Thaddeus Lowe demonstrates hot air balloon
June 18, 1861
Dropping out of the sky in a hot air balloon into the mountains of Pea Ridge, S. C., in April 1861, Thaddeus Lowe found himself in enemy territory trying to explain the impossible. The local mountain men thought he was a demon and wanted to kill him.
His story, that he had left Ohio the day before and traveled 900 miles in the air, was just too fantastic to believe. Eventually, he was able to prove his story by showing the town constable a Cincinnati newspaper which had been given to him on his ascension, indicating the date and particulars of his take-off. It was a harrowing start to the career of the nation’s first aeronaut, but it convinced him of the strategic value of aerial reconnaissance. Lowe decided to notify the president.
Lowe telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln, telling him his observations on his accidental trip through the south. The information proved valuable, although convincing the officials in Washington, D.C. to commission a fleet of balloons in the Union Army met with great skepticism and resistance.
Lincoln, however, was intrigued. The president encouraged Joseph Henry, president of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., to invite Lowe to demonstrate the capability in front of the Capitol building, at a cost of $250. The demonstration was on June 18, 1861.
Lowe ascended in the Enterprise, fired by coal gas – the same gas used to light the streetlights and homes of the city, accompanied by a telegrapher and the head of the telegraph company. From a height of 500 feet in the air, (tethered to the ground), Lowe sent a telegraph to the president, who was on the ground about a half mile away, telling him what he could see. Lincoln promptly invited Lowe and his entourage to the White House.
Shortly thereafter, Lincoln authorized the first Army Balloon Corps, appointing Lowe as the first chief of Army Aeronautics. Lowe sent the first air-to-ground battlefield reconnaissance telegraph message on July 21, 1861, at the Battle of First Manassas. On Sept. 24, 1861, Lowe sent the following message to Brig. Gen. F.J. Porter, Commanding Division of Fort Corcoran:
This evening I took the balloon out near Ball’s Cross-Roads and remained up nearly two hours. I had a distinct view of the works on a hill about one mile and a half beyond Munson’s Hill. There seems to be heavy guns mounted and a pretty heavy force nearby. Several tents were visible about there and a number of bodies of men on parade.
To the left of a high bluff, and about 10 miles distant to the left, or nearly in a line with Bailey’s Cross-Roads, there appeared to be a long line of smoke, as if there were several camps. The smokes of the enemy’s pickets are quite numerous, and a large body of men was on Upton’s Hill, and also what appeared to be a field piece.
The whole distance from Chain Bridge to Falls Church is shown plainly from my new point of observation, and I think a shell could not be fired without seeing where it strikes. Should it be convenient for you to come and go up in the morning the first thing, I think you will gain some valuable information.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
T. S. C. Lowe
Lowe gave invaluable assistance to the topographical engineers in their mission to map battlefield areas and enemy positions. He devised a simple communications code to be shown or dropped from the balloon as an alternative to telegraph messages. He invented a mobile field generator to assist in filling the balloons with hydrogen in the field, and even modified a coal barge towed by a tug to transport of his airships.
Lowe built five airships of various sizes. The largest of his ships, the Intrepid, was 32,000 cubic feet in size and required 1,200 yards of silk. He used it to conduct surveillance during and after Fredericksburg. His corps of aeronauts made thousands of successful flights, doing artillery spotting and telegraphing reports to ground commanders about locations of the enemy.
Lowe resigned his post in May 1863; The Balloon Corps was abandoned five months later, only two years after it was activated, and two years before the end of the war. In those two years, Lowe and his crews had made more than 3,000 flights over enemy territory and decisively established aerial reconnaissance as an Army Intelligence discipline.
Lowe’s message is taken from: http://www.thaddeuslowe.name/CWDispatches1.htm.