Lowe is Passed Over and Misses First Battle of Bull Run - July 1861

The Eagle Aloft, pages 348-352

    Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Department of Northeastern Virginia, had recently received reports suggesting that 20,000 Confederates had gathered in the area between Fairfax Court House and Manassas. McDowell ordered Whipple, then serving as topographical engineer in the area, to arrange a reconnaissance by T.S.C. Lowe.

    On the afternoon of June 22, 1861, Lowe refilled the Enterprise from a Washington Gas Company main and, with the assistance of a fifteen-man detachment from the 8th New York Infantry, moved the balloon over the Long Bridge to meet Whipple at Arlington House. Lowe apparently made one short ascent early that evening.

    By four o'clock on the morning of June 23, the aeronaut and his balloon were on the road to the observation point suggested by McDowell at Falls Church. Following a short ascent at Baileys Crossroads to determine that there were no Confederate pickets blocking the route, the party proceeded to its destination, where Lowe made a series of ascensions over the next two days.

    Several topographical officers, including Whipple, ventured aloft as well. General Daniel Tyler ordered one of his officers to produce a sketch map based on balloon observations, noting the location of distant Confederate campfires.

    Lowe's activity made believers of a number of the officers with whom he came in contact. General Tyler informed McDowell that while he had originally doubted the value of aeronautics, "the sketch map had convinced him" that "a balloon may at times greatly assist military movements." Favorable newspaper reports of Lowe's activity in Northern Virginia were also widely circulated.

    Back in Washington on June 26, Lowe continued to lobby for an official position as head of army aeronautical activity. Captain Whipple informed Lowe that the Bureau of Topographical Engineers had decided to establish an observation balloon unit. He discussed field operations with Lowe and obtained the aeronaut's estimate for the construction of a military balloon.

    Lowe's high hopes were dashed when he paid a visit to Whipple's office on June 27. The officer told Lowe that the first contract for a military balloon had been awarded to John Wise, who had underbid Lowe by some $200. The aeronaut rejected Whipple's suggestion that he might be employed to operate the Wise balloon: "To the latter part of his remarks I replied that I would not be willing to expose my life by using so delicate a machine where the utmost care in construction was required, which should be made by a person in whom I had no confidence. I assured him that I had greater experience in this business than any other aeronaut and that I would guarantee the success of the enterprise if entrusted entirely to my direction.

    Lowe obviously had little professional regard for either Wise or La Mountain, whom he considered to be his principal rivals. Wise, he admitted, "had won considerable distinction in his profession." 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."

    It was a confusing situation. Hartman Bache of the Topographical Engineers was now convinced that a balloon corps should be established, but he refused to structure a formal organization. Rather, Wise, Allen, La Mountain, and Lowe were being played against each other in the hope that the most successful aeronaut would emerge from a sort of informal competition.

    On July 8, 1861, Captain Whipple detailed Lieutenant Henry L. Abbot to call on the services of James Allen for a reconnaissance of a Confederate position near Washington. Their first attempt to inflate Allen's large balloon in the field on July 9 was plagued by the failure of the aeronaut's gas generator and the clumsiness of an inexperienced ground crew.

    Abbot attempted a tethered ascent in the half-filled balloon that day, but the craft bobbed and rocked so severely that nothing could be accomplished. Things were worse when the inept crew assigned on July 8 was replaced by a completely new group of men the following day.

    Allen's two balloons were ordered back to Alexandria, where they would be prepared to accompany General Daniel Tyler's advance division as part of the Union army's attack on the Confederate troops gathering around Manassas, Virginia.

    The smaller of Allen's two balloons burst during inflation on the morning of July 14. The large balloon in which all flights had been made to date was turned over to sixty gaudily dressed men front he 11th New York Zouaves who had been assigned to tow the craft to Tyler's headquarters at Falls Church, Virginia. The party had traveled only a short distance when a sudden gust dashed James Allen's last hope to obtain the position of chief aeronaut. Lieutenant Henry Abbot described the scene: "We carried along nearly to the point where our branch road diverged when suddenly a furious gust occurred. The detail, struggling and shouting, was slowly pulled toward the river in spite of their efforts, until the balloon in one of its stately plunges struck a telegraph pole. There was a puff of gas, and our work was ended."

    Uncertain as to the status of the Wise balloon and aware that Allen could no longer be of service, Bache had asked Lowe to join Irvin McDowell's troops moving toward Centreville and Manassas on July 17. Now with Wise on the scene, Lowe had to step aside. Engaged in filling the Enterprise at a Washington gas main near the Columbian Armory, Lowe was ordered to halt the operation so that Wise could inflate his balloon. Bache and Major Albert J. Myer, chief signal officer, had arranged for Wise and his balloon to be transported to the front by a wagon, accompanied by a squad of twenty picked men.

    The group moved through Georgetown and over the Aqueduct Bridge into Northern Virginia in the predawn hours of July 21. (webmaster note: It took John Wise nearly four days to start moving his balloon toward Manassas) After passing through Fairfax Court House on the way toward Bull Run, the party encountered more difficult terrain. The trees became so thick that Wise had to allow the balloon to rise above the branches while the handling crew struggled to maneuver it from the ground.

    By noon the noise of battle could be heard drifing in from Manassas. Hurrying toward the action, Major Myer now took command. As they moved rapidly between the trees, the balloon became wedged in the branches. During the struggle to free the craft, the bag was badly torn, forcing John Wise to return to Washington from the very edge of the battlefield.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 190-191

    Having completed the ascensions desired by General McDowell at Falls Church, Lowe returned with his balloon to Washington on June 25. Here, he hoped with the backing previously enjoyed, and with the results of the practical demonstrations he had made both at the Capital and in the field, to secure an appointment with the army and to carry out his plans for an aeronautic branch of the military service.

    At first, it appeared that his hopes would be realized. On June 26, Whipple notified him that the Topographical Bureau had decided to adopt the balloon for army service, and requested that he submit a full report on his proposal methods of operation, and an estimate of construction costs. Lowe complied at once, not knowing that the Topographical Bureau had negotiated some time before with the Lancaster aeronaut John Wise on the same subject. Much to his disappointment, Lowe learned when he later called on Whipple to ask for a decision, that the Bureau officials had decided to give the order for a government balloon to Wise.

    Lowe, however, was still convinced that he could eventually gain recognize and an appointment. He revarnished the envelope to give it greater retentive qualities, and then at his own expense began a new series of demonstrations at the grounds of the Smithsonian. A number of scientific men from this organization and army officers, among whom was Whipple, witnessed the new trials. Lowe records that the majority of these individuals strongly recommended that his system be adopted into the service.

    In the meantime preparations for General McDowell's grand movement into Virginia were nearing completion, and Wise was expected daily to report for duty with the army. But the construction of the balloon had taken longer than had been expected, and when Wise had failed to report by July 17, Whipple communicated with Lowe, directing him to join the advancing Union column. At this time, Lowe was unprepared to take the field on such short notice, and with Whipple away from Washington with the advance elements of the army, the aeronaut had difficulty in obtaining a detail to assist with inflation and transportation. He employed assistants independently to prepare the balloon for the field, and was in process of inflating it when Wise arrived in Washington. The director of the gas company then informed Lowe that Wise's balloon would be used in the campaign, and that his would not be required. Keenly disappointed, he ceased all preparations for field service.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 67-68

    There seems to have been delay in completing all the details necessary to the preparations prior to departure. Wise did not finish his arrangements and get under way until two o'clock on the morning of the 21st, the day on which McDowell's army was routed at Manassas. According to a local press notice, the plan called for Wise to march on Friday night, July 19, and reach Centreville before morning. He was expected to be ready for ascension by daylight on Saturday, the 20th, and take observations at a point two miles from the Confederate main line of resistance, carrying up with him an officer who was to signal observed movements and other details of importance to McDowell's headquarters. Thus when he did not start for the front until nearly thirty hours after the time originally appointed, the plan of operations was miscarried from the very beginning.