PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

THE CIVIL WAR YEARS

Non Use of Balloon Corps by General Burnside Until Day of Fredericksburg Battle - 1862

Memoirs of Thaddeus Lowe, pages 153-155

    In order that the new Commander of the of the Army of the Potomac might know that I was ready for duty, I addressed the following communication to his Chief of Staff:

Headquarters, Aeronautic Corps,

Washington, November 20, 1862

To Major General Parke,

Chief of Staff, etc.

General:

    Considering it necessary that the Commanding General should be informed in relation to my operations and the services that I am prepared to render, I would respectfully submit the following succinct statement.

    First. The U.S. Aeronautic Department under my direction is in excellent condition with all the improvements just added that over a year's continual operations and experience could suggest. I have at this time six superior silk balloons with portable gas generating apparatus, which enables me to inflate a balloon at any point in three hours, sufficiently to raise two men and ropes to an elevation of one thousand feet or more. The balloon can be used with nearly, if not quite, as good success in winter as in summer.

    Second. In order to facilitate my operations and making prompt reports, I was permitted by General McClellan to add for my use a telegraph train with five miles of insulated wire, which will enable me to make reports directly from the car of the balloon while viewing the enemy's position. The line can be otherwise useful for transmitting other messages, not connected with my department.

    Third. In being often necessary to inflate a balloon at night, and having many times performed the same, under difficulties owing to the want of light, I have introduced a powerful oxhydrogen or Calcium light for that purpose. Aside from the benefits of this light for the above purpose, it can be used to great advantage for many other purposes where night work is to be performed, such as felling timber, building bridges, wharves, crossing streams, building earthworks, etc. One of these lights would be sufficient for at least two thousand persons to work by, with as much convenience as by daylight, and the rays can be entirely hidden from any point where it is not desirable to show them. With this apparatus, light can be thrown two miles distant sufficiently powerful to work by. The cost is trifling.

    Fourth. I also have with me a set of powerful magnifying lenses with which a photograph of three inches square can be magnified to the size of twenty feet square. Thus it will be seen that a view taken at a distance too far fro the objects to be discernable with the naked eye, could be easily distinguished with the magnifier. A map photographed and thus magnified would be found much easier to consult.

    Fifth. I keep with my Corps a number of small signal balloons which can be used day or night. Fires of red, white, blue or green can be attached which will burn more than ten times as long as a rocket and with much greater brilliancy, and therefore can be seen with more certainty and costs no more for them than for rockets.

    Having reduced all of the above mentioned branches to a practical everyday working, I can be called upon for any or all of them at any time, without inconvenience to the main balloon operations and with but little expense, as the same portable gas works can be used for them all.

    Not considering it necessary to give a detailed account of what may be done, but hoping soon to be called into active service again,

                                                                                                                                                                                                            I remain, with great respect,

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Your very obedient servant,

                                                                                                                                                                                                            T.S.C. Lowe

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Chief of Aeronautics, etc.

 

    On receipt of the above communication the following order was returned.

 

Headquarters, Army of Potomac,

Opposite Fredericksburg,

November 24, 1862.

 

Professor Lowe:

 

    The commanding General desires that you proceed to Washington, and bring up the apparatus and material, so that an ascension can be made at this point as early as possible. He desires that the Quarter-master's Department furnish you such aid and assistance in Washington and en route, that you may require.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Very respectfully,

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Your obedient servant,

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Major General Parke,

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Chief of Staff

 

    The next day everything was moved down to the army, but as General Burnside had deferred his operations, he desired the balloon should not be shown to the enemy until he was ready to cross the river. On the 12th of December I received orders to get the balloon ready, and the following morning (being the day of the Battle of Fredericksburg) ascensions were commenced, and during the day many Staff Officers ascended, and much valuable information was furnished the Commanding General whose Headquarters, being directly under the balloon, verbal communications were given, and no written reports are therefore inserted. Several shots were fired at the balloon during the day, one striking about two miles beyond the balloon, passing close to it, and going in all about three and three-quarters miles from where it was fired.

 

War of the Aeronauts, pages 257-258

 

    However, it may have been unfortunate that Burnside opted not to use Lowe's balloons sooner. While his army stalled at the Rappahannock, even after the arrival of the pontoon bridges, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia steadily fortified their defenses in and around Fredericksburg. As a result, Burnside did not completely comprehend the strength of Confederate forces under the commands of "Stonewall" Jackson and General Longstreet, who were anxiously awaiting the Yankee invaders. With his army divided into three "Grand Divisions," Burnside hoped that the superior numbers of his force would simply overwhelm the Confederates. But the ground-based intelligence reports that Burnside relied upon in forming his attack strategy failed in inform the general of the nearly impregnable position the Confederates had taken up on a ridge known as Marye's Heights.

INDEX PAGE

ENCYCLOPEDIA BIOGRAPHY

BEFORE THE WAR

CIVIL WAR YEARS

INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY

NORRISTOWN PENNSYLVANIA YEARS

PASADENA CALIFORNIA YEARS

MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY

AFTER THE RAILWAY

BOOKS ABOUT LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

EVENTS AND REUNIONS

ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY

ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS

LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES