PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
Off-course balloonist alarms South - First flyover accidental, later ones served Union
Washington Times, The (DC) - Thursday, October 2, 2008
Author: John Lockwood, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Thaddeus Lowe is remembered as the
aeronaut who used his balloon service to gather information about
Confederate movements during the Civil War. The war was only a few days
old, however, when he decided to try a pleasure flight, flew off course
to South Carolina and was nearly thrown into jail for spying. On
Saturday, April 20, Lowe took off from Cincinnati at 3:45 a.m. It was
the nation's first nighttime ascension. The balloon, made of oiled
silk, was 42 feet in diameter. It's name was the Enterprise. A crowd of
50 saw him off.
Taking off in a craft that the winds
could send almost anywhere wasn't the wisest thing to do just then.
Fort Sumter had fallen one week before. The long-feared Civil War
finally had started.
The ascension was a lovely spectacle.
The moon was out, and the Cincinnati Daily Commercial reported that the
little crowd saw "the large balloon sailing majestically away towards
the star-lit canopy above, its form made distinctly visible by the soft
rays of Luna, until it disappeared in the distance as a cloud melts
away into space before the rays of a summer's sun."
Lowe was entranced by the sight of
Cincinnati spread out before him, its lights twinkling in the night.
The city buildings faded away, but the lights were still visible. It
seemed to him that he was surrounded by stars everywhere, above and
below. He hoped a time would come when many people could enjoy such a
Lowe thought the wind currents would
carry him more or less east. Instead, at about 9 a.m., as he was
crossing the Appalachian Mountains, the balloon began drifting more to
the southeast. His efforts to change course failed.
By late morning, he was floating over
the South. As he drifted over a plantation, the people below yelled up
at him, threatening to destroy the "hellish contrivance." Between
threats, theyinformed him he was over Spartanburg, S.C., near the
boundary with North Carolina. Lowe continued drifting, listening to the
popping sounds of musket fire below.
When he landed about 1 p.m., he was
approached cautiously by a small group of startled Southerners of both
races and sexes, with some children present, too. He had landed in
Greenville, S.C. Some of the white men ran off for their guns but did
Lowe began packing up his equipment.
A tall, striking young woman appointed herself as his protector. She
assured Lowe he was in no real danger, for all the real men had signed
up already for the war, and only cowards were left behind.
The people were incredulous at Lowe
's claim that he had taken off from Cincinnati just nine hours earlier.
The distance was 1,200 miles, so he would have had to have traveled at
an average speed of about 132 miles an hour. Then he began passing out
copies of the April 20 Cincinnati Daily Commercial.
As the April 27 Commercial later
pointed out, "It is the first time in the history of the daily press
that it has been distributed at 1,200 miles distance from the place of
publication on the same day."
Lowe was escorted by nine men to a
town ironically named Unionville, about nine miles away. They took him
to the town jail, but the staff didn't want him or his balloon. He was
left at a hotel, where "persons of intelligence" soon showed up to
reassure him. He stayed there Sunday and was arrested Monday on
suspicion of spying.
A few scientists appeared and got
Lowe freed. The mayor gave him a passport because South Carolina was no
longer supposed to be part of the United States. Five days of railroad
trips got Lowe back to Cincinnati.
Lowe was innocent of spying in April
1861, but by July 1861, his balloon ascensions were part of the Union's
war effort - for spying on the South.
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