June 06, 2012

Rockets’ red glare

Congreve Rockets were a unique piece of artillery used by the British. Congreve Rockets were created by William Congreve Jr. (1772-1828) who developed the version of the rocket that could be employed in combat. These weapons were cheaper, lighter, faster and easier to fire than conventional artillery. The rocket’s head housed the projectile that could vary from a solid cannon ball to incendiary projectiles used to set targets alight. These weapons were very destructive against enemy infantry or fixed positions, and the sound they made often terrified soldiers. 

Congreve Rocket
Despite their potential destructive power, Congreve Rockets lacked a crucial element: accuracy. These weapons had no tail fins to provide stability in flight, so sometimes rockets could fly back towards those who fired them. At the Battle of Lundy’s Lane a detachment of British Marine Artillery was present, but contemporaries noted that when watching the firing of the rockets not two rockets flew in the same direction. In addition, another contemporary noted that “the practice of discharging the Rocket … proved a great injury to the men, burning their hands and faces. Some had no hair on their heads and their hands and shoulders severely scorched.” Despite their inaccuracy and danger to the user many veterans of the battle recalled how the rockets lit up the night sky during the battle.

Rocket Ladders
Rockets are most prominently known for their reference in the American national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British in September 1814 and mentions the ‘rockets’ red glare’ in his poem.

If you want to see some rockets’ red glare make sure you check out the fireworks over Niagara Falls on Sunday, June 17th as part of the 1812 Opening Ceremonies Weekend. Before the fireworks, you can watch the WNED documentary War of 1812 at Oaks Garden. For a full list of Opening Ceremonies activities, click here.

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