A week after the first shots of the War Between the States at Fort Sumter in April 1861, the future of warfare came to Appalachia. Plowmen in the remote Allegheny Mountains heard a voice calling, “What state is this?” and, seeing no one about, replied toward the nearest woods: “Virginia.”The voice answered, “Thank you,” and the farmers were startled by a stream of sand pouring, unbelievably, from the sky. Looking up they saw, hanging in space above them, a gargantuan cloth sphere. Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe had merely dumped ballast from his balloon, but remembered, “A yell of horror arose from them, and if fleetness of foot is any indication of fright, then they must have been terribly frightened.”
If being observed from the skies was an alien experience to most people of the 1860s, navigating the skies was even more so. Lowe had lifted off from Ohio, hoping to reach Washington, D.C., as proof that a hydrogen balloon could make a trans-Atlantic passage, but contrary high-altitude winds carried his Enterprise more south than east: “I finally landed in South Carolina, a short distance from the line of North Carolina.”
Upon touchdown he was disconcerted to find himself surrounded by ardent new Confederates. Virginia having seceded just two days earlier, he was very likely the first captive taken in the American Civil War. Lowe had long since established himself as one of the world’s foremost aerialists. His title was born of showmanship rather than any official scientific degree, but Lowe never balked at self-promotion. In September 1860, only a gasbag tear had prevented his 103-foot-diameter balloon, Great Western, from taking off with an 11.5-ton load, including an eight-man gondola and lifeboat, across the Atlantic Ocean. His scientific credentials were enough to convince the Southern authorities that he was merely a stray Yankee. Rather than imprisoning Lowe, they politely put him and his floating contraption aboard a northbound train.
Though Lowe had not reached Washington, word of his exploit had. The U.S. Army had little interest in using balloons over the Atlantic but much interest in using them over the Confederacy. On June 16, 1861, at the invitation of the War Department, he ascended in Enterprise 500 feet above the capital, telegraphing U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in the White House: “This point of observation commands an area nearly 50 miles in diameter,” he wrote. “The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station.”
From above Maryland, observers could overlook Confederate outposts halfway to Manassas Junction, Virginia, 25 miles away. Control of this new “high ground” led, perhaps, to overconfidence. A month later Lowe packed his balloon and followed the Army of the Potomac toward the Battle of First Bull Run, only to run into a panicked throng of Federal troops, civilians, and day-tripping politicians fleeing the other way. When he took to the air to look out for any enemy pursuit, friendly forces vented their frustration on him. “Within a mile of the earth our troops commenced firing at the balloon, supposing it to belong to the rebels,” Lowe wrote. “I descended near enough to hear the whistling of the bullets and the shouts of the soldiers to ‘show my colors.’”
Lowe had not thought to bring a flag. “Knowing that if I attempted to effect a landing there my balloon—and very likely myself—would be riddled,” Lowe wrote. “I concluded to sail on and to risk descending outside of our lines.” He landed hard, punctured his gasbag, twisted his ankle, and spent a long night alone in enemy territory. Legend has it that his wife, Leontine, rode through the lines in a buckboard to retrieve him and his balloon. “A detailed account of my escape would be interesting, but it is sufficient to say that I was kindly assisted in returning by the Thirty-first Regiment New York Volunteers, and brought back the balloon, though somewhat damaged,” Lowe wrote.
The Army offered to pay for a new gasbag. “From this time until the 28th of August was consumed in the construction of the first substantial war balloon ever built,” Lowe wrote. “The main obstacle to the successful use of balloons still had to be overcome, namely, a portable apparatus for generating the gas in the field. I had already devised a plan for this purpose.” His generators would use dilute sulfuric acid on iron filings to give off pure hydrogen.
When the Confederates pressed to within two miles of the Potomac, Lowe and his balloon rose in front of them. “The enemy opened their batteries on the balloon and several shots passed by it and struck the ground beyond,” he wrote. “These shots were the nearest to the U.S. capital that had been fired by the enemy, or have yet been, during the war.” He paid them back in kind, pinpointing Confederate positions from more than three miles away and using his telegraph to call down Federal artillery on them. It was the first aerially directed fire support in history.
Lincoln ordered the formation of the Union Army Balloon Corps, with Lowe as chief aeronaut, but the government neglected to fund his portable hydrogen generators. He had to inflate his new balloon, the Union, with coal gas from Washington, D.C., city lines—32,000 cubic feet of it—and tow it to the war zone. No sooner was it tied down in Virginia than a storm blew up. Mooring lines tore. The unmanned balloon whisked away to come down 100 miles away on the Delaware coast, but Lowe’s military-grade gasbag held.
In early November the professor pioneered another military first: the aircraft carrier. He had the coal barge USS George Washington Parke Custis fitted with a “flight deck” and his new gas generator, towed out onto the Potomac by the steamer USS Coeur de Lion with his 20,000-cubic-foot-balloon, Washington. “I proceeded to make observations,” he wrote, “and saw the rebels constructing new batteries at Freestone Point.” These guns commanded the river from atop a cliff 90 feet above the water, invisible from the Maryland side except from the air; targeted by Federal warships, the site was soon abandoned.
By the beginning of 1862, the Union Army Balloon Corps had five balloons in operation, including the 15,000-cubic-foot Eagle serving as eyes for the gunboat siege of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi at New Madrid, Missouri. “During the bombardment,” Lowe wrote, “an officer of the Navy ascended and discovered that our shot and shell went beyond the enemy, and by altering the range our forces were soon able to compel the enemy to evacuate.” The loss of the strategic river bend that April directly contributed to the South’s eventual loss of the entire Mississippi—the cutting in two of the Confederacy.
The Southerners, however, were becoming wise to being watched from above. They had convinced Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan that they held overwhelming numbers until balloonists reported that they had in fact evacuated. Cautiously advancing Union troops found enemy artillery positions mounting “Quaker guns,” which were logs painted black to fool observers.
Chastened by the deception, McClellan took the Balloon Corps along on his invasion of the Virginia Peninsula, where Union scouts reported another 100,000 Southerners blocking the way to Richmond. From 1,000 feet above the peninsula it was plain to Lowe that the reports had vastly overestimated enemy forces, but again McClellan played it safe, settling down to besiege Yorktown. The professor watched the Confederates strengthening their positions, to their mutual displeasure. “Almost daily whenever the balloon ascended the enemy opened upon it with their heavy siege guns or rifled field pieces,” he wrote, “until it had attained an altitude to be out of reach, and repeated this fire when the balloon descended, until it was concealed by the woods.” Southern ire was partly enflamed by the huge portrait of the Balloon Corps’ patron, McClellan, emblazoned on Intrepid’s 50-foot envelope, looking down on them. (The balloon bag is referred to as the envelope.) They went so far as to build their own primitive hot air balloon, which Captain John R. Bryan flew over Yorktown, but clumsy handling and friendly fire made his a risky job; the Confederate balloon ultimately crashed and was destroyed. On Saturday, May 3, Lowe lifted off from McClellan’s own headquarters: “No sooner had the balloon risen above the tops of the trees than the enemy opened all of their batteries commanding it, and the whole atmosphere was literally filled with bursting shell and shot, one, passing through the cordage that connects the car with the balloon, struck near to the place where McClellan stood.” Upon landing Lowe was duly informed, “The general says the balloon must not ascend from the place it now is any more.”
The barrage continued all day. “The last shell fired after dusk came into [Brig. Gen. Samuel P.] Heintzelman’s camp and completely destroyed his telegraph tent and instruments, the operator having just gone out to deliver a dispatch,” Lowe wrote. “The General and I were sitting together discussing the probable reasons for the enemy’s unusual effort to destroy the balloon when we were both covered with earth thrown up by the twelve inch shell. Fortunately it did not explode.”