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.