PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

THE CIVIL WAR YEARS

First Successful Aerial Directed Artillery Bombardment on Unseen Enemy - September 24, 1861

Thaddeus Lowe showing his father Clovis a flag to direct artillery fire

Joseph Ferm Collection

War of the Aeronauts, pages 112-113

    As Lowe waited for a reply he continued his daily ascents and once again proved his "value" to the service. Meanwhile, other Union officers began to take notice of Lowe's work and wished to employ the aeronaut on their behalf. General Smith wrote an appeal directly to McClellan stating that he deemed "it of much importance that a Balloon be permanently attached" to his division. Although Lowe's status was to remain as "aeronaut on demand," he received a telegram on September 23 to report directly to Smith's division at Fort Corcoran.

    "At about 8:30 tomorrow morning I wish to fire from here at Falls Church," read Smith's orders. "Will you please send the balloon up from Fort Corcoran?"

    Smith had a plan that had never been tried before in the history of warfare. The gun batteries at Fort Corcoran were to be used to harass the Confederates entrenched in earthworks at Munson's Hill and Falls Church. Fort Corcoran was one of the smaller fortifications in the Washington area and its limited armanment consisted of only two smoothbore howitzers and three rifle-barreled Parrot guns. When it came to a barrage attack on the Rebel positions, Fort Corcoran's gunners had precious little firepower to waste.

    Smith was fully aware of the limited resources that were on hand but was determined to stretch them to their limits. As September 24 dawned, Lowe was prepared to ascend over the fort with the Union. In addition to Lowe's ground crew, two officers from General Smith's staff were also present for Lowe's pre-launch briefing. One of the officers gave Lowe a telegram outlining the plan devised by the general's staff: Two mounted orderlies will be sent you, so that you can ... report and send to these headquarters during the time of fire. It is very important to know how much the shot or shell fall short, if any at all.

    The instructions were clarified by a telegram that followed: If we fire to the right of Falls Church, let a white flag be raised in the balloon; if to the left, let it be lowered; if over, let it be shown stationary; if under, let it be waved occasionally.

    Although the records of September 24 do not reveal the reason why the aerial wire telegraph that Lowe had demonstrated in Washington several months before wasn't used, Lowe quickly assimilated the simple instructions and prepared to cast off. Soon the aeronaut had ascended to more than 1,000 feet and the signal was given to commence firing.

    As Lowe signaled from the air to the mounted orderlies sent by Smith who, in turn, relayed trajectory instructions to the gun batteries, it marked the first time in warfare that an accurate barrage was conducted at an enemy that could not be seen by the gunners on the ground.

    "The battery marksmen, without seeing who or what he was firing at ... made such an accurate fire that the enemy was demoralized," Lowe later said.

    The demoralizing effects of Lowe's ascents on the Confederate psyche could not be underestimated. Without a comparable countermeasure to the Union's balloon, or the ability to destroy the craft with ground fire, Rebel generals began to issue orders to field commanders to camouflage earthworks.


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