It is well known that the Civil War saw the first military use of a submarine, but less well known is the rôle of primitive short-range ballistic missiles and missile interceptor technology in Union planning. Although these technologies did not see actual use, their potential weighed heavily in the minds of Northern military planners.
The concern was that Southern submarines off the coast of New England might be able to launch missiles (without warheads, but, being made of granite or lead, still capable of quite a bit of destruction) that could reach industrial targets and population centers along the east coast, interfering with the Union Army’s supply chain or sapping support for the war among the population of the Northeast. So Lincoln ordered an expensive and complex project to build interceptor missiles capable of neutralizing the Confederate threat.
Pictured above is the third Union interceptor missile built. The first two were blown to bits when the powder that was to launch them into Massachusetts Bay was lit, which accident earned them the mocking sobriquet of “Lincoln’s Powder-Houses”. Faced with this setback, Lincoln ordered a third interceptor built, and set a crack team of mathematicians to prove that it would survive launch. While it required several abrupt changes to the staff and leadership of the team, the necessary proof was eventually achieved. Limited operational tests confirmed that the interceptor was capable of inflicting damage on Confederate targets, and the program was deemed a success.1
In the event, the Confederacy did not have a ballistic-missile program, and the Powder-House Missile was never launched. While the missile itself remains a curiosity in the annals of military history, it did lend its name to Powderhouse Circle.
It is thought that after the Civil War, two more Powder-House Interceptor Missiles were constructed in Texas as a deterrent to possible aggression by Mexico. However, the War Department learned from the earlier controversy and kept the new interceptors strictly secret, so little is known about them aside from their staggering expense. Indeed, since the most reliable reports suggest that in order to escape detection the interceptors were made of wood and constructed to resemble barns, it is uncertain that modern historians would recognize them even in the unlikely event they are still intact.
1 These tests consisted of launching captured Confederate soldiers at the missile from a trebuchet and confirming that they sustained somewhat more damage than it did. Certain of Lincoln’s shriller opponents criticized these tests as unrealistic.