute.

In the early 1800s, Claude Ruggieri used large fireworks to send mice airborne. According to some accounts, he used a larger rocket to send a sheep 200 feet in the air. Using similar technology, a balloonist named Wilfrid de Fonvielle solicited money to try the same experiment with a small boy. According to Fonvielle’s account, “no capitalist presented himself” and the experiment was never concluded.

Konstantin Konstantinov, a Russian artillery officer, studied the feasibility of manned rocket flight in the 1850s. (He decided that gunpowder as fuel could not deliver the sustained thrust necessary for human flight.)

Meanwhile, space flight had become the stuff of literature. Both H.G. Wells and Jules Verne wrote about moon exploration.

In my novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, my protagonist actually has lunch with Jules Verne. After brutal experiences in the Civil War, Decker Brown needs a dream to latch onto, and Verne has just the notion for a rocketry expert.

Back in the real world, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s 1903 study of how space flight might be accomplished was published in a scholarly work, The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices. By 1929, Austro-Hungarian Hermann Potočnik proposed the idea of a space station. Reality followed suit in relatively short order.

As the quote from Tsiolkovsky indicates, whether scientist, adventurer, or author (this one included), spaceflight has been a compelling dream for centuries. We are taking our tentative first steps.

(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)


Ali, Naeem. Abbas Ibn Firnas: The World’s First Pilot, 3 Nov. 2013, http://www.forgottenislamichistory.com/2013/11/abbas-ibn-firnas-worlds-first-pilot.html.

Ali, Naeem. Lagari Hasan Celebi – The First Rocketeer, 21 Apr. 2015, http://www.forgottenislamichistory.com/2015/04/lagari-hasan-celebi-first-rocketeer.html.

“Rocket History -.” NASA, NASA, http://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/rocket/BottleRocket/13thru16.htm.

“The First Hot Air Balloon Flight.” Palace of Versailles, 23 Aug. 2018, en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/first-hot-air-balloon-flight.

Winter, Frank H. The first golden age of rocketry: Congreve and Hale rockets of the nineteenth century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

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The Day Lincoln (Almost) Died

One of the pivotal scenes in my Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, was based on real events. In 1862, a purported rocket expert named Joshua Burrows Hyde gained an audience with President Lincoln and Secretary Seward. As a result of their meeting, Hyde was offered the chance to develop an “improved” Hale rocket. When it came time to demonstrate his work, however, the President of the United States was nearly killed.

Hyde was born in Connecticut. Trained as an engineer, he acted as Hale’s agent in an effort to sell rockets to the army during the U.S.-Mexican War. General Winfield Scott approved the idea, and an agreement was struck, pending testing. The tests were successful.

Given his history, there was no ready reason to mistrust Hyde. Remember, however, that he was a sales agent, not a designer.

On the 15th of November, President Lincoln, Secretary of State Chase, Secretary of the Treasury Chase and others assembled at the Navy Yard to witness a demonstration of Hyde’s work. Lincoln and the others viewed the launch from temporary bleachers erected for the event. After a brief speech, the rocket fuse was lit, and everyone waited for the launch.

The rocket exploded in the launch tube, sending smoke and metal shards across the yard. By fluke, the President and his cabinet members were untouched by the barrage.

Remarkably, Hyde was allowed a second demonstration two days later (without Lincoln’s presence). The “improved” Hales performed no better than the first time around—skipping off the roof of a nearby blacksmith’s shop.

The event’s significance goes beyond the “what-if” represented by Lincoln’s potential death. The failed test was a signifier for much of Civil War rocketry. Questionable experts, failed tests, unreached potential.

(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)


Winter, Frank H. The first golden age of rocketry: Congreve and Hale rockets of the nineteenth century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

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At the start of the Civil War, General Pierre Beauregard resigned from the United States Army to join the Confederacy. He commanded the defenses of Charleston during the assault on Fort Sumter, and commanded the Southern army in the first major battle of the Civil War. He later commanded the Confederate forces at Shiloh, and was partially responsible for saving Petersburg during Grant’s invasion of Virginia. He was, by most accounts, a competent general.

However, his impact on the war was dampened by a poor personal relationship with President Jefferson Davis. Believe it or not, rockets played a part in the friction between the two men.

After the battle the North called Bull Run (and the South called Manassas), Beauregard requested rockets to supplement his light artillery. Despite an inherent lack of accuracy, Beauregard believed that rockets might be able to frighten the relatively untrained horses in Northern cavalry units. Beauregard made a formal request to create rocket batteries with the Chief of Ordnance, Captain Edward Alexander. Alexander failed to speak to President Davis, who was unavailable. In his stead, Adjutant Inspector General Samuel Cooper okayed the plan.

Certain that he had the authority to do so, Beauregard began recruiting men, anxious to fire rockets at what he called, “McClellan’s bipeds and quadrupeds.” Meanwhile, Acting Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, decided that Beauregard hadn’t finished the necessary steps for permission. Insulted, Beauregard went directly to President Davis, who rebuffed him, suggesting that he forget rockets and keep his mind on the enemy.

The matter festered, and Beauregard incorrectly assumed that Benjamin was his adversary in the matter. By now, he had earned the ire of the President. In a letter to the general, Davis later wrote:

…surely you did not intend to inform me that your army and yourself are outside the limits of the law.

Beauregard never got his rocket batteries. In fact, he was passed over for promotion and placed in relatively unimportant commands for much of the war. Though Beauregard clashed with Davis over other matters, including an unflattering portrayal of Davis to the newspapers after Bull Run, rockets almost certainly played a part in their mutual animosity.

Could Beauregard’s leadership have helped the Southern war effort? Perhaps the rocket battalion that wasn’t inflicted as much damage on the Confederacy as any real battery in the war.

Interested in more on rocketry in the Civil War? Read my novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort. “…historical fiction like none other.” ~Online Book Club

(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)


Lowry, Thomas Power. Civil War rockets. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2012.

Winter, Frank H. The first golden age of rocketry: Congreve and Hale rockets of the nineteenth century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

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Major Lion’s Rockets

For the most part, rocketry failed to impact the Civil War in any meaningful way. Much of that failure can be traced to funding and supply issues. Other failures can be tied directly to lack of expertise. But one high-profile failure is more difficult to assess, in part because of the enigmatic figure that headed the Union army’s New York Rocket Battalion.

Thomas W. Lion, born in Britain, sailed for America in 1849 to join the gold rush after an unverified career with the British Army. Lion (using the name Lyon), claimed to have experience with Congreve rockets. Army records seemed to indicate otherwise, though he clearly believed in rocketry. On the way to the New World, he stopped to pitch the idea of a rocket battalion in both Ecuador and Peru.

At the start of the war, Lion partnered with fellow-Englishman Joseph Edge and approached Secretary of War Simon Cameron with a proposal to build rockets for the north. Lion claimed accuracy and a range of 3,500 yards. The north had no rocket batteries, and the idea seemed promising.

Lion proposed a “breech-loading rocket cannon.” Since the chief advantage of rocket was portability, the idea of a breech loader with a barrel heavy enough to control recoil (as opposed to a lighter tube or rail for a rocket) was misguided.

Nevertheless, Lion was designated a Major and given 160 men under his command. Their bivouac, outside of Washington D.C., was called “Camp Congreve.”

Financial concerns may have forced one important change of plans. Though Lion reportedly produced some rockets, the unit’s predominant armament came from storehouses—rockets left over from the Mexican-American war.

In addition to a number of rockets, Lion produced several modified launch tubes, constructed of wrought iron and ventilated with holes to facilitate cooling. When it came time to test Lion’s rockets, the results were a complete failure. (My novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, depicts the tests in embarrassing detail.) Afterward, the unit was broken into the 23rd and 24th Independent Batteries of Light Artillery, New York Volunteers, fighting until the end of the war using conventional weaponry. Lion resigned his commission in 1862 and went to work for the Revenue Service.

His officers were rumored to believe that Lion didn’t know anything about gunnery or rockets. But after the war, Lion built a solid reputation as an inventor. In 1875, he applied for and received a patent (number 167,844) for “Process and Apparatus for the Manufacture of Illuminating Gas.”

Was Lion a budding Tesla, or a charlatan? An experienced rocketeer or a savvy promoter? I have my opinion. What’s yours?

(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)


Broadwater, Robert P. Civil War special forces: The elite and distinct fighting units of the Union and Confederate armies. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

Lowry, Thomas Power. Civil War rockets. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2012.

Winter, Frank H. The first golden age of rocketry: Congreve and Hale rockets of the nineteenth century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

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My Obsession with Rockets

My father, Harold Kaufman, is in the NASA Hall of Fame for his work on ion rocket engines. Ion propulsion uses vaporized, ionized mercury fired through charged grids. The actual mass of ionized particles is small, so the engine can’t lift a rocket out of the earth’s gravitational pull. But in space, the accelerated particles could theoretically propel a craft at speeds approaching twenty miles per second.

The Kaufman Engine has additional applications, from satellite orbit maintenance to depositing thin layers of materials used in integrated circuit processing. Growing up, my father brought home versions of his engine. I took them to show-and-tell.

We studied the skies, too. Dad saved lunch money to buy a telescope. Together, we  built a wheel-within-a-wheel contraption that, with the help of star charts, could pinpoint locations for a telescope. Saturn. Jupiter. The Pleiades. The Andromeda Galaxy. All a part of my childhood.

In second grade, I designed a rocket, meant to carry me to the moon. Though I’d barely begun construction, I felt it was time to solve the problem of fuel, so I headed to the corner gas station with a five gallon can. Dad quickly put an end to that project, but in its place, we began building model rockets. We discovered Estes, a Colorado company that sold kits and solid fuel. I launched a hundred of these models—some with cameras and payload compartments. (My apologies to the earthworm.)

As an adult, I continued to design rockets, each one sillier than the last. One issue with real rockets involves drag (less drag means better acceleration). But model rockets leapt off of the launch rod, almost too fast to follow. I began designing drag into my rockets to make the launches seem more “realistic.”

Dad’s gone now, but my obsession with rockets remains. Like my other obsessions (baseball, the Alamo, blues guitar), I am best at expressing that fixation through writing. This week, my novel Dread Tribunal of Last Resort will be released by Five Star/Cengage. Set during the Civil War, the novel follows Decker Brown, a would-be fireworks manufacturer who finds himself at key moments in  Civil War history having to do with rocketry.

A novice rocketeer with unusual ideas was easy to imagine.

The Civil War was an interesting time for technology. Submarine warfare, rocketry, trench warfare and aircraft carriers are things normally associated with other wars. But they were part of the Civil War story.

Civil War rockets were notoriously inaccurate. Great attention was paid to the design of the rocket, and almost none to the fuel. Odd, since black powder propellant had pockets that doled out thrust in fits and starts—a major contributor to inaccuracy Decker Brown is very interested in what he calls chemisms. This interest is a natural result of his knowledge of illuminations (fireworks), which use various chemical substances to create colored light effects.

Dad was encouraging of all my obsessions. (Though he disliked sports, we played catch most every summer evening.) But the obsession that was closest to his heart involved rockets. When I think back to time spent with him, I think of nights bent over a telescope and rockets hurtling through space. I hope that readers can glean a hint of those wonderful memories in the story of Decker Brown.

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Book Trailer for “Dread Tribunal of Last Resort”

My Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, will be released on January 20, 2021. The idea for the novel came two decades ago. The challenges of researching historical fiction kept the project on the back burner for years. Because the story was close to my heart, I kept returning to the pages. I finally finished the manuscript in 2018.

Then came the challenge of finding a publisher. Five Star (a Cengage company) agreed to publish the book and scheduled the release for last July.

COVID had other plans.

Luckily, the company scheduled a second date, and the book is available on Amazon for pre-orders.

The short, sweet book trailer is the work of fantasy author Morgan Wright.

The Historical Novel Society had this to say about Dread Tribunal:

In 1861, Decker Brown returns home to Richmond, Virginia after having spent two years studying rocketry and illumination science in Boston. Decker has big dreams to open his own fireworks business and marry his sweetheart. The outbreak of the Civil War puts a damper on those plans, though. Strongly opposed to slavery, and defying his father, Decker decides to head west. He would rather join up with the Yankees, betraying his fellow Virginians, than fight for a cause he can’t support.

This is the story of the consequences of Decker’s decision. It details the horrors of the war, his travels, plights, and heroic endeavors. Kaufman weaves in a lot about illumination and fireworks, adding a bit of sparkle to a rather dark plot. This is also the story of Paula, on the home front, torn between two men she loves, and her attempts to find some semblance of a normal life amidst a worn torn city.

Kaufman does an impressive job detailing the inner conflict of each character. Paula loves Decker, but she cannot understand why he would choose to turn against his fellow Virginians and fight for the enemy. Decker struggles with this choice as well but remains stolid and determined to fight for liberty and freedom for all men. The pace is quick and speedy; the story spans the full length of the war and even into post-war life despite its mere 300-odd pages. With a lot of lively secondary characters, there’s a lot here for readers to enjoy. Recommended.

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Book Trailer for “Sins in Blue”

Fantasy author Morgan Wright also creates book trailer animations. She recently took a crack at a short, sweet book trailer for Sins in Blue. Here’s the result:

I have mixed feelings about book trailers. I’m not convinced they help sell books. Worse, they can be very pricey, and often drag on too long. Not so with Morgan. To authors who follow this blog, I would highly recommend her service – quick, sharp, and inexpensive. (https://www.morganwrightbooks.com/morgan-wright-book-cover-animations)

For my tastes, the trailer has pleasant, appropriate music, a quick message, and clever graphics. What do you think?

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