PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

THE CIVIL WAR YEARS

Convincing the Army of the Importance of Aerial Reconnaissance and Confederate reaction - 1861

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 23-24

    In America, the employment of military aeronautics remained practically unknown until the Civil War. The science of penetrating and navigating the upper air, however, had attracted attention very soon after the successful experiements of the Montgolfiers and Charles in France. Thomas Jefferson mentions experiments with fairly large balloons in Philadelphia as early as May, 1784. The following year, an American, Dr. Channel in company with the French aeronaut, Jean Pierre Blanchard; and experiments with hydrogen balloons and envelopes inflated with coal gas were conducted at the College of William and Mary in 1786. The first successful ascension by a man in the United States did not take place until January 9, 1793, when Jeffries' protege, Blanchard, went aloft at Philadelphia. Though these examples indicate that interest in aeronautics had quickly spread to America, the application of the science to military tactics there was slow to develop.

    One of the first Americans to mention the balloon as a possible military instrument was the versatile Benjamin Franklin, who referred to the subject as early as November, 1783, in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. Several months later he again mentioned this topic in his correspondence, pointing out the value of the balloon as a possible weapon of invasion. Philip Freneau's allusions to French aerial "frigates" and to the British "fighting balloons" soon followed Franklin's comments, but these instances appear to be the only documentary evidence disclosed by careful search indicating that the balloon was considered in the light of military value by Americans in the early period. No series of pamphlets and tracts appeared in America comparable to those published in Europe recommending the newly invented machine for war purposes; nor was there in this country any noticeable number of suggestions offered to the War Department involving the trial and adoption of balloons. As far as can be discovered from available source materials, only two serious attempts were made to interest the Government in the use of military balloons throughout the seventy-odd years from the Montgolfiers' invention to the opening of sectional hostilities in 1861. Both of these, coming nearly a half-century after the creation of the French balloon companies, were rejected by the military authorities.

Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, pages 218-219

    Possibly the most important result of Lowe's successful operations was the recognition and confidence that he steadily gained among the various officers of the Union army, including several ranking generals and the General in chief. Whipple's complete satisfaction with the workmanship and materials of the new balloon; his impatience over the delay in securing a ground crew; his statement that a balloon for observing the enemy positions was important: all indicate that his skepticism exhibited during Wise's operations was now dispelled and replaced with confidence and interest. Bache's reference to "substantial benefit from aerial ascensions" is also indicative of a similar favorable opinion.

    Likewise General McDowell, even though his adjutant general had refused to furnish the ground detachment, took a personal interest in the operations. The first day that the balloon was in the field he specially ordered as ascension before day-break the following morning to examine the number and extent of enemy campfires. And just as Lowe was about to leave the army on September 30 to begin building several new balloons, McDowell recalled him for further observations of the situation on his front. McDowell himself also ascended with Lowe and made personal observations soon after the balloon had been first taken into the field.

    The attention and interest of McClellan also was quickly aroused, and on September 7 the General in Chief made his first ascension in company with Lowe and spent two hours in reconnaissance, studying the Confederate positions and surrounding terrain. His personal participation in the new method of observation provoked widespread comment in the press, and was also announced in one of the Richmond papers. The experience must have impressed McClellan more than casually. More than a year later when preparing his final report after having been relieved of command, he made special note of the ascension in a chronological worksheet. McClellan again ascended with Lowe several weeks later. He also intervened in Lowe's behalf when General Keyes requested that the men from his brigade serving as the ground crew be sent back to their regment. The request was returned with the indorsement that until further instructions the detachment was permanently assigned to balloon duty by order of the General in Chief.

The Eagle Aloft, pages 354-356

    Lowe appeared at Bache's office on August 2, 1861, prepared to plead for another chance. Instead, Bache informed the aeronaut that Whipple had been ordered to contract with Lowe for a new military balloon. Moreover, the aeronaut would receive $5 a day during construction and $10 once he entered service as an official government aeronaut. Naturally, the Topographical Engineers would pay all the expenses related to the construction of the balloon and the acquisition of the necessary supplies and equipment.

    Lowe proceeded to Philadelphia to construct the balloon, a 25,000 cubic foot aerostat to be named the Union. The aeronaut was back in Washington with the balloon by August 28, when he was ordered to inflate the Union at the Columbian Armory and report to Fort Corcoran.

    Confederate troops had invested Mason's, Clark's, Munson's, and Upton's Hills opposite Washington. Fairfax Court House and the roads leading toward Arlington and Alexandria were also in Rebel hands. Lowe's task was to observe Confederate troop movements in these areas. Moving between the fort, Chain Bridge, and Baileys Crossroads, he flew on twenty-three of thirty-four consecutive days during August and September 1861. Lowe's observations proved both accurate and informative. He was also able to establish procedures and explore techniques that would form the basis for the later operations of the Balloon Corps. A permanent ground crew was appointed and trained. In order to maintain the schedule of daylight ascensions, Lowe moved the balloon back to Washington for reinflation at night. When recharging was not required, Lowe made a number of night ascensions to count Confederate campfires.

    Army officials were suitably impressed by the aeronaut's performance. On September 5, Generals Irvin McDowell and Fitz-John Porter went aloft together. Two days later, on September 7, General George McClellan made a two-hour flight, followed by a second several weeks later. Other generals who ascended during this period included John H. Martindale, W.F. Smith, and Samuel P. Heintzelman. Each of these officers had been thoroughly impressed. As Fitz-John Porter remarked to Lowe on September 9, "You are of value now."

    Lowe added artillery spotting and adjustment to his repertoire of skills late in September. Working in concert with a battery under the command of General William F. Smith, Lowe used both telegraphic and flag semaphore signals to direct fire on Confederate positions in and around Falls Church. Captain Frederick F.E. Beaumont, an English observer, commented that the artillery fire would have been completely ineffective without Lowe and his balloon.

    The Confederate reaction to Lowe's activity also indicted that the balloon was a weapon of some consequence. General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard resorted to black-outs, the dispersal of troops, and camouflage in order to disguise his strength from T.S.C. Lowe. Beauregard also ordered false campfires to be lit and dummy artillery batteries established. Black logs or long stove pipes "of different caliber" were set in place to deceive aerial observers. Such "Quaker Gun" emplacements did occasionally puzzle Lowe during September. He also commented on a greater than usual number of late afternoon campfires which suddenly appeared when he made an ascent.

    General Fitz-John Porter also noted the care that Confederate troops took to mask their activity from aerial observation. During his ascents from Fort Corcoran in September, Porter observed evidence of recent work on a fortification. He watched for two hours without seeing a single worker. He then ordered the balloon hauled down out of sight. After a half hour on the ground, he suddenly bobbed back up just in time to see a squad of Confederate workmen scurrying for cover.

    The great southern artillery officer Edward P. Alexander took particular delight in directing the fire of his batteries at the Union balloon. In a letter written to his father during this period, Alexander gloated that "we sent a rifle shell so near old Lowe and his balloon that he came down as fast as gravity could bring him."

    Although few details are available, it seems likely that Lowe's success inspired the first Confederate aeronautical activity in the fall of 1861. Reports of southern observation balloons had appeared in the northern press as early as July 23-24, but these seem to have been nothing more than confused accounts by those who had actually seen Lowe's balloon.

    It is probable, however, that Confederate commanders P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnson did have a balloon at their disposal by the end of the summer. On August 22 Johnston suggested to Beauregard that "the balloon may be useful ... Let us send for it; we can surely use it advantageously."


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

LOWE FAMILY

BOOKS ABOUT LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

EVENTS AND REUNIONS

ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY

ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS

LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES