PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
Civil War balloons: not for kids
Redlands Daily Facts (CA) - Saturday, October 3, 2009
Author: JEFFREY SMITH for the Daily Facts
Next Saturday, Oct. 10, for the A.K. Smiley Public Library's Family
Day, the Lincoln Memorial Shrine will give away biodegradable balloons
with a picture of Lincoln on them, which may get some thinking about
the idea of balloons in general.
Ballooning itself originated in France, as did ostensibly everything
else, according to most Frenchmen. For on Aug. 23, 1783, Jacques
Charles began the four-day process of filling his aptly named Globe
with 22,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. Once inflated, the balloon was
foolhardily albeit safely transported by torchlight to the Champ de
Mars in Paris.
Four thousand Parisians swelled the field waiting in anticipation of
the historic event, however the fates seemed against the endeavor, as
cloud cover and rain persisted throughout the morning and afternoon.
Nevertheless, spying a break in the weather, at 5 o'clock in the
evening Charles launched the unmanned Globe, and with it the beginning
of gas-filled balloon aviation.
One spectator remarked the Globe, "rose majestically in a shower of
rain," slipping out of sight and into clouds some 2,000 feet above.
From there the exact flight path of the Globe is unknown, but it landed
the next morning 15 miles away in the French village of Gonesse.
Horrified villagers crept up and encircled the Globe. Believing the
contraption to be the work of the devil, they mercilessly destroyed the
balloon, rendering it unsalvageable.
The next step of manned flight was so obvious that another Frenchman,
Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier, etched his name in the history books
as the first human aerialist three months later in November 1783.
Unfortunately, de Rozier is also in the aviation record books a second
time. For on June 15, 1785, while he was attempting to cross the
English Channel, de Rozier's hydrogen balloon ignited at 3,000 feet
above the ground, ensuring his notoriety as the world's first air
Despite the Globe's ignominious fate and de Rozier's demise, "balloon
fever" swept Europe and of course the fledgling United States. On this
side of the pond, ballooning took on more frivolity until the 1860s.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, several balloonists
attempted to ply their trade in support of the Union. Yet, despite the
use of balloons for spotting of troop locations in the French
Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th century, the idea of ballooning for
military purposes was still something of a novelty.
Nevertheless, during the American Civil War, both the Union and
Confederacy employed balloons for reconnaissance to varying degrees of
success. The first to receive orders from President Lincoln was
balloonist John Wise. However, the appointment was short lived as Wise
was nowhere to be found on July 19, 1861, for the first battle of Bull
Into this breach stepped competing balloonist Thaddeus Lowe , who
commenced inflating Wise's balloon. However, at the last minute and in
dramatic fashion, Wise appeared, demanding Lowe step aside, completing
the last few preparations himself.
A righteous and indignant Wise then proceeded to transport the inflated
balloon to the front in Centreville, Va., only to have it curiously
escape its tethers, thus forcing the Union troops to shoot it down to
prevent it from floating into Confederate hands. The balloon
unceremoniously crashed to earth, and with it Wise's dreams.
Fortunately, not all of the Union's attempts at ballooning ended in
Balloonists Thaddeus Lowe and John LaMountain each successfully carried
out reconnaissance activities for the Union during the war, but Lowe
would receive the lion's share of the historical credit, thus
relegating LaMountain to footnote status.
Overcoming such seemingly terminal setbacks as accidentally
self-piloting an untethered balloon from Ohio into Confederate South
Carolina instead of his intended destination of Washington, D.C., in
April 1861, Lowe was nevertheless able to obtain the position of chief
aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps from President Abraham
"Professor" Lowe , as he came to be called, persuaded Lincoln to make
the appointment thanks to some influential friends and a demonstration
of his balloonist skills in which he sent Lincoln the first aerial
telegraph to the White House from his balloon 500 feet above
Lincoln instantly recognized the military potential of the new
technology and ordered the creation of the Union Army Balloon Corps
with Lowe as its chief aeronaut, a decision that paid quick dividends.
On Sept. 24, 1861, near Arlington, Va., Lowe began telegraphing, from
his vantage point of more than 1,000 feet, locational intelligence on
Confederate troop positions at Falls Church, Va., more than three miles
away. Union troops aimed their cannons to the southwest and accurately
fired on the Confederate position without actually being able to see it
- a first in the history of warfare.
This display also impressed a visiting young German count named
Ferdinand von Zeppelin who would later design the aircraft that bore
his name. Lowe and his Balloon Corps continued to provide crucial and
timely intelligence during battles at Yorktown, Fredericksburg and Fair
Oaks. Understandably, the continued aerial observations had an
aggravating effect on Confederate morale and strategic planning.
By the beginning of 1862, Confederate troops began constructing "quaker
guns" or false gun batteries made of logs in a vain attempt to fool
Union balloonists, usually failing. Other Confederate commanders banned
campfires at night, an especially unpopular order, given the bitter
cold of Virginia winters.
In retaliation, Confederate artillery routinely opened fire on Union
balloons. However, due to the balloons' safe distance from the
battlefield, Confederate shells fell safely out of range to the
bemusement of Union soldiers who took bets on the accuracy of
In an attempt to make up ground, the Confederate Army formed its own
smaller and less successful version of the Balloon Corps in the spring
of 1862. Overseen by Capt. John Randolph Bryan, Confederate balloons
used hot air instead of hydrogen as in the north. In addition, later
Confederate balloons were constructed out of multicolored silk, which
gave rise to the spurious legend that Confederate balloons were made
from the silk dresses of Southern bells.
Confederate balloons never saw the same level of action as their Union
counterparts, and the Confederacy disbanded the operations in 1863 due
to cost, capture and a change in priorities. Yet, despite the obvious
military value of balloons to the Union, the Union Balloon Corps was a
relatively short-lived endeavor as well.
In 1863, a Capt. Cyrus Comstock took military oversight of the Balloon
Corps from the recently relieved Gen. George McClellan, and promptly
cut the corps' funding and thus its effectiveness. The reduction in
funding was further compounded by accusations of financial impropriety
leveled against Lowe , which resulted in a reduction in his pay. An
incensed Lowe resigned from the Union Balloon Corps on May 8, 1863. The
Union Balloon Corps formally disbanded in August of 1863.
The military aerial reconnaissance techniques developed by Lowe
garnered worldwide acclaim, with Great Britain, France and Brazil
offering him an appointment as a major general if he would organize a
balloon corps for them.
Having his fill of war, Lowe politely declined all offers. Perhaps
seeking a warmer climate, in 1887 Lowe moved to Los Angeles and later
in 1890 to Pasadena. Once in Pasadena, Lowe created a water-gas
company, founded the Citizens Bank of Los Angeles and ran several other
businesses including the Pasadena & Mount Wilson Railroad.
Unable to obtain the complete right of way to Mount Wilson, Lowe
redirected the railway westward to Oak Mountain, which was renamed
Mount Lowe in 1896. To make the name change "official," Chicago
mapmaker and Altadena resident Andrew McNally had the name Mount Lowe
printed on all of his maps.
Ironically, Lowe is more famous for this geographic feature than any of his Civil War ballooning exploits.
BEFORE THE WAR
CIVIL WAR YEARS
INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY
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