PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
Reno Gazette-Journal (NV)
Title: Civil War balloons recalled in book
Date: September 4, 2002
By Susan Skorupa
Long before balloons drifting across blue Nevada skies in the Great Reno Balloon Race, the latest edition of which begins Friday, Thaddeus Lowe led the Union Army Balloon Corps of the American Civil War.
The balloons weren't particularly pretty, except maybe for one launched from the Confederate side made of silk dress material. But the balloons were effective military surveillance and reconnaissance tools.
"Confederate guns couldn't take them down because they kept far enough back from the front. Gunners couldn't get the trajectory of the cannons high enough to reach them," said Charles Evans of Reno, author of "The War of the Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning in the Civil War" (Stackpole Books, $27.95 hardback). "From 1861 to 1863, not a single balloon was brought down by enemy fire."
Evans' interest in Civil War balloons soared while he was curator of the Hiller Air Museum in Redwood City, Calif., from 1990 to 1995. At the time, he was working on a master's degree at San Francisco State University. He combined his interest in aviation and history to write a paper on the balloon corps. The term paper became a magazine article for Civil War Times. The feedback on the article, Evans said, prompted him to write the book.
Ballooning pioneer Thaddeus Lowe took aeronautics seriously, Evans said. By the 1860s, the science was 80 years old and the newness had worn off, but Lowe looked beyond its sideshow status to pursue it for the good of the country.
"He's an egoist in a sense, but he wanted to add to the body of knowledge about aeronautics in a way to benefit his country," Evans said.
The Union Army's aeronautics corps began in 1861 as a civilian agency. Lowe was well-paid, Evans said, and he was given the equivalent of a colonel's commission, although he remained a civilian.
Many military men, including George Custer, looked down on Evans, convinced that the balloons, raised by highly explosive hydrogen, were folly.
Some in the military, however, including President Lincoln and Gen. George McClelland, saw the corps as a viable effort for reconnaissance and surveillance of enemy troops and battlefields.
Balloon troops performed the first air-to-ground telegraph transmission, the first combat use of a water vessel to launch balloons and the first aerial photography and cartography, Evans said.
In 1863, the balloon corps was disbanded. The war was going badly for both sides with many lives lost. Governments were cutting costs. Lowe decided that he couldn't do his job with fewer corps men and supplies and less money.
The Confederacy was surprised when the Union gave up on balloons, Evans said. Confederate Lt. Col. Edwin Porter Alexander said if nothing else, balloons were an effective demoralizing tactic because of the annoyance and delay they caused Southern troops working to keep their movements out of sight of the Northern aeronauts.
Alexander himself piloted one of only two balloons launched by the Confederate Army, the so-called Silk Dress Balloon. A myth surrounding that balloon was that Southern women donated their silk dresses for its construction, Evans said. In reality, the South lacked silk, the primary material for balloon envelopes. But a dry goods supplier, who bought silk for dressmaking, provided the material.
"It was all sorts of colors, flowers, prints, stripes, all sorts of patterns," Evans said. "The fashion of the day put together into a balloon."
The Civil War Balloon Corps left a legacy, Evans said. Officers who were young during the Civil War later were at the helm of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which revived aeronautics with a military balloon corps in the 1890s, he said.
German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was an observer attached to the Union Army. He became interested in balloon flight and took that fascination home where he formed a company to build airships that carried his name.
Who: Charles Evans
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Barnes & Noble, 5555 S. Virginia St.
Marilyn Newton/Reno Gazette-Journal
FLIGHT OF FACT: Charles Evans is the author of "War of the Aeronauts."
Copyright (c) Reno Gazette-Journal. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Author: Susan Skorupa
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