PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
THE CIVIL WAR YEARS
Unplanned Flight of General Fitz John Porter - April 11, 1862
The War of the Aeronauts, pages 181-183
Porter's adventure actually started around 5 am. He had told James Allen the previous day that he wished to make a pre-dawn reconnoiter to gauge Confederate activity in the area. Allen was aware that a greater observation point could be obtained by gaining more altitude with the Intrepid. Although Lowe always insisted that three, and sometimes four tethers be used on ascensions, Allen reasoned that by going with a single tether the weight of the additional ropes could be eliminated, thus allowing the balloon to achieve greater heights.
Unknown to Allen, however, was the fact that acid from one of the hydrogen generators was "accidentally" spilled on the single tether rope prior to the ascent that morning. The exact nature of the spillage was never determined, although Confederate sabotage was considered a strong possibility. Regardless, General Porter was already in the Intrepid's control basket as Allen was making final preparations to join him. Suddenly, a loud crack - like the sound of a pistol shot - rang out as the single mooring rope snapped. The Intrepid was aloft and out of control.
Those on the ground were helpless to do anything as Porter and Intrepid rapidly rose into the air. But the general himself was hardly fazed. While he realized the predicament he was in, he had also ascended dozens of times with Lowe and his assistants and was familiar with the sensations and mechanics of a balloon. Even as the Intrepid began to drift over Confederate lines, Porter remained calm.
"I took good observations, some notes, but mainly instantaneous impressions like a photographic instrument," he said. "I had the enemy's position and defenses so grafted on my mind that when I descended I was able to give a good sketch of everything."
Gradually the balloon began to drift over Union lines once again, where Porter was able to determine a safe spot to land. Although he had often witnessed Lowe and his assistants prepare for a landing, his lack of experience in aeronautics almost proved to be his undoing. Reaching for the rope that lead to the control valve, Porter started to bleed off hydrogen gas in order to make a landing. However, the general bled off too much gas all at once.
"The general in his eagerness to come to the ground had opened the valve until all the gas escaped," Lowe observed. "The balloon was constantly falling but the silk was kept extended, and presented so large a surface to the atmosphere that it served the purpose of a parachute, and consequently the descent was not rapid enough to be dangerous."
Lowe went on to remark that, "a balloon suddenly relieved of its gas will always form a half sphere, provided it has a sufficient distance to fall in, to condense a column of air under it. A thousand feet, I presume, would be sufficiently high to effect this and to make the descent in safety."
Porter was no worse for wear when Lowe and Union pickets caught up with him. The Intrepid was also fortunately spared any damage. Still, as Lowe was to learn, the main injury that had occurred was not physical in nature, but more psychological.
General McClellan, who was one of Lowe's most ardent supporters, summed up the feeling that many Union officers had in the aftermath of the accident, in a letter written to his wife that same day: I am just recovering from a terrible scare. Early this morning I was awakened by a dispatch from Fitz Johns Hd Qtrs, stating that Fitz had made an ascension in the balloon & that the balloon had broken away & come to ground some 3 miles SW - which would be within the enemy's lines! You can imagine how I felt! I at once sent off to the various pickets to find out what they knew, & try to do something to save him - but the order had no sooner gone, than in walks Mr. Fitz just as cool as casual - he had luckily come down near my own camp after actually passing over that of the enemy!! You may rest assured of one thing: you won't catch me in the confounded balloon nor will I allow any other Generals to go up in it!
Lowe immediately recognized the reluctance on the part of the officers to have anything more to do with ballooning. "I found it difficult to restore confidence among the officers as to the safety of this means of observation on account of this accident," he said. "But the explanations and the personal ascensions I made, gradually secured a return of their favor."
On the 11th of April  at five o'clock, an event at once amusing and thrilling occurred at our quarters. The commander-in-chief had appointed his personal and confidential friend, General Fitz John Porter, to conduct the siege of Yorktown. Porter was a polite, soldierly gentleman, and a native of New Hampshire, who had been in the regular army since early manhood. He fought gallantly in the Mexican war, being thrice promoted and once seriously wounded, and he was now forty years of age, handsome, enthusiastic, ambitious, and popular. He made frequent ascension with Lowe, and learned to go aloft alone. One day he ascended thrice, and finally seemed as cozy at home in the firmament as upon the solid earth. It is needless to say that he grew careless, and on this particular morning leaped into the car. and demanded the cables to be let out with all speed. I saw with some surprise that the flurried assistants were sending up the great straining canvas with a single rope attached. The enormous bag was only partially inflated, and the loose folds opened and shut with a crack like that of a musket. Noisily, fitfully, the yellow mass rose into the sky, the basket rocking like a feather in the zephyr; and just as I turned aside to speak to a comrade, a sound came from overhead, like the explosion of a shell, and something striking me across the face laid me flat upon the ground.
Half blind and stunned, I staggered to my feet, but the air seemed full of cries and curses. Opening my eyes ruefully, I saw all faces turned upwards, and when I looked above, the balloon was adrift.
The treacherous cable, rotted with vitriol, had snapped in twain; one fragment had been the cause of my downfall, and the other trailed, like a great entrails from the receding car, where Fitz John Porter was bounding upward upon a Pegasus that he could neither check nor direct.
The whole army was agitated by the unwonted occurrence. From battery No. 1, on the brink of the York, to the mouth of Warwick river, every soldier and officer was absorbed. Far within the Confederate lines the confusion extended. We heard the enemy's alarm-guns, and directly the signal flags were waving up and down our front.
The General appeared directly over the edge of the car. He was tossing his hands frightfully, and shouting something that we could not comprehend.
"O-pen-the-valve! " called Lowe, in his shrill tones; "climb-to-the-netting-and-reach-the-valve-rope." "The valve!-the valve!" repeated a multitude of tongues, and all gazed with thrilling interest at the retreating hulk that still kept straight upward, swerving neither to the east nor the west.
It was a weird spectacle,-that frail, fading oval, gliding against the sky, floating in the serene azure, the little vessel swinging silently beneath, and a hundred thousand martial men watching the loss of their brother in arms, but powerless to relieve or recover him. Had Fitz John Porter been drifting down the rapids of Niagara, he could not have been so far from human assistance. But we saw him directly, no bigger than a child's toy, clambering up the netting and reaching for the cord.
"He can't do it," muttered a man beside me; "the wind blows the envelope to and fro, and only a spry, cool-headed fellow can catch it."
We saw the General descend, and appearing again over the edge of the basket, he seemed to be motioning to the breathless hordes below, the story of his failure. Then he dropped out of sight, and when we next saw him, he, as reconnoitering the Confederate works through a long black spy-glass. A gloat laugh went up and down the lines as this cool procedure was observed, aid then a cheer of applause ran from group to group. For a moment it was doubtful that the balloon would float in either direction; it seemed to falter, like an irresolute being, and moved reluctantly southeastward, towards Fortress Monroe. A huzza, half uttered, quivered on every lip. All eyes glistened, and some were dim with tears of joy. But the wayward canvas now turned due westward, and was blown rapidly toward the Confederate works. Its course was fitfully direct, and the wind seemed to veer often, as if contrary currents, conscious of the opportunity, were struggling for the possession of the daring navigator. The south wind held mastery for awhile, and the balloon passed the Federal front amid a howl of despair from the soldiery. It kept right on, over sharpshooters, rifle-pits, and outworks, and finally passed, as if to deliver up its freight, directly over the heights of Yorktown.
The cool courage, either of heroism or despair, had seized upon Fitz John Porter. He turned his black glass upon the ramparts and masked cannon below, upon the remote camps, upon the beleaguered town, upon the guns of Gloucester Point, and upon distant Norfolk. Had he been reconnoitering from a secure perch at the tip of the moon, he could not have been more vigilant, and the Confederates probably thought this some Yankee device to peer, into their sanctuary in despite of ball or shell. None of their great guns could be brought to bear upon the balloon; but there were some discharges of musketry that appeared to have no effect, and finally even these demonstrations ceased. Both armies in solemn silence were gazing aloft, while the imperturbable mariner continued to spy out the land.
The sun was now rising behind us, and roseate rays struggled up to the zenith, like the arcs made by showery bombs. They threw a hazy atmosphere upon the balloon, and the light shone through the network like the sun through the ribs of the skeleton ship in the Ancient Mariner. Then, as l looked agape, the air-craft "plunged, and tacked, and veered," and drifted rapidly toward the Federal lines again.
The allelujah that now went up shook the spheres, and when he had regained our camp limits, the General was seen clambering up again to clutch the valve-rope. This time he was successful, and the balloon fell like a stone, so that all hearts once more leaped up, and the cheers were hushed. Cavalry rode pell-mell from several directions, to reach the place of descent, and the General's personal staff galloped past me like the wind, to be the first at his debarkation. I followed the throng of soldiery with due haste, and came up to the horsemen in a few minutes. The balloon had struck a canvas tent with great violence, felling it as by a bolt, and the General, unharmed, had disentangled himself from innumerable folds of oiled canvas, and was now the cynosure of an immense group of people. While the officers shook his hands, the rabble bawled their satisfaction in hurrahs, and a band of music marching up directly, the throng on foot and horse gave him a vociferous escort to his quarters.
George Alfred Townsend - "Campaigns of a Non-Combatant"
IN FRONT OF YORKTOWN, Saturday, April 12, 1862.
The New York Times
Friday night I availed myself of Capt. GRIFFIN's hospitality, and spread my rubber blanket on the floor of his tent, and put a pair of boots under my head for a pillow. This was a pretty good beginning for a night's rest. But unfortunately my bed-clothing gave out at this point. The Captain and his estimable Lieutenant, KINGSBURT, (may they never lack boots or blankets in this world of any other!) saw my quandary, and each contributed a quilt from his own bed to perfect my lodging. One folded beneath me, and one spread over my wearied frame, made my outfit complete and with a felling of contentment and dolce far niente, far beyond anything I had for a long time enjoyed on feathers, I resigned myself to rest and slumber. The other camp-lodgers had rolled themselves in their blankets and gone to the ground before me. I had prudently waited to see how the things was done, so that I might not betray any awkwardness in my bed-making. At last we were all in place, with our feet to the camp-stove in the centre, the light extinguished, and sleep creeping slowly over the group. Just then a sharp volley of rifle-shots was heard, too significant to pass unheeded. Capt. GRIFFIN chuckled with the satisfaction of an inborn artillerist, as he exclaimed: "There they go, give it to 'em boys," -- adding in explanation to the rest of us that the rebels had come out of their intrenchments in the day to plant a battery in the peach-orchard that lay between their camp and ours, but that BERDAN's Sharpshooters had driven them away; that doubtless they were trying to finish their work under cover of night, and our sharpshooters in the peach-orchard were driving them away. Feeling sure that this work would not be neglected, we resigned our cause into the hands of BERDAN's corps, and soon were fast asleep.
By daylight in the morning we were all awakened by the most terrific braying of a thousand mules in the camps around -- the most plaintive monotones, mingled with the most 'harsh' and startling snorts. But all meant one thing only, the want of fodder -- for they had been living eight days on two days' rations. No wonder they whinnied and cried, as if each had lost his respected father. The first one of our party that rose next morning brought us all to our feet and to the door of the tent, in camp deshabille, with the exclamation that a balloon was loose in the upper air. It floated majestically, and rose rapidly some miles to the south and east of us. We were startled by the announcement made soon after, that it bore aloft Gen. FITZ JOHN PORTER, commanding the division that we were in, that he was alone, and the rope that bound the balloon to the earth had broken. The balloon continued to ascend after we learned this, and as it was apparently too high already for observations on land, we did not doubt, the news, and began to fear greatly lest the luckless air-ship should land our General among the rebels. Soon we saw, however, that the General was master of his position in the air, as he generally is of that on land; for he had evidently opened the valve and let out a large quantity of gas, and the flaccid bag began to descend rapidly to the earth. Our next fear was that he would not know how to moderate his descent, and be shattered by his precipitate fall. There was reason to fear this, as the event proved; for we learned about an hour afterward that he had come down so violently as to hurt one of his sides for some time.
This camp incident being over, we dressed ourselves, and addressed ourselves to the duty of getting breakfast. We had as good a meal as many in far more favorable circumstances. Among our delicacies were fried oysters, caught fresh from their beds in York River, and hot corn cakes. These oysters were part of the wealth of Old Virginia, on the catching of which, by Yankees, Gov. WISE proposed to place a tax, to help support the broken-down treasury of the State. Let him consider that the party of Capt. GRIFFIN's tent owe him an abolus for Friday's breakfast, which the Captain will pay in Spartan coin on demand.
Breakfast being disposed of, my host informed me that there was a point on York River bank, a mile or so from our camp, from which I could get a good view of Yorktown and Gloucester Point, on the opposite shore; and I gladly accepted his pilotage to visit the spot. It was considered a very little bit hazardous, as the point was in easy range of the enemy's shells. Whether for this reason or not, I do not know, but the Surgeon of the Griffin Battery volunteered to accompany us. I thought he might be useful, as well as an agreeable member of the party. We headed two creeks in our ride before we could make our desired position, which was a a large frame farm-house on the shore of York River,not more than a mile and a half from the most formidable redoubt of the Yorktown fortifications, and not more than half a mile from our camp, though we had ridden three miles to reach it. On nearing the house,we were directed by our leader to approach singly, and to tie our horses in separate places. A "solitary horseman" may be an important feature in a novel of Mr. JAMES, but it takes several men and horses to be worth a shot from a battery. The farm-house belongs to a Mr. FARMHOLT. He had taken refuge in Yorktown, from which we inferred his rebel politics. But he had his wife on the place, or she had chosen to stay to look after the few contrabands roaming idly about. Mayhap, I thought to myself, she will be able to pick up, occasionally, a little National news and communicate it to her husband. In possible nocturnal visits to the old farm. To be sure, we had two pickets on the spot, but pickets are sometimes not sharp enough to see everything. Mrs. F. had removed from the mansion, and taken up her quarters in a negro hut a hundred yards distant, giving as a reason, the fear that the house would be shelled from Yorktown, or by our gunboats.
From the second-story windows of this house, by the aid of glasses, we got views of the immense earthworks of Yorktown. They seem to be wonderfully strong. The walls are high and thick, surrounded by a moat, and having sally-ports and draw[???]. It seemed impossible that any army could carry the fortifications by assault. They must be reduced by siege guns and mortars -- making them, by the flight of hot shot and shells over the ramparts, too hot to hold their defenders. There are the usual defences of masked batteries and rifle-pits outside of the works. Heavy 18 1 or 24-pound columbiads, placed en barbatte, command the river and shore approach, while a water battery can rake the waters in any direction. Yorktown stands on a bluff thirty or forty feet high, apparently. Gloucester Point opposite, is about on the same level. It has lately been crowned with strong earthworks, and has on the beach, immediately opposite the Yorktown wharf, a beautifully constructed water battery with seven embrasures. The river just here is only about three-quarters of a mile wide. Gloucester was the first place seized by Gen. WASHINGTON, in his celebrated siege and capture of the British army, at Yorktown, in the Revolution. It was a part of Gen. MCCLELLAN's plan to have seized it also: but the remarkable change of the limits of his Department, and the diversion of the troops to another field, after he went forth to consummate his campaign, is said here to have thwarted his purpose. With our glasses, from the Farmholt House, we could easily trace the old earthwork built by the British, now covered with the smooth, green rod. We could see the soldiers and the contrabands lazily lounging on the sand-bags of the water battery, or loitering on the wharf, gazing down the river at four of our gunboats, lying like black watch-dogs below. There were two schooners at the wharf, that had apparently just been discharged, whether of men or food we could not tell. There were, in all, twenty-five schooners and other water-craft in sight, the majority of which had no doubt been used to bring reinforcements of rebels to Yorktown.
While we were intently studying these strongholds, a heavy gun was fired. I saw the flash, and the magnificent whirl of the white eddying smoke high in air, and in a moment the roar, of the rude monster burst upon the ear. We did not see where the shot fell, but concluded it was a little safer to go outside of the old wooden mansion, if a shell was at all likely to burst into it. We therefore sought our horses as cautiously as we left them, and took leave of the pleasing rebel landscape -- not, however, until I had tried to make a crayon sketch of it, which I turned over to that talented and enthusiastic young artist, ARTHUR LUMLEY, of the New-York Illustrated News, to be elaborated into a presentable picture for the patrons of that magazine. Do yourself the pleasure to buy a copy of the next number, and judge of the merits of our joint skill.
On our return to camp, we visited a rebel fort, small in size but formidable in structure, that it rebels had built during the Winter, but abandoned on the approach of our army. It was doubtless part of the line of defences by which they expected to prevent any approach of hostile forces to the rear of Yorktown -- to the ground now occupied by our army. It was a square earthwork, covering about an acre of ground, surrounded by a broad, deep ditch, full of water, and having an entrance in the rear by a draw, or rather a pole bridge, that could in a moment be displaced.
It was 2 o'clock before we got back to camp from our reconnoissance, and as I had determined to go to Ship Point that night, ten miles over that dreadful road that I have once before described, I had barely time to call over at Gen.MCCLELLAN's new camp, just moved up to this admirable region, to find all hands industriously engaged in pitching their tents. They were greatly elated on their removal from the fields of mud below. While here, I saw a dispatch just received from Gen. WOOL, announcing the exploit of the rebel fleet in capturing the schooners near Newport's News. This intelligence increased my anxiety to get off to Old Point, for we all considered another battle of the iron monsters imminent, and I trusted to be there to see it.
How I traveled again over that road -- how I sought transportation on the ocean steamer Daniel Webster, from Ship Point to Fortress Monroe -- how kindly Capt. J.H. BLETHEN assisted my endeavors for the sake of the NEW-YORK TIMES -- all this, and more, must be reserved for another letter. YORK.
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