The Problem of the Independent Free-Flying John La Mountain - 1861/1862

Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, page 73

    Then as I mentioned in one of the foregoing chapters, there were aeronauts other than I in Washington competing for the position I hoped to attain. Mr. Wise and Mr. La Mountain were the two most prominent. Mr. Wise had won considerable distinction in his profession. Mr. La Mountain was simply a balloonist. Neither had the least idea of the requirements of military ballooning nor the gift of invention which later made it possible for me to achieve success.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 87-89

    Delays, however, seemed inevitable. In his eagerness to perform government service, La Mountain had far overstated the readiness of his equipment, and also lacked funds with which to procure materials necessary for the manufacture of hydrogen. He proceeded to New York and attempted to secure an order from the military authorities there for its supply, but was informed that such orders and requisitions came only from Washington. Having borrowed money from his friend Gager to transport his balloons to New York City, and for passage to Washington, La Mountain then hurried to the Capital and sought an interview with Secretary Cameron, in which he asked for inflating materials amounting to about five hundred dollars. There were, he pointed out to the Secretary, no gas works at Fortress Monroe, and the operations desired by General Butler could not be effected without the supplies La Mountain requested. Cameron, though his subordinates in the War Office had ignored La Mountain's previous letters with stony indifference, received the aeronaut graciously and lent a sympathetic ear to his troubled. His answer was quite favorable, as quoted by La Mountain to Butler: "If General Butler, General McDowell, or any of the Generals should want a balloon attached to their camps, all that they would have to do would be to order whatever they might want. It is for them to say what they think they need." La Mountain also quoted the Secretary as favoring military balloon reconnaissance, and as considering such experiments as La Mountain was about to make, "well worth a trial."

    The glowing terms with which La Mountain had described his portable generating apparatus, however, proved to be utterly without foundation. In explaining the delay in reporting for duty at Fortress Monroe, and the necessity of his negotiations with Secretary Cameron, he frankly admitted to Butler that his generator was not as efficient as he had represented it to be, and informed the General that "I dare not rely entirely upon it, as I have had of late some trouble with my experiments, and have concluded to adopt the old method which I have used for years."

    In this communication appealing for supplies, appeared the first official expression of the professional jealousy that marked La Mountain's attitude towards a contemporary aeronaut, T.S.C. Lowe, who was then pressing applications for military service. This attitude was fully shared by the latter, who at times repaid it with interest. Later developments in the work of the two men will demonstrate this unfortunate element far more clearly, but its first manifestation in connection with their war service was displayed in La Mountain's request for Butler's assistance, in which he expressed complete contempt for the use of telegraph with balloons. On June 18 Lowe had completed his successful demonstration of aerial telegraph in Washington in the presence of President Lincoln, Secretary Cameron, Professor Henry, and several ranking army officers. The experiment was acclaimed all over the country as a major step in the advancement of military science. On June 25 La Mountain stated to Butler that he could see neither value nor advantage in employing telegraph for communication between observers and headquarters. "I have a simple method by which I can convey intelligence from above without any expense whatever," was his challenge to Lowe's recent accomplishment. La Mountain's opinion notwithstanding, the efficiency, value and advantages of aerial telegraph were established and proven in three major campaigns, and were regarded as a necessity by ranking generals of the army long after their critic had been dismissed from the service.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 111-112

    Having accomplished this mission, Butler was then ordered to Washington. It does not appear that Butler made any arrangement with Wool, either before or after his departure from the Department, concerning La Mountain's continued service. In fact Wool seems to have had no knowledge of La Mountain or of his relationship with Butler's command. He later stated that he had been given "no instructions, and find none here (Fortress Monroe) on the subject." (webmaster note: Apparently General Butler did not want anything more to do with the smooth-talking John La Mountain)

    La Mountain, however, evidently believed all arrangements had been made with the new department commander, and proceeded to prepare his generator and large balloon for service. On September 2 he wrote Wool explaining that he had been unavoidably delayed in his preparations. He had found that a larger engine and boiler were necessary for the successful functioning of his field generator. The purchase and connection of equipment required more time. Also, he had suffered severe burns about the face from the accidental igniting of hydrogen during his experiments with gas manufacture. Infection had set in, and his physician advised that he delay his departure for active duty until the wounds should be healed. On the 6th he again addressed assurances to Wool that he would soon be physically able to report for duty, and in the meanwhile sent his partner, Francis Raveneth, whom the zealous citizens of Lansingburgh had previously denounced as a Confederate spy, to collect the amount of his statement of expenses rendered to Butler on the 13th of August.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 116-119

    During the interview with Lowe in Porter's tent at Fort Corcoran, La Mountain had again brought forward his spectacular scheme of free aerial reconnaissance that he had previously recommended to Butler. The bombing of enemy camps and positions, however, does not seem to have been considered. The idea of free observation was not original, having been suggested by Wise as early as the previous June. The plan consisted of ascending at a time when the wind was blowing towards the enemy lines, and when at a satisfactory elevation, casting off from the mooring cables in order to be carried directly over the enemy positions.

    The advantages of close vertical observation afforded by such a plan are obvious. But the difficulties of making the scheme work satisfactorily were many. With all other factors completely favorable, the relative positions of the opposing armies became a condition precedent to any possibility of the system being feasible. Only when the Union lines were east of the Confederate positions could La Mountain's scheme of using the easterly current even be considered. Such an arrangement though present in the situation around Washington in the summer and fall of 1861, could not be expected to remain permanent throughout the war; nor was it likely that the tactical situations governing future operations would continue to conform to the geographical requirements of La Mountain's plan. Then too, there were technical difficulties which seriously detracted from the efficiency of the free reconnoitering service.

    In the first place, the observer had no communication with the ground troops, and any discoveries of importance that might require immediate action on the part of the observer's superiors would become useless whenever time should be the essence of successful action. Lack of adequate control in direction was also a serious disadvantage. Winds are seldom so constant and invariable as to permit direction control of a free balloon to the extent needed for such operations as La Mountain intended to make.

    A further disadvantage was to be found in the necessity of discharging gas in order to descend. This procedure inevitably left the aeronaut with a deflated envelope, often at considerable distance from his headquarters and source of gas. The time lost as a result might well destroy the value of the service performed. The system also entailed a continual waste of gas, thus adding constantly to the expense of operations, a factor in argument often raised against the use of balloons with the army.

    Still another weakness was the fact that the aeronaut alone was to be the observer of the enemy positions. In the use of captive balloons, engineer officers and the generals themselves often accompanied the aeronaut, or went aloft alone. With these considerations, plus the fact that La Mountain's system required daring operations of untried practicability, may lie the answer why ranking commanders did not send their subordinates to participate in the free aerial excursions. Another logical reason may be found in the fact that the added weight of an additional observer would have been a disadvantage, since La Mountain needed all the buoyancy possible to reach the high altitudes required for his return flight in the upper current.

    Broadly considered, the disadvantages of La Mountain's plan overbalanced its advantages. It is perfectly obvious that La Mountain's scheme would have been utterly useless for battle reconnaissance during a moving situation. Likewise any change of position by the two armies which would remove the east-west factor would similarly render the system ineffective.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 141

    His ridicule of Lowe's civilian work before the war; his contempt of Lowe's personal integrity in the matter of planning to buy the balloons after the war for almost nothing: all these incidents indicate that La Mountain entertained personal malice towards his rival, and that he was motivated by jealousy, more so than Lowe. In fact the case was one of complete incompatibility and irreconcilable opposition, and bad blood was bound to result between the two as long as they were operating in the same vicinity.

    La Mountain's letter to Franklin on December 8, asking for one of Lowe's balloons and charging the chief aeronaut with fraudulent intentions, had received no attention from higher authority despite Franklin's indorsement. No notice was taken of the charges, and no action was taken on the request for the alleged idle balloon. On the 21st, La Mountain again addressed Franklin, this time asking for the authority to build two new balloons at government expense, and enclosed two duly executed requisition forms. In this communication La Mountain in turn sought to discredit Lowe's operations, and declared that captive ascensions were of no value compared to the advantage of free flights. Since his own beginning in army ballooning had been confined to captive operations, he was hardly consistent in theories and practice. In dismissing the work of Lowe as inferior, he also dismissed all his own operations at Fortress Monroe as similarly ineffective.

War of the Aeronauts, page 124

    In New York, La Mountain encountered a number of problems that impeded his return to Fortress Monroe, as he explained in a letter to Wool: I have been unavoidedly detained here longer than I expected when I left the Fortress, and for two reasons - 1st, I was obliged to purchase and connect to my gas apparatus a larger engine & boiler. 2nd, in conducting my final experiments, previous to my departure for the Fort, I received several severe burns in my face from a jet of gas which accidentally caught fire and having caught cold in the wounds from my experiments my Physician advises me to delay my departure for a few days. (webmaster note: John La Mountain failed in his scientific experiments)

War of the Aeronauts, pages 127-128, 133

    General Porter was quick to pick up the passion that each man held for his chosen profession, and the desire each had for his own individual success. However, as the general noted, each man presented his agenda in respect to his personal motivation: I think the Commanding General can rely upon the cordial co-operation of both to forward his view and in working for the Service. Both are zealous - Mr. La Mountain has a powerful inclination to action, the desire to obtain a subsistence, and no doubt will work to the best of his ability - of which I know nothing. Professor Lowe is also actuated by powerful motives - not the least of which is, as stated by him, to form the science of the aeronaut and to perfect to the purpose to which applied.

    La Mountain also negotiated something of a financial coup with the Union army's Quartermaster Office, when he agreed to sell both the Atlantic and Saratoga, and their attendant equipment, to the government for a sum total of $3,338.14. (webmaster note: John La Mountain was solely trying to make money off the government during a time of war)

War of the Aeronauts, page 140

    When La Mountain learned of McClellan's decision to bar him from taking the balloons, he immediately retaliated by accusing Lowe of keeping the unused balloons for purposes other than the war effort. According to the story La Mountain was spreading around, Lowe was intent on resuming his professional ballooning career after the war, and intended to use the military balloons for commercial exhibition. La Mountain also publicly scoffed at Lowe's use of the aerial telegraph, and stated that the only true way to gather aerial intelligence was by actually sailing over enemy positions in untethered freeflight, as he had done in General Franklin's service. (webmaster note: John La Mountain had no respect for authority and used false statements as a last resort)

The Eagle Aloft, pages 362-368

    With his new balloons on hand and his corps of aeronauts formed, the nation's newly appointed chief balloonist looked forward to inaugurating a new era in American military history.

    At this moment, just as Lowe was struggling to demonstrate the value of the Union Army's investment in the balloon, John La Mountain appeared like a dark cloud on his horizon. La Mountain had remained an independent civilian aeronaut, with no official relationship to any military bureau or to Lowe's organization. His only responsibility was to General Benjamin F. Butler, commander of Fort Monroe, the man who had hired him. (Webmaster note: Apparently communication was poor within the Union Army command structure)

    La Mountain had compiled an enviable record under Butler's command. Still flying the old Atlantic, constructed of bits and pieces salvaged from the giant aerostat that had carried the aeronaut from St. Louis to Henderson, New York, and then into the wilds of Canada, La Mountain had made repeated ascensions to observe Confederate positions beginning on July 31, 1861. As early as August 3, he had made tethered flights from the deck of the steam tug Fanny.

    While La Mountain failed to warn of the movement of Confederate troops advancing toward Hampton Roads on August 7, he did observe Rebel strength on the James River and noted Confederate shipping in the area. Butler flew with La Mountain, made use of his sketch maps of Southern positions, and listened with interest to his plans for a large balloon that could be used to "shell, burn, or destroy Norfolk or any city near our camps." (webmaster note: This was a rehash of John Wise's proposal during the American-Mexican war to bomb Mexican positions - War of the Aeronauts, page 100; Lowe's proposal to direct artillery fire from the air proved far more effective)

    La Mountain brought his career at Fort Monroe to a close with a night ascension on August 10. Having used up all his acid and iron, he obtained Butler's permission to return to Troy, New York, to obtain his large balloon Saratoga and a specially designed hydrogen generator that operated on the basis of the decomposition of water.

    George McClellan, "Baldy" Smith's superior and a firm supporter of T.S.C. Lowe, saw the necessity of cooperation between the newly appointed chief aeronaut and John La Mountain. McClellan instructed Fitz-John Porter to interview both aeronauts to determine whether they would be willing to cooperate. Porter regarded the meeting, which took place in Lowe's tent at Fort Corcoran, as a success. The three men agreed that while La Mountain would remain an independent employee not subject to Lowe's control, he would cooperate with the aeronauts of the corps if that became necessary. The newcomer would be carried on the rolls of the Bureau of Topographical Engineers at a salary matching Lowe's, $10 per day. He would be assigned, not to "Baldy" Smith, but to William B. Franklin's division at Cloud's Mill, Fairfax County, Virginia. (webmaster note: John La Mountain was paid the same as Thaddeus Lowe but with far less responsibilities)

    During the course of this meeting, La Mountain unveiled his plan for a series of free flights over the Confederate lines, using currents of air blowing in different directions at different altitudes to move back and forth across enemy territory. Lowe, as a result of his one unfortunate try at a free flight on June 24, was dubious. Porter, however, saw the value in conducting two aeronautical experiments, the Balloon Corps tethered operations and La Mountain's one-man foray into free-flight observations. (webmaster note: Porter did not realize that the timeliness of information would be negated with free flight operations; Lowe's warning of identity confusion among Union ground troops upon return of the balloon was ignored)

    La Mountain was back in the air for a long flight from Cloud's Mill on October 18. Passing over Confederate territory at 1,400 feet, as he later informed a reporter, he "saw distinctly every Confederate position between the (Potomac) river and the Blue Ridge." He described troop concentrations at Fairfax Station, Manassas, and Centreville, saw gun batteries on Aquia Creek, and noted the movement of several trains. (webmaster note: La Mountain apparently gave this reporter an exaggerated story as he had missed the advancement of Confederate troops on August 7th)

    Approaching Union lines, the aeronaut was "disagreeably saluted" by a volley of gunfire from the Union troops of General Louis Blenker's command. Bullets cut sections of the network, pierced the lower part of the envelope in several places and narrowly missed the aeronaut's head. Once on the ground, he was further threatened with bayonets and his balloon was vandalized. (webmaster note: Lowe had given up free flying due to a similar situation that had happened to him on June 24th and had warned La Mountain during the Porter meeting)

    La Mountain's period of successful operations was short-lived however. On November 16 the Saratoga was lost when inexperienced ground handlers allowed the balloon to escape in a high wind. Aware that he could not continue to make observations using only the ancient Atlantic gasbag, the aeronaut began to cast a covetous eye on the new balloons Lowe was storing in Washington until they could be distributed to his new aeronauts serving with other commands. (webmaster note: Lowe's organization of the Balloon Corps had eliminated inexperienced ground handlers)

    La Mountain's request to General Franklin for one of Lowe's new aerostats was accompanied by charges that the chief aeronaut was hording materials required for the full prosecution of the war effort. Franklin passed his aeronaut's message on to McClellan's headquarters with the obvious comment that La Mountain would be of little value without a new balloon. (webmaster note: Free flight ascensions were generally eliminated during the winter months and Lowe's balloons were being stored due to bad weather)

    As the controversy built toward a climax, McClellan clearly took Lowe's side. His first communication to General Franklin on the subject included an offer to replace La Mountain with one of Lowe's assistants. Franklin responded by commenting that La Mountain "appears to work energetically" and had "done as much and as intelligently as any balloonist could." McClellan, recognizing that Franklin's enthusiasm was lukewarm at best, then informed La Mountain that "all balloons shall be under the superintendence of Mr. Lowe. Upon this basis if you can come to an understanding with Mr. Lowe, it may be of interest to yourself and the service."

    La Mountain launched a second effort to capture one of Lowe's balloons in February 1862. Having failed to drum up support among the officers of Franklin's or McClellan's staffs, he now appealed directly to Major Macomb, who had replaced Whipple as the responsible balloon official in the Bureau of Topographical Engineers.

    Macomb, ignoring McClellan's preference for Lowe, ordered the chief aeronaut to turn one of his balloons over to La Mountain. When Lowe refused to accept this order, Macomb responded with a stronger note, commenting that "this matter admits of no further delay." La Mountain returned a second time to inform Macomb that "Mr. Lowe refused to recognize authority and would not obey." (webmaster note: Major Macomb refused to recognize the authority of General McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln and should have been court-marshaled)

    Lowe attempted to discuss the issues involved with Macomb but was refused an audience. He then sent Macomb a long letter, explaining that the two balloons in question, the Intrepid and a smaller craft, were required for immediate service elsewhere. This was certainly true. Moreover, Lowe called Macomb's attention to the fact that he had explained the situation to La Mountain. Compliance, he added, had simply not been possible.

    Lowe's arguments were persuasive. On February 19, 1862, McClellan overruled Macomb and ordered that La Mountain be dismissed.