PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
Balloonists took flight in Stafford - WOOLF: Balloonists story shared at Historical Society meeting
Free Lance-Star, The (Fredericksburg, VA) - Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Abstract: Historical society to hear about observation balloons in Stafford during the Civil War
THE MEN WHO flew balloons in Stafford County during the Civil War
probably saw themselves as aviation pioneers, even though critics
considered them as little more than carnival acts.
Ken Purks, the speaker at Thursday's meeting of the Stafford County
Historical Society, will let listeners make up their own minds about
the U.S. aeronautical corps of the 1860s after his presentation titled
"Civil War Ballooning in Stafford County."
Purks has identified what he believes to be about 10 sites in Stafford
from which observation balloons were launched by the Union Army to
track Confederate troop movements from 1861 to 1863.
Thursday's meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors chambers at the Stafford Administration Center.
Purks will make his presentation in character as James Allen, one of
the aeronauts who worked with Thaddeus Lowe , the man in charge of the
Union's balloon program.
"I try to make these programs entertaining as well as informative,"
said Purks, a historian who lives in Morrisville in Fauquier County.
The setting will be Falmouth during early May of 1863, just after the
Battle of Chancellorsville. Purks (as James) will be trying to make a
case to members of Gen. Joseph Hooker's staff that the army should
continue to support the aeronautical corps.
By that point in the war, Purks said, the program had only two balloons
remotely serviceable. Only months earlier, there had been eight
balloons fully operational.
But after the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, the program was in such
disarray that a frustrated Lowe returned to Washington and Gen. Hooker
refused to even discuss balloon operations. By August, the corps was
Purks said the balloon program was enthusiastically supported early in
the war by both President Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan, the
commander of the Army of the Potomac. Observation balloons were used
successfully in Northern Virginia and also during the 1862 Peninsula
Campaign east of Richmond.
"The aeronautical corps provided some good intelligence and also forced
the Confederates to camouflage their operations," said Purks. "There
were times the Confederates did not even light fires because they could
be seen by the balloons."
Purks said balloonists also could direct artillery from the air.
"But it became a problem that reports weren't taken seriously," he
said. "Many in the military looked at the balloonists as "carnival
people.' In hindsight, what they should have done was assign a cavalry
officer to each balloon and standardize a procedure for gathering
Don Pfanz, a historian with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, agreed.
"One of the problems was that you could only go up on certain days
because of the weather," he said in a phone conversation last week. "It
was also difficult to see anything in heavily wooded areas. Plus, the
people manning the balloons were not trained intelligence officers-
Lowe certainly was not. So, they didn't always know the significance of
what they were seeing.
"Overall, the balloons had some potential, but it was never realized."
The aeronautical corps was a civilian organization under the authority
of the Union's Bureau of Topographical Engineers. Purks said each
balloon required about 30 men, 10 wagons and 25 horses or mules. He
said most of the balloons were made of Indian silk, when it was
available, then covered with a tarlike mixture and filled with hydrogen
gas from a portable generator.
Purks said the observation balloons usually were launched to a height
of about 1,500 feet and were tethered by heavy ropes. He described the
dimensions of one of Lowe 's balloons, the "Enterprise," as being 60
feet in diameter, 45 feet in height and requiring about 25,000 cubic
feet of gas.
In his presentation, Purks will discuss several sites in Stafford where he suspects Union observation balloons were launched.
These include the site of the Phillips house on Northside Drive near
Chatham, two locations near Falmouth, a site near White Oak Church, one
in the Sherwood Forest area, one near Banks Ford and another near North
Stafford High School.
He also will describe what could be the nation's first "aircraft
carrier"-a coal barge that was rebuilt to accommodate observation
balloons and traveled down the Potomac River as far as Quantico Creek.
Purks grew up in Stafford and is now retired after a 28-year career in
the Army. He is active in several historical groups and frequently
speaks throughout the region.
He certainly will be a frequent "flier" in the coming weeks, with seven
appearances scheduled to talk about balloon operations during the Civil
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