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 Congreve Rockets and Rocket Ships 
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Post Congreve Rockets and Rocket Ships
Congreve Rockets and Rocket Ships

Recently I saw a reference in the biography of William IV (see separate thread) that mentioned some new carronades designed by Sir William Congreve (the younger, 1772-1828). Prince William, then Lord High Admiral, witnessed a trial in 1826 of Congreve’s gun but how Congreve’s design differed and whether the RN accepted the gun design was not revealed. I tried, but failed, to find out any information about such weapons.

However, I did receive in the mail today a short (32 page) pamphlet titled "Sir William Congreve and The Rocket’s Red Glare" by Donald E. Graves (cost $9 US). The pamphlet is part of the Historical Arms Series (No. 23). It contains brief biographies of both Congreve and his father. It explains the development of military rockets and its use both by the British Navy and Army (rockets were used at Waterloo).

What I found most interesting was how these rockets were used by the RN. The pamphlet states: Two naval vessels, H.M.S. "Galquo" and "Erebus," were fitted out by the Board of Ordnance under Congreve's direction as rocket ships. The rocket batteries on these two vessels were fired from scuttles cut in the ships' bulwarks and the launching sticks were positioned through the gun deck into frames constructed in the ships' holds. This arrangement did not interfere with the conventional naval armament in the ships and the rockets provided a tremendous increase in the vessels' firepower. After being fitted as rocket ships, these small sloops had the equivalent firepower of a 74-gun ship of the line. [There is a cross-sectional drawing showing the rockets positioned for firing from the gundeck with special shields to redirect the afterblast. These two ships were dual purpose as in the thread concerning "fireships."]

For rockets fired from small boats or rocket launches, the heavy ladder-like bombardment frame was positioned on the foremast and the rocket positioned upon it. The boat crew and the rocket detachment sat in the stern of the boat, protected from the rocket's afterblast by a sail which had been thoroughly soaked. [There is a very nice drawing showing this arrangement. Very different from what I imagined it to be.]

The title reference to "Rocket’s Red Glare" is a phrase taken from the United States National Anthem penned by Francis Scott Key. Congreve’s rockets were used to bombard Fort McHenry near Baltimore, Maryland during the War of 1812. When daylight neared after a night of heavy bombardment, the American flag was still flying and could be seen from the "rocket’s red glare." Key composed a poem on the spot.

BTW, Congreve rockets were used more extensively against American targets than European. Their accuracy was questionable so most of the time, they would completely terrorize the locals and burn down part of the surrounding town. Americans developed a deep hatred for the British for their use. Congreve’s rockets were considered inhumane by peoples on both sides of the Atlantic.

Don


Fri Mar 03, 2006 1:54 am
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Hi Don,

I was curious as to what range of time your pamphlet covers. Does it say when the Congreve rocket fell (he he) out of use?

Some illustrations of rockets in use.

I wouldn't want to be part of the boat crew firing off these things.

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Wed Mar 22, 2006 1:34 am
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susan wrote:
I was curious as to what range of time your pamphlet covers. ]

The pamphlet briefly covers the history of the rocket from the first use of the war rocket by the Chinese in the 13th century. However, it focuses primarily on Congreve (1772-1828) and his improvements. It does mention Captain Edward Boxer who produced an improved rocket (accuracy and range) in 1852. Another inventor, Hale (no first name given) developed a rocket without an aiming stick in 1846 which was produced in Britain during 1854-1855.

susan wrote:
Does it say when the Congreve rocket fell (he he) out of use?

Rockets, like these, fell out of favor gradually in the 1860-1870’s because massed formations of infantry and cavalry had disappeared from the battlefield. The last military use (other than signaling) of this type of rocket was in 1879 during the Zulu Wars. The rocket regained its military role in WWII.

susan wrote:
I wouldn't want to be part of the boat crew firing off these things.

I must agree with you Susan that, even hiding behind a wetted sail, firing one of these rockets from a boat must have been truely frightening.

Don


Last edited by timoneer on Wed Mar 22, 2006 11:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Wed Mar 22, 2006 3:49 am
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Don,

What was the difference between land- and sea-service rocket stands? Size, structure or both? I assume that both versions had to be fairly portable.

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Wed Mar 22, 2006 10:07 pm
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susan wrote:
What was the difference between land- and sea-service rocket stands? Size, structure or both? I assume that both versions had to be fairly portable.

Land based: Visualize a Napoleonic era cannon on a two wheeled cart pulled by horses. Now substitute for the cannon either a wooden container (with rocket supply) or a flat bodied cart with multiple grooves, each groove large enough to fit one rocket. Firing rockets directly from the grooves in the carts (from axle height) was the least accurate method. Also on the flat bodied cart was a ladder-like device (frame) with extra legs. This could be set up in a tripod configuration either standing alone or attached to the cart for extra stability. A soldier climbed the ladder, attached a rocket to the top, lit the fuse, and departed. The pamphlet shows a number of slightly different frame designs of different heights. If the drawings are to scale (no notation to that effect), the largest frame was about three times the height of a soldier.

Water based: I previously described firing rockets through the sides of the lower decks of the specialized rocket-ships. Firing from a boat required lashing this same ladder-like frame from near the base of the main-mast to a higher point on the fore-mast. There were no sails on the fore-mast (could catch fire). Any sails on the main-mast were high and out of the way. If the boat was small, the extra rockets were carried in a second boat. Once the rocket was positioned and the fuse lit, the sailor scampered down and got behind a water-soaked piece of canvas. The final step, at least in my case, would have been prayer.

Don


Wed Mar 22, 2006 11:34 pm
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timoneer wrote:
Land based: .... Also on the flat bodied cart was a ladder-like device (frame) with extra legs. This could be set up in a tripod configuration either standing alone or attached to the cart for extra stability.

Water based: .... Firing from a boat required lashing this same ladder-like frame from near the base of the main-mast to a higher point on the fore-mast.


One other point: The rocket was attached to the ladder in a position parallel to the ladder. Thus changing the angle of the ladder relative to the ground or sea changed the trajectory of the flight of the rocket. A very simple aiming method but hardly very accurate.

Don


Thu Mar 23, 2006 12:41 pm
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Hi Don,

Thanks for the information. I was curious because the book by Mackinnon that I'm going through mentions them carrying both types on the ship.

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Thu Mar 23, 2006 8:54 pm
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For fun, here's a pic of reenactor with rocket frame.

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Fri Mar 24, 2006 8:30 am
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susan wrote:

Super photo, there are only line drawings in the pamphlet. This is much more illustrative.

I noticed that the "aiming" stick part of the rocket seems to go all the way to the ground. In your photo, it looks like the soldier could position the rocket without leaving the ground so this must have been one of the shorter versions of the frame.

Don


Fri Mar 24, 2006 9:25 am
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Ouch!

From Narrative of the Voyages and Services of the Nemesis, from 1840 to 1843 by W.D. Bernard:

"A Congreve rocket, which had been placed in the proper tube from which it is fired, and had been already ignited, accidentally hung within it, instead of being projected, as intended. In another second it would have burst in the tube itself, and must have killed or wounded all those who were standing near it upon the bridge between the paddle-boxes. With instant coolness and presence of mind, Captain [William Hutcheon] Hall put his arm into the tube and forcibly pushed it out from behind, although the rush of fire which came out of it burnt his hand severely and caused intense pain. Indeed it was not done wtihout great personal risk. It is difficult to calculate what disastrous results might not have followed, had the rocket burst in the tube, on board ship. It was long before the use of the wounded hand was recovered."

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Fri Mar 24, 2006 7:30 pm
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susan wrote:

"A Congreve rocket, which had been placed in the proper tube from which it is fired, and had been already ignited, accidentally hung within it, instead of being projected, as intended. In another second it would have burst in the tube itself, and must have killed or wounded all those who were standing near it upon the bridge between the paddle-boxes. With instant coolness and presence of mind, Captain [William Hutcheon] Hall put his arm into the tube and forcibly pushed it out from behind, although the rush of fire which came out of it burnt his hand severely and caused intense pain. Indeed it was not done wtihout great personal risk. It is difficult to calculate what disastrous results might not have followed, had the rocket burst in the tube, on board ship. It was long before the use of the wounded hand was recovered."



.... that was brave indeed, and along the lines of bravery and courage, which I sometimes think could be forging on foolhardiness - do you think? - I have started a new thread about acts of bravery, which I don't think we already have.

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Sat Mar 25, 2006 10:35 am
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Congreve Rockets in Small Boats

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Sat Jul 01, 2006 8:54 pm
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Could someone identify the painting of a rocket vessel at Wikipedia below?
I suspect it might be a detail of a larger image.

Click Here.

Don


Fri Dec 29, 2006 6:37 pm
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Hi Don,

I assume this is the engraving you are referring to?

Congreve's Rocket System

The sample on the Naval Adademy web site is trimmed down (maybe just for purposes of the web page). Are the plates in the copy of your book trimmed as well? Is there any type running along the bottom of the engraving like "[name] del. et pinx(t)." or "[name] del. et sculpt"? If so, this may give you some clue as to who the artist might be.

Note:
del. -> delineavit (he/she drew)
pinx(t). -> pinxit (he/she painted)
sculpt. -> sculpsit (he/she engraved, carved)

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Wed Jan 31, 2007 6:58 pm
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The image of the rockets in the boats is credited to Captain W. Hyde Parker on the NMM site (see post earlier in thread). Maybe he did the others as well? Maybe you can email the NMM to find out?

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Wed Jan 31, 2007 8:28 pm
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