The Congreve Rocket was a weapon used by the Royal Navy in the War of 1812, and was used in the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore in September 1814.
The "rocket's red glare" mentioned by Francis Scott Key in "The Star-Spangled Banner" would have been the trails left by the Congreve rockets fired from British warships.
The military rocket was named for its developer, Sir William Congreve, a British officer who was fascinated by the use of rockets for military purposes encountered in India.
Congreve never claimed to be the inventor of the rocket named for him, but he spent many years experimenting and trying to perfect them.
Congreve Experimented With Rockets
Rockets date back to ancient China, but the first reliable records of their use in warfare comes from the late 1700s. In battles in India, the forces of Tippoo Sahib of Mysore used rockets against the army of the East India Company in the 1790s.
The British were impressed by the rockets, and the British Board of Ordnance asked scientists to help develop them as a weapon.
A young British officer, Lieutant William Congreve began to study the possibility of deploying rockets to British forces. Congreve's father, who held a royal title, was an official with the British arsenal at Woolwich. With his father's connections, Congreve was able to conduct extensive experiments, building rockets and trying to improve their range.
In a book published in the 1820s, Congreve described how by refining the design of his rockets, he was able to gain more distance. He felt like he had attained a practical goal when he created a six-pound rocket that would travel 2,000 yards.
The British Military Began to Use Rockets
In 1806 Congreve's rockets began to be used by the British military. They were fired at Boulogne, France, during the Napoleonic Wars in 1806.
By the time of the Boulogne attack, Congreve had perfected a large 32-pound rocket which would travel 3,000 yards. The rocket, which resembled a much larger version of today's bottle-rocket fireworks, consisted of an iron rocket mounted on a long wooden stick.
According to Congreve's account: "In about half an hour above 200 rockets were discharged. The dismay and astonishment of the enemy were complete not a shot was returned and in less than ten minutes after the first discharge, the town was discovered to be on fire."
Rockets were used in other engagements, and Congreve became an energetic advocate for this use in both naval and land battles.
Congreve Rockets Were Fired at Baltimore in 1814
The British forces that invaded Maryland in 1814 were equipped with rockets. They are known to have been fired at the Battle of Bladensburg, the engagement in the Maryland countryside that preceded the burning of Washington by British troops.
One factor in dispersing the militiamen was their reputed fear of the rockets, which were a new weapon to Americans. While the rockets were not terribly accurate, having them fired at you must have been terrifying.
Weeks later, the Royal Navy fired Congreve rockets during the attack on Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The night of the bombardment was rainy and very cloudy, and the trails of the rockets must have been a spectacular sight.
Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer involved in a prisoner exchange who became an eyewitness to the battle, was obviously impressed by the rockets. By writing the "Star-Spangled Banner," which first appeared in a Baltimore newspaper in the days following the battle, the "rocket's red glare" became permanently established in American history.