Title: Lowe's Enterprise got aeronautic corps up, up and away

Date: FEBRUARY 1, 1992

One of the novel sights enjoyed by recruits stationed in Washington during the warm days of June 1861 was the colorful gas balloon Enterprise tethered in front of the Smithsonian building.

The Enterprise was made of fine India silk, varnished on the outside and scrubbed inside with a coating of oil. Inflated, it was 50 feet tall with a diameter of 30 feet. Balloonist professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was a well-known scientist who, before the war, had tried to find support to build and inflate a balloon large enough to transport a flying boat and 20 passengers across the Atlantic.

Ten days after the fall of Fort Sumter, he had landed near the coast of South Carolina amid truculent farmers armed with pitchforks after a flight from Cincinnati, a test to prove his theory that the upper prevailing winds blew from west to east.

The locals, positive he was a Union spy, captured him and his balloon. Disaster was averted when others recognized him as a reputable scientist, and the mayor of Columbia gave him a passport for safe conduct out of the Confederate States.

Two weeks later he was in Washington with his balloon, offering a plan to form an aeronautic corps. Lowe had competition; several other balloonists were already on the scene. Difficulty arose in the public's impression of ballooning as a showman's stunt - not a useful scientific endeavor.

While he waited, Lowe inflated the Enterprise from one of the gas mains on the Armory grounds (now Fort McNair) and made tethered demonstration flights in front of the Smithsonian building, the Armory and the White House.

One day, Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, took him across to the White House, where Lowe and Abraham Lincoln discussed the possibilities of balloon use in the war until the small hours of the morning. Lincoln gave him a note to Gen. Winfield Scott, urging Scott to see Professor Lowe at once about his balloon. But Lowe was not admitted to Scott's presence, even with a note from the president.

Meantime, Lowe continued to advertise the military value of the balloon. On June 18, he and a telegrapher ascended to 1,000 feet, trailing a line, and sent a message to the president that this was the first telegraph message to be sent from a balloon.

After several more rebuffs from Scott's headquarters, Lowe called on the president again, complaining that he had not been able to see Scott. Lincoln rose, put on his hat, grasped Lowe by the arm and strode briskly down the street to military headquarters with him.

Ignoring the startled guard, he pushed Lowe into the presence of the general and insisted that Scott listen.

Within a day, Capt. Amiel Weeks Whipple of the Topographical Engineers ascended in the tethered balloon and came down much impressed with its possibilities and the view of almost 25 miles on all sides.

On June 21, Lowe received a message from Whipple directing him to bring the balloon and telegraphic apparatus to him at Arlington House.

Lowe filled his balloon from the main of the Washington Gas Co. that night - a slow process because it could be done only when community demands were low - recruited some help and started at daybreak with the balloon bouncing from its ropes overhead.

The group crossed the Potomac on Long Bridge, about where the 14th Street bridge is today, and followed the road that curved past deserted woodlands and fields up to Arlington House. There Long found orders to report to Falls Church to make observations of the enemy lines.

Early the next morning the escorts walked the balloon to the nearby station of the Alexandria & Loudoun Railroad, only to find that the train to Falls Church was not running.

Lowe ascended in the balloon to see if it was safe to proceed, and the Enterprise was towed up Columbia Pike toward Baileys Crossroads. Residents there reported that Confederate scouts, seeing the balloon approaching and believing it was accompanied by a large force, had retreated further into Fairfax County. The balloon and its escorts then moved west on Lee Turnpike to military headquarters near the present site of Seven Corners.

The balloon was tethered, and the first use of aircraft for military purposes in the United States took place on June 23. Lowe made several ascents alone; then an officer went up to make a sketch of the surrounding country. Lowe remained at the post for several days, and other officers of the Topographical Corps took turns ascending. They discovered that enemy camps were located near Centreville and other parts of western Fairfax County.

After several days in the field, it became necessary to take the balloon back to Washington for more gas. On June 26, Lowe was informed that the engineers had agreed to adopt balloons for military scouting purposes. Lowe was disappointed to learn that one of his rivals had made the lowest bid and had received a contract to build two balloons.

However, he was told that he might be employed as an operator after they were ready. That proposal was rejected; Lowe was not willing to risk his life in a vehicle constructed by a person in whom he had no confidence. Instead of leaving Washington, Lowe continued to operate the Enterprise in town, carrying out a number of experiments that attracted the attention of scientists and military men.

By early July, the competing balloons had failed to materialize. When the Confederates appeared to be massing near Manassas, Lowe inflated his balloon and proceeded into Fairfax County to try to help. A colonel furnished him with 20 men to tow the Enterprise, but by the time they reached Falls Church the army was in full retreat from the Battle of Bull Run.

In a drenching rain, Lowe and the balloon escorts struggled back 20 miles to Fort Corcoran with the inflated balloon. Two days later, the weather cleared and he ascended high enough to see enemy encampments between Centreville and Manassas, but no troop movement toward Washington.

On July 24, Lowe made a free flight at low elevation directly over enemy lines in western Fairfax County, then rose to a higher elevation to return to Arlington House. As he approached Union lines, soldiers shot at him and shouted, "Show your colors!" He had not taken a flag and feared that both the balloon and he would be hit, so he sailed on and landed at Mason's Plantation, outside of Union picket lines.

His wife, who had been watching anxiously with a telescope from town, borrowed a farm wagon and horse and, with the assistance of the 31st Regiment, New York Volunteers, found him, hid him and the deflated balloon in the wagon under a load of hay and brought both back through Confederate picket lines.

Lowe made a second bid to construct and operate balloons, as well as a portable gas apparatus for use in the field. The Enterprise had been designed for free flight; the new, heavier design was more appropriate for tethered activity. In the meantime, he served with his own balloon. The military agreed to pay him $10 for each day of use and to provide a unit of men to work with him. Up to this time, all of his activities had been at his own expense.

For the next month and a half, Lowe's balloon was constantly in the sky over Northern Virginia. Every three or four days the crew towed it into Washington at night to be refilled with gas, ready for daytime activity. But on Aug. 28, the first substantial war balloon was completed.

In October, Lowe was ordered to take the balloon to Johnson's Hill to watch for enemy activity near Lewinsville. The balloon was gassed by 9 that evening, and the crew started. In the darkness, they were apprehensive about running the balloon against a tree or the wires strung across the streets in Washington and Georgetown. Progress was slow. The road to Chain Bridge was lined with trees, so they tramped across the fields. It became so windy it was sometimes impossible to tow the balloon, and the basket was lowered to head height, which made for other difficulties.

Arriving at Chain Bridge at 3 in the morning, they found a steady stream of troops and equipment moving across the bridge. Lacking authorization to break into line, Lowe got into the basket, the men raised the balloon and very carefully climbed the stringers - only 18 inches wide and nearly 100 feet above the bed of the river - and carefully inched across while Lowe directed the management of the ropes. The artillery crossing on the bridge and the dark river below made a profound impression on Lowe and the crew.

But that was not the end of the adventure. At daybreak, exhausted and still struggling with the ropes, they arrived in Lewinsville. When a strong wind blew up, they lashed the balloon to stumps in a field. As the storm reached its height, trees were uprooted and the balloon escaped. In less than an hour it landed on the coast of Delaware, where Lowe later reclaimed it. The storm proved the strength of the balloon envelope, but Lowe ordered heavier cordage that would resist a strain of 25 tons.

June Robinson is a writer from Washington state.

Information excerpted in part from "The Civil War News," Arlington, Mass. 02174, by permission.

Author: June Robinson


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