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.