Civil War aeronauts: - Up, up and away in their dutiful balloons
Times-Courier (Charleston, IL) - Saturday, August 18, 2007

On an airfield just west of Midland, Texas, there sits a collection of vintage military aircraft. A sign at the gate welcomes visitors to "The Confederate Air Force."

And while most visitors to the place are aware of the anachronistic nature of that sign, very likely not many know that the Union Army, at least, actually did have an air force - of sorts. That was their Aeronautical Corps, otherwise called the Balloon Corps.

Organized at the outset of hostilities-and serving only during the first two years of warfare-the Yankees' Balloon Corps introduced aerial reconnaissance. The Union aeronauts were remarkably successful in spying on the positions and strength of enemy forces, and in directing artillery fire.

Most of the credit for establishing the Aeronautical Corps is due Thaddeus Lowe , an American amateur scientist who believed that, while winds near the ground blow in changing directions, high in the atmosphere a powerful current always blows west-to-east. In fact, he dreamed of one day creating a balloon capable of riding this river of air all the way to Europe.

In a practical testing of his theory, Lowe constructed a silk balloon, transported it to Cincinnati, inflated it with 30,000 cubic feet of coal gas, and, in late March of 1861, lifted off.

The 55-foot balloon silently ascended and moved speedily toward the southeast. Lowe 's only problem was with zero air temperatures-and the occasional frightened rural groundling taking futile pot shots at his towering behemoth. Safely crossing western Virginia and North Carolina, Lowe neared the Atlantic Coast.

After adjustments were made, the balloon descended and changed to a southwesterly course. Ending up over South Carolina, Lowe was delighted to find his theory confirmed.

However, South Carolina was not a safe place for any Yankee to land early in April of 1861. Indeed, one Carolinian opined that the Northerner should be shot on the spot. Others urged a hanging, or at least tar-and-feathers. Lowe was jailed. Finally, an innkeeper who had read of Professor Lowe 's aerial experiments vouched for Lowe 's innocence. Lowe and his balloon were given safe transport home.

After Fort Sumter was fired upon, Lowe set about convincing the Union Army that balloons could well serve military needs. He wrote to President Lincoln, explaining how a battery-powered airborne telegraph wire could relay vital information to Yankee forces on the ground. Lincoln invited Lowe to breakfast, and expressed interest in his proposal.

To help convince skeptics, Lowe inflated his tethered balloon near Falls Church, Virginia, and rode it to an elevation of three miles. From that height he observed enemy encampments not far west of Washington, D. C.

However, even with that demonstration, plus Lincoln's encouragement, Lowe 's success was not assured.

"My troubles had barely begun, so cumbersome was the official machinery, so interwoven the red tape," he complained.

Most top military men of that era were traditional soldiers, with no time for innovations - especially because tethered balloon rides before then had been associated only with circuses and carnivals. Eventually George B. McClellan, commander of the Union army, granted Lowe military status with the Bureau of Topographical Engineers - but no officer's commission to go with it.

A balloon launched and manned by John La Mountain soon proved of value at Fortress Monroe, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. La Mountain was only one of a dozen trained balloonists that volunteered their services-all as civilians. As such, if captured by the Rebels, they were liable to be executed as spies.

Several generals (including George Armstrong Custer) also rode the winds without incident. However, General Fitz-John Porter one dawn nearly suffered disaster when, without assistance, he took off by himself. The frayed tether broke, sending him in free flight over Confederate lines. Fortunately, the wind changed and deposited him safely back within the Yankee encampment.

While early ascensions were made near cities where the balloons could be inflated with commercial coal gas (and laboriously transported to battlefields), Lowe invented a device to produce gas in the field. Glass containers of sulfuric acid were dumped into tanks filled with iron filings, and the resulting hydrogen was piped directly into the balloons. Although both hydrogen and coal gas were flammable, there were never any fires or explosions.

Underway, flammability was not the only danger. Rebel snipers tried to pick off the aeronauts, and enemy artillery often opened up. However, the balloons were usually launched at sufficient distance to avoid gunfire, although the cannonades did manage to tear up staging areas.

To save weight, the baskets dangling beneath the balloons were only knee-high, requiring passengers to grasp ropes for safety. These aircraft were decorated for identification. Stellar names adorned them: "Constitution," Intrepid," "Union," "Mayflower," "Washington," "Eagle." Signal flags were used to direct ground crews.

Aeronauts gave meritorious service during the Union triumph at Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River. Later, Lowe himself was involved in ascensions in support of McClellan's ill-begotten campaign on the Yorktown Peninsula.

During that campaign the Confederates helped protect Richmond with two balloons of their own - both of them inflated only with hot air. One was made from multi-colored, wildly-patterned yardage. The Northern press lampooned it as "the Silk Dress Balloon."

Lowe and his balloon served General Burnside twice: once during Burnside's disastrous assault on a stone wall at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the second time in that same town, while General Hooker was being whipped by Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville, not far upriver.

Unhappily for the aeronauts, their unit early in 1863 was placed under Cyrus Comstock, an "old school" captain with no interest in balloons. He made demands of Lowe that were impossible to fulfill. Lowe resigned and the Balloon Corps lost both its support and its unique mission.

However, the American balloonists' effort was not entirely in vain. During the war a German count had spent several months observing Union balloons in action. Returning to Germany, he founded a company which long later produced dirigibles named after himself: Zeppelins.

Considering that one of those dirigibles was the "Hindenburg," it is obvious that Zeppelin's company, like Lowe 's career, also had its ups and downs.