PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
BEFORE THE WAR
CIVIL WAR YEARS
INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY
PASADENA CALIFORNIA YEARS
MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY
AFTER THE RAILWAY
BOOKS ABOUT LOWE
EVENTS AND REUNIONS
ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY
ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS
LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES