PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
THE CIVIL WAR YEARS
First Meeting with President Abraham Lincoln - June 11, 1861
Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 67-68
This advice I followed to the letter and on June fifth, I returned to Washington taking with me the balloon with which I had made the voyage from Cincinnati to South Carolina.
I immediately called on Professor Joseph Henry and laid my plans before him. His clear decisive mind grasped the idea at once and he assured me of his cordial support and went into the work as a patriotic duty.
I called upon Secretary Chase and he was greatly interested in my plans and promised he would take the matter up with the President.
In the meantime Professor Henry had secured the attention of the Secretary of War who asked him to make an official report on my system of aeronautics. A few days later I received the following note:
Treasury Department, Tuesday Evening,
Secretary Chase wishes you to go up to the President's House, this evening as early as you can after getting this note.
Professor Henry called on the President with me, giving the President every assurance of my scientific standing and stating I was the recognized authority in aeronautics of the day.
The President carefully went over my plans with me and said he was deeply impressed with the military possibilities of balloons, and promised to give them earnest consideration.
War Eagles Article in 1961
By Wilfrid Dellquest
One hundred years ago, a young man said to Abraham Lincoln: "The future of America lies in the air! The airship is a weapon that will help us win this war. When the war is won, airships will fly over America and carry freight and passengers from one end of our country to the other!" His voice rang with enthusiasm; his eyes were the eyes of a dreamer.
"I have heard about you," replied the president, with a flicker of amusement. "You are Thaddeus Lowe. Two years ago you were going to fly across the Atlantic in your airship, the 'City of New York'."
"I was forced down, sir, by a gale."
Lincoln's smile broadened into a grin: "You landed in South Carolina, Mr. Lowe, and the natives were going to lynch you. They thought you were the Devil. They should have known better than to think that the Devil would drop down from the skies."
"The Sheriff put me in jail to save me from the mob. It was all a misunderstanding."
Abraham Lincoln closed his eyes for a moment. Then he gazed thoughtfully at the office window where the rain was beating wildly against the pane.
"You are asking me to equip our Army with balloons to observe the movements of the enemy. I should think, Mr. Lowe, that balloons would make splendid targets."
The young man shook his head: "Balloons are not easily shot down, Mr. President. They would be fixed at altitudes beyond the range of enemy guns. There would be nothing to shoot at, except the almost invisible mooring ropes. The balloons would be equipped with telegraph wires, and our field headquarters would receive instantly reports of enemy movements. Not only that, sir, but our own artillery fire could be directed from the air."
"Mr. Lowe," said the president, "I have always been a great hand at playing hunches. This time I have a hunch that something may come out of this idea of yours. I may get cussed out for doing it, but I am going to appoint you Chief Aeronaut of the United States Army."
When Thaddeus Lowe turned the collar of his overcoat over his face and hurried out into the rain, a growing vision went with him; a vision of a new era in warfare, a dream of combat above the clouds, of a splendid winged cavalry that rode the air currents to deeds of daring and fine achievement.
In the autumn of 1861, the first United States air unit was unleashed above the battle front. It consisted of seven observation balloons, with a number of experienced aeronauts assisted by ground crews and service squads. The officers of the Signal Corps, to which the new unit was attached, were skeptical, and they were also amused. The "gas bags" became the butt for unending jokes. And then came the day when a telegram from the sky prevented Federal batteries from firing upon their own troops. When shells missed their targets, balloons corrected the range. Once when the Confederate cavalry attempted a surprise flank attack, a curt telegram from Chief Aeronaut Lowe saved the day.
The cool eyes of Thaddeus Lowe flashed with satisfaction when Major Adolphus W. Greeley, Chief Signal Officer, called him into his tent.
"You have saved our troops from destruction," he said, "by the frequent and accurate reports from your balloons. I hope and pray that your air unit will expanded until it is hastening victory in every battle zone."
The Confederates did not share Greeley's enthusiasm. They were furious. There were no effective counter measures against the "Yankee gas bags." The authorities in Richmond possessed neither materials nor aeronauts necessary to equip an air force. Instead, they posted a circular offering a standing reward of one thousand dollars in cash and military promotion for any Confederate soldier who destroyed one of the observation balloons. The reward was never earned.
The balloons continued to float mockingly just above effective range of shell fire, and air reconnaissance was launched at a sufficient distance behind the Federal lines to make capture unlikely. When the balloons were taken in and sent aloft it was usually done at night.
Soon afterwards, Lowe founded American naval aviation when he persuaded the Navy to buy and equip a ship to be used as an observation along the Potomac. The world's first "flat top" was christened "U.S.S. Parke Curtis." It was 122 feet long and cost the government $150. Confederate shrapnel hurled futilely at observation balloons launched from the "Parke Curtis" was the first anti-aircraft fire.
When the war ended, Thaddeus Lowe's adventure was promptly forgotten into military and naval records. It was destined to have a rebirth in other wars. The fledglings of 1861 grew wings. They spread over the skies of the earth with bombs in their bellies and cannon in their teeth. Lowe never lost the vision that came to him on that far off rainy day in Washington.
In 1910, when nearly eighty years old, Lowe planned an airline for regular passenger service between New York and Los Angeles. He never lived to see the fruition of his dream. Other hands and other eyes paid full homage to his faith. His epitaph is written in the crescendo of flashing wings.
BEFORE THE WAR
CIVIL WAR YEARS
INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY
NORRISTOWN PENNSYLVANIA YEARS
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