PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

THE CIVIL WAR YEARS

Source of General McClellan Being Cautious - 1862

    War of the Aeronauts, pages 177, 179-180

Advanced ground scouts were sent up the peninsula to ascertain the strength of Rebel forces. These scouts were principally the agents of Allan Pinkerton, who was regarded by many as America's foremost detective.

Unfortunately, the detective's vaunted reputation for apprehending criminals did not transfer well to the task of training and commanding field operatives to gather military information.

When Pinkerton's presented his report on the strength of Confederate forces on the eve of the invasion, the results absolutely astounded McClellan. According to Pinkerton it was possible that more than 100,000 Confederates occupied the area across the peninsula between Yorktown and the Warwick River, sealing off the route to Richmond.

Had McClellan decided to dispatch the Balloon Corps to scout the area, an aerial observation would probably have revealed the deception. But as it remained, McClellan was thoroughly convinced that his army was looking at the prospect of a bloody and prolonged siege. An advance force commanded by Fitz-John Porter was therefore sent to establish a Union position along the peninsula to try to break through the Rebel lines.

On April 4, Porter's force, together with Lowe and elements of the Balloon Corps, left Hampton and proceeded toward the outskirts of Yorktown. Lowe was in charge of the aeronautic train consisting of four army wagons and two gas generators. James Allen also accompanied Lowe during the advance.

By the afternoon of April 5, camp was established and Lowe had succeeded in inflating the Intrepid. Early the next morning Lowe made his first ascent over the Virginian peninsula.

"I ascended and remained up until after daylight, observing the campfires and noting the movements of the enemy," Lowe recalled.

After he landed Lowe personally briefed Porter on his observations. It was obvious from what Lowe had seen that the number of Confederates in the area did not match the exaggerated reports taken by Pinkerton's ground scouts, and he strongly suggested that Porter accompany him on his next ascent in order to, "judge for himself the number of the enemy and strength of their works." Porter agreed and accompanied Lowe on an ascent some 1,000 feet into the air, lasting more than an hour and forty-five minutes. Lowe noted that he and the general were probably less than a mile from the Confederate earthworks guarding Yorktown.

While Lowe made a great note of the fact that all of these observations "were of the greatest importance, and readily enabled the commanding officer to decide what course he would pursue," the reality was that McClellan remained pat. Though aerial observations revealed that Magruder's troop strength was not as formidable as first thought, McClellan opted to remain cautious with his approach toward the capture of Yorktown.

    War of the Aeronauts, pages 209; 215

Firmly entrenched on the narrow peninsula leading from Fortress Monroe, McClellan became obsessed with gathering as much information about Confederate activity as possible. Although the Balloon Corps arguably had the best vantage point from which to accurately gauge Rebel activity in the surrounding area, McClellan could not allow himself to heed the observation of just one source. Indeed, as a result of the faulty intelligence received from Allan Pinkerton's scouts and captured Rebel soldiers - as well as the clever ruse perpetrated by General Magruder in constantly shuffling his small number of men - McClellan remained convinced that his forces were outnumbered by a margin of two to one.

Patience in McClellan's assessment of the situation in Virginia was beginning to grow thin in Washington. In a telegram to McClellan sent in early April, 1862, Lincoln wrote, "You now have over 100,000 troops with you. I think you better break the enemy's line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once."

McClellan wrote to his wife afterwards, "The President ... thought I had better break the enemy's line at once! I was very much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself."

In retrospect, McClellan could have probably pushed his superior forces to break through Rebel defenses. However, cautious now to a fault, the general found himself forced to rethink his strategy. He feared a bloodbath would be awaiting his forces the closer they approached Richmond. These fears were further compounded by continuing intelligence reports fed to him by Allan Pinkerton and his agents, who had managed to convince the general that the Confederate army was now more than 120,000-men strong in Virginia - a figure inflated by at least double the actual number.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records, Series I, Volume II, Chapter 23, page 51.

INDEX PAGE

BEFORE THE WAR

CIVIL WAR YEARS

INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY

NORRISTOWN PENNSYLVANIA YEARS

PASADENA CALIFORNIA YEARS

MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY

AFTER THE RAILWAY

BOOKS ABOUT LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

EVENTS AND REUNIONS

ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY

ENCYCLOPEDIA BIOGRAPHY

ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS

LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES