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.