There’s a show on the Discovery Channel called the Mythbusters. One of the episodes dealt with a story that, at one time, the Confederacy launched a rocket from Richmond, Virginia that landed somewhere near Washington D.C. – 100 miles.
I have never read about this in more than thirty years of my Civil War-related reading. And I knew before this episode aired that such a thing, given the technology of the time, was very, very unlikely. Not surprisingly, the Mythbusters arrived at the same conclusion.
Episode 40: Confederate Rocket
The American Civil War was fought with bayonets, muskets and cannons. But was that all? Not according to the MythBusters. So Adam, Jamie and the build team join forces to find out if the Confederate Army had a secret deadly weapon - the world's first long-range missile, which according to rumor, was launched from Richmond, Va., and aimed at the White House over 100 miles away. Premiere: Oct. 26, 2005
The source for this rumor is disclosed in the following passage from A Brief History of Rocketry on solarviews.com:
“The first recorded use of rockets in the Civil War came on July 3, 1862, when Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry fired rockets at Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Union troops at Harrison's Landing, Va. No record exists of the Northerners' opinion of this premature "Fourth of July" fireworks demonstration.
Later in 1862, an attempt was made by the Union Army's New York Rocket Battalion -- 160 men under the command of British-born Major Thomas W. Lion -- to use rockets against Confederates defending Richmond and Yorktown, Virginia. It wasn't an overwhelming success. When ignited, the rockets skittered wildly across the ground, passing between the legs of a number of mules. One detonated harmlessly under a mule, lifting the animal several feet off the ground and precipitating its immediate desertion to the Confederate Army.
The only other documented use of rockets is at Charleston, S.C., in 1864. Union troops under Maj. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig found rockets "especially practical in driving off Confederate picket boats, especially at night."
As an interesting sidelight, the author Burke Davis, in his book "Our Incredible Civil War," tells a tale of a Confederate attempt to fire a ballistic missile at Washington, D.C., from a point outside Richmond, Va.
According to the author, Confederate President Jefferson Davis witnessed the event at which a 3.7 meter (12 foot) solid-fueled rocket, carrying a 4.5 kilogram (10 pound) gunpowder warhead in a brass case engraved with the letters C.S.A., was ignited and seen to roar rapidly up and out of sight. No one ever saw the rocket land. It's interesting to speculate whether, almost 100 years before Sputnik, a satellite marked with the initials of the Confederate States of America might have been launched into orbit.”
Yeah, right. The rocket built by the Mythbusters didn’t even go a mile. – Jonah Begone