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.