Lowe in Desperation to Help Army is Nearly Shot and Captured in Free Flight - July 24, 1861

Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 77-81

    The trials with which I was beset are best described in the following communication addressed to Major Bache of the Topographical Engineers.

Washington, D.C.

July 29, 1861.




    Having spent two months in Washington for the purpose of demonstrating the feasibility of balloon observations for war purposes, and thus far without any recompense, I feel it my duty, before retiring from the seat of war, to make a statement of what I have done, and what might and can be accomplished, provided the Government would furnish the necessary means, which at most is very small, compared with the results that can be attained.

    In the first place, the balloon which I have been compelled to use (for want of a more suitable one) was intended for making free voyages, in which comparatively little strength is required, and not for the purpose of ascension with ropes. On the 18th of June I inflated the balloon, and with a telegraph apparatus attached, I ascended with three persons, and demonstrated the feasibility of communicating with the earth, which at times can be rendered very useful. This inflation lasted four days although subjected to the presence of several very heavy winds. Four days afterward the balloon was again inflated and transferred fourteen miles from the place of filling, and retained its charge for several days, during which time it was let up repeatedly, and on one occasion 1,000 feet with an officer who sketched a map of the roads and of the enemy's camps at Fairfax Court House. Much greater results could have been obtained by making a free voyage at an altitude of a mile or two, and returning in the upper current towards Washington. I then gave it another coat of varnish, which much increased its retentive power, and demonstrated the utility of the balloon for the purpose of reconnaissance, to a number of gentlemen of this city on the Smithsonian grounds. After this I was suddenly required by Captain Whipple to fill my balloon and transport it into the interior of Virginia. Although this balloon was not intended for war purposes, and although I had cherished the hope of being directed to construct another, I concluded to do the best I could and accordingly set about making the necessary preparations for the voyage, but when these were completed and I was ready to start, I was unable, on account of the absence of Captain Whipple, to procure the men and means for the inflation and transportation. Not being able to obtain assistance from Captain Whipple, who was on duty, I concluded, on the advice of my friends, to inflate the balloon and procure men for its transportation on my own account, and doubting that my services would be properly appreciated, but to my disappointment, I was informed by the director of the Gas Company that another balloon had arrived (John Wise) and was to be used instead of mine. On the receipt of this intelligence I removed my balloon from the inflating pipes to give place to the other balloon, and ceased all further efforts until I was informed on Sunday that the competing balloon had proved a failure, and then being urged by several patriotic individuals, and hoping still to render some service to the army at Centreville or Manassas, I commenced on Sunday morning to make preparations for inflating and transporting my balloon, and on the evening of the same day, started with it for Virginia. In this enterprise I was aided by Colonel Small, who furnished me with 20 men from his command for the purpose.

    Unfortunately, when we arrived at Falls Church, I was informed of the retreat of the army, and thinking it useless to attempt to go farther, I concluded to remain there, even after all the troops had passed by, and in the midst of a drenching rain, with the hope that I might be of service in giving information on the approach of the enemy. But as the pickets were withdrawn I started at half past four on Monday afternoon to return to Arlington, the rain continuing to fall in torrents, the wind against us, and arrived at Fort Corcoran at 8 o'clock the same evening, with the balloon fully inflated, after having been transported against a wind of considerable force through a distance in all about twenty miles, the latter half of which was in a violent rain storm. I remained with the balloon at Fort Corcoran until Wednesday morning, and then taking advantage of the favorable weather, I ascended at 5:30 A.M. with an ascensional power of 500 pounds beyond the weight of the balloon itself. I obtained an altitude of about 3 1/2 miles, and had a distant view of the encampments of the enemy, and observed them in motion between Manassas Junction and Fairfax.

    From the facts I have stated, it must be evident to everyone that the balloon can be rendered of essential service in the art of war, and that I have accomplished all that I have undertaken, without a single failure, with very imperfect means, and with scarcely any aid from the Government.

    Having thus given an account of what has been accomplished, I now proceed to furnish a statement of what might or can be done if proper facilities are afforded.

    First: It is probable that balloons will be wanted for some time to come in the vicinity of Washington and Alexandria, to watch the movements of the enemy and prevent a surprise. For this purpose the balloon now in my possession will answer very well until another can be procured. With it, almost every day or two, ascents can be made to a great altitude, affording an opportunity for several officers at the same time to observe with good glasses, the position and movements of the enemy in perfect security, without risk of life and property.

    Second: While the enemy is making preparation for another movement, a lighter balloon with portable apparatus can be constructed in time to move with the troops and be ready before and during an engagement to furnish the means of observations of the greatest importance.

    Having made the necessary inquiries, I find that the required apparatus can be constructed by mechanics now in the government employ in Washington; that the whole weight of material to inflate the balloon for several days use will not exceed four tons and can be carried in two or three wagons, and that the whole expense for inflating, aside from the apparatus, will not exceed three hundred dollars, including transportation.

    It will not be necessary to use this method of inflation, excepting at a distance from gas works too great to move an inflated balloon. (Note: After portable gas generators were introduced the whole cost of materials for an inflation did not exceed $73.00.) The gas was generated wherever it was wanted, much less time was required for inflation and the balloon was kept inflated for a month or much longer.

    The same apparatus can also be used on the rivers, and ere long will probably be much wanted at Fortress Monroe, Norfolk and Richmond, and many other places.

    Should the Government conclude to adopt the above methods, and desire my services, I will give my plans in detail, and shall be pleased to carry them out. I can truly say that I have not, in my endeavor to introduce balloon observations into the use in our army, been governed by a desire for pecuniary gain, but I have been actuated by a wish to increase my reputation and advance the art to which I have devoted my life, by demonstrating its importance to the country in its present critical condition.

    Hoping that if my services are further required, I may receive as early a notice as possible, I remain,


Very truly,

Your obedient servant,

T.S.C. Lowe, Aeronaut

Major Bache, Bureau Topographical Engineers.


    The ascension of the 24th of July alluded to in the foregoing letter was made in consequence of a report being circulated that the enemy was marching in force on Washington, which caused much excitement. The result of my observation published the next day showed this report to be untrue and restored confidence.

    In this voyage I started soon after sunrise while the atmosphere was clear, and sailed directly over the country occupied by the enemy as the lower current was blowing toward the west. Having seen what I desired, I rose to the upper current and commenced moving toward the east again until over the Potomac, when I commenced to descend, thinking that the under-current would take me back far enough to land near Arlington House. When within a mile of the earth, our troops commenced firing at the balloon, supposing it to belong to the rebels. I descended near enough to hear the whistling of the bullets and the shouts of the soldiers to "show my colors." As unfortunately I had no national flag with me, and knowing that if I attempted to effect a landing there, my balloon and very likely myself would be riddled, I concluded to sail on and to risk descending outside of our lines. This I accomplished, and landed on Mason's Plantation, five and a half miles from Alexandria, and two and a half miles outside our pickets. A detailed account of my escape would be interesting, but it is sufficient to say that I was kindly assisted in returning by the 31st New York Volunteers, and brought back the balloon, though somewhat damaged, owing to my having been obliged to land among trees. The balloon was generally supposed to be one of the enemy's and the authorities in Washington were telegraphed from Arlington to this effect.



Leontine Lowe during the Civil War years.

Anne Read Collection


    During this period Professor Lowe's wife remained as near him as possible. She had watched this flight with keen interest, and was much distressed when he disappeared over the enemy's lines, but being equally as courageous and venturesome as he, she determined to find him.

    The 31st New York Volunteers offered assistance and scouts were sent out to locate the Professor which they succeeded in doing.

    After night fall, Mrs. Lowe disguised as a farm woman and leading a horse harnessed to an old covered wagon, was directed through the woods to the place where the Professor lay in concealment. He had been slightly injured but managed to fold compactly the now empty envelope of the balloon and packed it in the car, and together with it was stowed away under the cover of the wagon and Mrs. Lowe led the horse out from the woods as nonchalantly as she had entered. As she reached the roadway, she clearly discerned the outlines of several figures and was conscious that curious eyes were watching her.

    Fortunately the descent of the balloon had been hidden from the eyes of the enemy's pickets by the woods so Mrs. Lowe was not accosted and reached the Union lines without molestation.