PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLE

 

The Washington Times

Title: Balloon launch site found in Va.

Date: November 2, 1996

STAFFORD, Va. - Jim Stafford never imagined he would be remembered for hot air.

The home builder has discovered an unusual Civil War site near White Oak in Stafford County, and he has but one thing to thank for it - military spy balloons used by the Union army.

In 1862, Union forces trying to gauge the number of Confederates gathering across the Rappahannock River employed this new technology. The French had used military observation balloons for more than 60 years, but Americans balked at the gaudy, painted silk aircraft.

Nevertheless, few Union officers knew the terrain on either side of the river - much less the rebels' position - so they made civilian professor ThaddeusLowe their spy in the sky before the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Union army launched its primitive aircraft from a ravine in the middle of what is now the Ridge Pointe subdivision. Mr. Stafford learned about the site three years ago when building the first houses in the new residential development. After that, he worked to pinpoint the launch spot.

Using sketches and regimental reports from Union soldiers camped nearby, he found the crater that held the balloon.

Only the hole remains at the site now. Mr. Stafford's metal detector, however, "sings" around its perimeter, probably from iron weights once used to hold the balloon in place.

There are other balloon-launch sites in Norfolk and Arlington, but the Stafford one is unique for several reasons, said Noel Harrison, cultural resources manager for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Of about 24 sketches or photos of war balloons, two show the Ridge Pointe site. It's probably the only balloon site noted in a war document and pinpointed in its present-day location, Mr. Harrison said.

It also may be the best preserved. Mr. Stafford, who majored in history at George Mason University, grew up reading Civil War accounts and hunting relics. He has been ecstatic since the park service confirmed that the location was the actual launch site.

"When you can be involved in finding something that is unique, it's really exciting," he said.

Mr. Stafford had no idea balloons were used during the Civil War until 1993, when he bumped into two men using metal detectors on vacant Ridge Pointe lots. The men worked for the Smithsonian Institution, and their conversation turned to the area's history.

Mr. Stafford, 40, already was familiar with most of it. He moved here in 1988 to start his own building company, Sunrise Homes, and went metal-detecting whenever he could. He rarely came back empty-handed; 100,000 Union troops camped in that corner of the county during the winter of 1862-63, and Mr. Stafford found bullets, buttons - even a piece of a surgeon's saw.

Mr. Stafford was intrigued when the men from the Smithsonian mentioned the area might have been a balloon-launch site. He started reading, looking and detecting until he came across a ravine with a sizable crater that fit the description.

Mr. Stafford enlisted the help of Pete Bailey, a former neighbor and member of the Ridge Pointe Homeowners Association. Mr. Bailey made some contacts, gathered material and enlisted the park service, which sent staff members to the site in early August.

The homeowners' group owns the land the launch site sits on, and Mr. Stafford and Mr. Bailey hope to persuade members to give it to the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. They're also hoping to put up a marker and a walkway to the launch site.

"Most of the people would be proud to know there's something historical in their neighborhood and would be proud to preserve it," Mr. Stafford said. Julian Cadger, another board member, believes the concept has "a lot of credibility and promise."by large riprap.

Houses sit on both sides. One vacant lot sits to the immediate right on a steep grade, but the launch site wouldn't interfere with building, Mr. Stafford said.

The launch site is a large crater, about 35 feet round and 4 feet deep. The hole probably was 8 to 10 feet deeper during the war, Mr. Stafford said. The balloon's small basket, which held one or two persons, was placed in the crater. Pine saplings were put upright around the colorful balloon to hide it, but the camouflage did not keep Confederates from taking potshots at it.

The scouting reports that came from the balloons, however, weren't often heeded. After seeing the size of the Confederate army on the other side of the Rappahannock, Lowe advised Gen. Ambrose Burnside not to make his disastrous assault on Gen. Robert E. Lee's troops entrenched on Marye's{D-} Heights. The general said he wasn't about to let a civilian run his army. It was among the worst Union losses of the war.

"He didn't listen," Mr. Stafford said. "And the rest, as they say, is history."

Copyright 1996, 1997 News World Communications# Inc.

Author: Cathy Dyson

Section: B - SATURDAY - THE CIVIL WAR

Page: B3


INDEX PAGE

BEFORE THE WAR

CIVIL WAR YEARS

INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY

NORRISTOWN PENNSYLVANIA YEARS

PASADENA CALIFORNIA YEARS

MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY

AFTER THE RAILWAY

LOWE FAMILY

BOOKS ABOUT LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

EVENTS AND REUNIONS

ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY

ENCYCLOPEDIA BIOGRAPHY

ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS

LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES