Civil War balloons: not for kids
Redlands Daily Facts (CA) - Saturday, October 3, 2009
Author: JEFFREY SMITH for the Daily Facts

Next Saturday, Oct. 10, for the A.K. Smiley Public Library's Family Day, the Lincoln Memorial Shrine will give away biodegradable balloons with a picture of Lincoln on them, which may get some thinking about the idea of balloons in general.

Ballooning itself originated in France, as did ostensibly everything else, according to most Frenchmen. For on Aug. 23, 1783, Jacques Charles began the four-day process of filling his aptly named Globe with 22,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. Once inflated, the balloon was foolhardily albeit safely transported by torchlight to the Champ de Mars in Paris.

Four thousand Parisians swelled the field waiting in anticipation of the historic event, however the fates seemed against the endeavor, as cloud cover and rain persisted throughout the morning and afternoon. Nevertheless, spying a break in the weather, at 5 o'clock in the evening Charles launched the unmanned Globe, and with it the beginning of gas-filled balloon aviation.

One spectator remarked the Globe, "rose majestically in a shower of rain," slipping out of sight and into clouds some 2,000 feet above. From there the exact flight path of the Globe is unknown, but it landed the next morning 15 miles away in the French village of Gonesse. Horrified villagers crept up and encircled the Globe. Believing the contraption to be the work of the devil, they mercilessly destroyed the balloon, rendering it unsalvageable.

The next step of manned flight was so obvious that another Frenchman, Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier, etched his name in the history books as the first human aerialist three months later in November 1783. Unfortunately, de Rozier is also in the aviation record books a second time. For on June 15, 1785, while he was attempting to cross the English Channel, de Rozier's hydrogen balloon ignited at 3,000 feet above the ground, ensuring his notoriety as the world's first air fatality.

Despite the Globe's ignominious fate and de Rozier's demise, "balloon fever" swept Europe and of course the fledgling United States. On this side of the pond, ballooning took on more frivolity until the 1860s.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, several balloonists attempted to ply their trade in support of the Union. Yet, despite the use of balloons for spotting of troop locations in the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th century, the idea of ballooning for military purposes was still something of a novelty.

Nevertheless, during the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy employed balloons for reconnaissance to varying degrees of success. The first to receive orders from President Lincoln was balloonist John Wise. However, the appointment was short lived as Wise was nowhere to be found on July 19, 1861, for the first battle of Bull Run.

Into this breach stepped competing balloonist Thaddeus Lowe , who commenced inflating Wise's balloon. However, at the last minute and in dramatic fashion, Wise appeared, demanding Lowe step aside, completing the last few preparations himself.

A righteous and indignant Wise then proceeded to transport the inflated balloon to the front in Centreville, Va., only to have it curiously escape its tethers, thus forcing the Union troops to shoot it down to prevent it from floating into Confederate hands. The balloon unceremoniously crashed to earth, and with it Wise's dreams. Fortunately, not all of the Union's attempts at ballooning ended in failure.

Balloonists Thaddeus Lowe and John LaMountain each successfully carried out reconnaissance activities for the Union during the war, but Lowe would receive the lion's share of the historical credit, thus relegating LaMountain to footnote status.

Overcoming such seemingly terminal setbacks as accidentally self-piloting an untethered balloon from Ohio into Confederate South Carolina instead of his intended destination of Washington, D.C., in April 1861, Lowe was nevertheless able to obtain the position of chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps from President Abraham Lincoln.

"Professor" Lowe , as he came to be called, persuaded Lincoln to make the appointment thanks to some influential friends and a demonstration of his balloonist skills in which he sent Lincoln the first aerial telegraph to the White House from his balloon 500 feet above Washington, D.C.

Lincoln instantly recognized the military potential of the new technology and ordered the creation of the Union Army Balloon Corps with Lowe as its chief aeronaut, a decision that paid quick dividends.

On Sept. 24, 1861, near Arlington, Va., Lowe began telegraphing, from his vantage point of more than 1,000 feet, locational intelligence on Confederate troop positions at Falls Church, Va., more than three miles away. Union troops aimed their cannons to the southwest and accurately fired on the Confederate position without actually being able to see it - a first in the history of warfare.

This display also impressed a visiting young German count named Ferdinand von Zeppelin who would later design the aircraft that bore his name. Lowe and his Balloon Corps continued to provide crucial and timely intelligence during battles at Yorktown, Fredericksburg and Fair Oaks. Understandably, the continued aerial observations had an aggravating effect on Confederate morale and strategic planning.

By the beginning of 1862, Confederate troops began constructing "quaker guns" or false gun batteries made of logs in a vain attempt to fool Union balloonists, usually failing. Other Confederate commanders banned campfires at night, an especially unpopular order, given the bitter cold of Virginia winters.

In retaliation, Confederate artillery routinely opened fire on Union balloons. However, due to the balloons' safe distance from the battlefield, Confederate shells fell safely out of range to the bemusement of Union soldiers who took bets on the accuracy of Confederate marksmen.

In an attempt to make up ground, the Confederate Army formed its own smaller and less successful version of the Balloon Corps in the spring of 1862. Overseen by Capt. John Randolph Bryan, Confederate balloons used hot air instead of hydrogen as in the north. In addition, later Confederate balloons were constructed out of multicolored silk, which gave rise to the spurious legend that Confederate balloons were made from the silk dresses of Southern bells.

Confederate balloons never saw the same level of action as their Union counterparts, and the Confederacy disbanded the operations in 1863 due to cost, capture and a change in priorities. Yet, despite the obvious military value of balloons to the Union, the Union Balloon Corps was a relatively short-lived endeavor as well.

In 1863, a Capt. Cyrus Comstock took military oversight of the Balloon Corps from the recently relieved Gen. George McClellan, and promptly cut the corps' funding and thus its effectiveness. The reduction in funding was further compounded by accusations of financial impropriety leveled against Lowe , which resulted in a reduction in his pay. An incensed Lowe resigned from the Union Balloon Corps on May 8, 1863. The Union Balloon Corps formally disbanded in August of 1863.

The military aerial reconnaissance techniques developed by Lowe garnered worldwide acclaim, with Great Britain, France and Brazil offering him an appointment as a major general if he would organize a balloon corps for them.

Having his fill of war, Lowe politely declined all offers. Perhaps seeking a warmer climate, in 1887 Lowe moved to Los Angeles and later in 1890 to Pasadena. Once in Pasadena, Lowe created a water-gas company, founded the Citizens Bank of Los Angeles and ran several other businesses including the Pasadena & Mount Wilson Railroad.

Unable to obtain the complete right of way to Mount Wilson, Lowe redirected the railway westward to Oak Mountain, which was renamed Mount Lowe in 1896. To make the name change "official," Chicago mapmaker and Altadena resident Andrew McNally had the name Mount Lowe printed on all of his maps.

Ironically, Lowe is more famous for this geographic feature than any of his Civil War ballooning exploits.