Falling upwards, p.13
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       Falling Upwards, p.13

           Richard Holmes

  Lowe had already experienced the growing ill-feeling between North and South at first hand. On 19 April 1861, just as the drums of war had begun to sound in Washington, he had launched his small, businesslike balloon the Enterprise from a vacant lot in the heart of Cincinnati. This flight had originally been conceived, on Professor’s Henry advice, as a scientific investigation of the easterly air current, but at some point it had become a demonstrative effort to impress the Union government.

  Accordingly, Lowe’s ambitious plan was to fly five hundred miles due eastwards over the Allegheny Mountains, and to land in Washington, ideally perhaps on the front lawn of Lincoln’s White House. Here he might offer his services to the Union cause, and outflank his rival aeronauts. In the event he met a rebel breeze, and ended up much further south, having skirted Kentucky and Tennessee, and finally touching down near Unionville in the heart of the seceded state of South Carolina. Nevertheless, he had flown 650 miles solo in just over nine hours, a feat that compares well with the Wise–LaMountain flight of 1859.7

  On landing, Lowe found the Civil War already declared and decidedly in progress. The local cotton farmers were not impressed by his flying skills or his Yankee accent. On the contrary, he was arrested as a spy for supposedly carrying despatches from the Union North, blatantly piled in the corner of his balloon basket. With some difficulty, due to local illiteracy, he was able to demonstrate that these despatches were actually a special balloon edition of the Cincinnati Daily Commerce, and thereby escape being lynched.8

  The Enterprise having been extricated undamaged, Lowe and his balloon were packed off unceremoniously on a coach back westwards. Once safe in Kentucky, which had not seceded to the South, he switched to the railroad and hurried north to Washington, with his balloon and basket in packing cases. Here the news was that the Union Army of the Potomac was preparing to invade rebel Virginia, and was already skirmishing across the Potomac river near Arlington. Its new commander, General George C. McClellan, like a good Yankee, was in principle sympathetic to advanced technology. Lowe consulted with Professor Henry at the Smithsonian, and came up with a revolutionary new idea. Provided it was securely tethered, the Enterprise could carry up telegraph equipment and a wire, and send direct aerial observations to a commander on the ground. He demanded to demonstrate this to President Lincoln himself as a matter of acute urgency.

  It says a great deal about Lowe that, amidst all the administrative chaos of a newly declared war, he achieved exactly this. On Sunday, 16 June 1861, Lowe ascended in his balloon some five hundred feet above Constitution Mall, Washington, with a telegraph key and an enthusiastic Morse operator. The telegraph wire was strapped to the tether line and winch, and then run directly across the lawn and into a service room in the White House. Lowe transmitted the following message:

  Balloon Enterprise. Washington, D.C. 16 June 1861

  To President United States:

  This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. 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 and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country. T.S.C. Lowe9

  This historic message was seen by Lincoln himself, who called Lowe in for discussions that same evening. On 21 June Professor Henry, having observed the demonstration from the roof of the red-brick Smithsonian building on the other side of the Mall, wrote a decisive letter of support to Lincoln’s Secretary for War, Simon Cameron: ‘From experiments made here by Professor Lowe, for the first time in history, it is conclusively proved that telegrams can be sent with ease and certainty between the balloon and the headquarters of the Commanding Officer.’10

  In this dramatic fashion Lowe succeeded in persuading Lincoln to allow him to form an official Military Aeronautics Corps within the Union army. But administrative things moved slowly. A month later, on 21 July, Lincoln had to write a second order in his own hand urging that ‘Professor Lowe and his balloon’ should receive the fullest cooperation from General Winfield Scott, the slow-moving C-in-C of the Union forces.11 In August the Aeronautics Corps was finally placed under the direct control of General George McClellan, the much younger and more dynamic commander of the Army of the Potomac, who was soon to command the entire Union army in the Virginia theatre. McClellan quickly became one of Lowe’s warmest supporters, and would make his first balloon ascent with Lowe on 7 September 1861. He believed that balloon observation would be vital to the new, highly mobile form of infantry warfare.

  Lowe had finally received Union funds to build further balloons in August 1861. His fleet eventually consisted of no fewer than eight military aerostats: the Union, the Intrepid, the Constitution, the United States, the Washington, the Eagle, the Excelsior, and the original Enterprise. The new balloons were small and functional, ranging in size from fifteen thousand to thirty-two thousand cubic feet, though each could carry enough tether and telegraph cable to climb to five thousand feet.

  To save weight, their observation baskets were unbelievably small, not much bigger than modern tea-chests, approximately two feet square and two feet deep. For a man sitting, the sides would barely reach to his armpits; for a man standing, they would not even reach to his knees. By way of reassurance, they were painted on the outside with the Union stars and stripes on a white background; though it was said that this provided a better target for Confederate sharpshooters to take a bead on. Only the fearless Sophie Blanchard had ever flown in baskets as small as this. But then, she had never been fired at while doing so.

  The first balloon designed specifically for military use, the Union, was ready for action on 28 August 1861. On 24 September, Lowe ascended in it to more than a thousand feet near Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Virginia, more than three miles away. Union guns were then calibrated and fired accurately on these enemy dispositions without actually being able to see them. This was an ominous first in the history of warfare, by which destruction could be delivered to a distant and invisible enemy.


  Meanwhile, rival aeronaut John LaMountain was also attempting to provide balloon services for the Union. He too wrote to Lincoln in spring 1861, but having no influential backers like Professor Henry, he did not receive a reply. However, from July 1861, using his heavily repaired and battered balloon Atlantic (still financed by the faithful Oliver Gager), he made several reckless demonstration ascents at Fort Monroe, on the strategic southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula. These were at the invitation of the local Union commander, General Benjamin Butler, and provided information on the Confederate troops massed along the James River. Though employed as a civilian, and not officially belonging to the Army of the Potomac, LaMountain could claim to have made the first aerial reconnaissance of the Civil War.12

  The remarkable thing about these ascents is that many were free flights, without tether ropes or telegraph cables, and made directly over enemy lines. LaMountain eloquently explained why he took such risks:

  Typical ascensions, with balloon attached to the earth by cords, do not allow the attainment of an altitude sufficient to expose a considerable view … To the eye of the [free] aeronaut, who can by knowledge of his art … sail directly over points impenetrable by pickets or scouts, secrets of the most important character are clearly revealed. The country lies spread before him like a well-made map, with all its varieties of hill and valley, river and defile, distinctly defined, and every fort, encampment, or rifle-pit within range of many miles, manifest to observation.13

  The flamboyant style of the aeronautical ‘art’ employed by LaMountain was typical of him. Irascible and arrogant he may have been, but no one could doubt his skill and impetuous courage. On several occasions he took his balloon at low level right across the Confederate lines at Hampto
n on the James River, and later at Alexandria on the Potomac, sowing dismay and fury among the enemy troops, who shouted and shot at him, but without effect. The Confederates thought he was doomed to come down behind their own lines, where he would undoubtedly be captured and summarily shot as a spy.

  But at this point, LaMountain would drop ballast and soar up to eight thousand feet.14 Here he entered, as he knew he would (or at least certainly hoped he would), the top layer of an air ‘box’. This is a fixed air pattern – fixed, at any rate, at certain seasons and times of day – in which the upper current is exactly reversed in direction from the lower.fn17 So LaMountain sailed mockingly back over the entire Confederate army, and, valving fast, brought the Atlantic safely back virtually to its point of departure in the Union rearguard, and delivered his report.

  On at least one occasion he was nearly shot by a German brigade of Union troops as he landed, an early example of ‘friendly fire’. ‘An infuriated crowd of officers and men were intent on destroying the balloon and myself … One bullet passed rather unpleasantly close to my head,’ as he remarked laconically. These flights, both free and tethered, caused a sensation among the opposing armies. The Scientific American remarked on LaMountain’s reckless courage, and the New York Times reported that he had been able to view the whole Confederate encampment right up the east side of the James River, and later all the rebel manoeuvrings on the west side of the Potomac. A new era in aerial observation had begun.15

  However, LaMountain’s spectacular showmanship was not designed to impress the cautious senior officers of the Union army. Ironically, it might have gone down better with inspirational and inventive Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Unlike the well-organised and well-connected Lowe, he had difficulty in obtaining funds for further equipment. He did finally manage to lay his hands on another balloon, the Saratoga, but this was almost immediately lost through his own recklessness on 16 November 1861. He then tried to requisition one of Lowe’s balloons from the Aeronautics Corps, but Lowe refused to cooperate, describing him bluntly as a man ‘known to be unscrupulous and prompted by jealousy’. This antipathy was probably mutual. Each man found supporters in Washington, and the rivalry between the two grew. Finally, after further accusations and hostilities on both sides, in February 1862 General McClellan dismissed ‘Professor’ LaMountain from any further service to the Union military.16


  For the rest of 1862 it was Lowe’s Union Balloon Corps which operated exclusively during the Virginia phase of the Civil War. McClellan’s basic strategy was to assault the rebel capital with a pincer movement. His plan was to transport the Army of the Potomac down to Fort Monroe, and then steadily roll back the Confederate forces up the ninety-mile length of the Virginia Peninsula – through Hampton, Yorktown and Williamsburg – until Richmond could be encircled from the south. Meanwhile he would drive other scattered rebel elements back down the west bank of the Potomac, and approach Richmond from the north.

  The small but incredibly fierce battles which now took place between the York and the James rivers came to be known as the Peninsula Campaign. Lincoln’s hope was that it would result in a short war. But throughout 1862 McClellan’s Army of the Potomac constantly threatened, but did not actually manage to take, the vital and symbolic rebel stronghold. In the end there was no short war. Richmond did not finally fall until April 1865, precipitating Lee’s historic surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House (and the great culminating chapter of Gone with the Wind).

  Lowe’s balloons were present at the siege of Yorktown in May 1862; at the Battle of Fair Oaks in May–June 1862; at the crucial Seven Days Battle outside Richmond in June–July 1862; and at the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. He also witnessed the famous rebel victory by Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863. The last telegraph message Lowe sent from a balloon during the Civil War was from Chancellorsville. It was time-dated 10.45 a.m. on 5 May 1863, and foretold the rebel victory: ‘I am unable at this time to see a movement of the enemy except some wagons moving up and down the river. The enemy in force appears to hold all the ground they gained yesterday.’17

  From his balloons, Lowe witnessed a new kind of American fighting. Rapid, violent, passionate and patriotic (on both sides), it was based on a swift exchange of attack and counter-attack. There were long days of immobility and siege, especially at Yorktown. But most characteristic was the constant manoeuvring of infantry and artillery across open countryside chequered with small townships, manufactories, farmsteads, mills, river bridges and railway junctions, any one of which could suddenly become a strategic key point, where thousands might die. Speed, and often dissimulation, were vital factors. Military intelligence – the knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions, troop numbers, firepower, potential reinforcements, and above all its unexpected movements and hidden intentions – was paramount. Lowe always believed that balloons could supply this.

  Lowe’s observations during these early months also provided the first terrible evidence of the nature of this modern battlefield, and the new weaponry deployed upon it. He saw the long-distance impact of heavy artillery shells from the twelve- and sixty-four-pounder field guns; the effect of mines and the new-style hand grenades; the devastation of exploding canister shells on an infantry advance; and the terrible skittling effect of a volley of Springfield rifles fired at two hundred yards. The Springfield fired a big 0.58-calibre bullet capable of blowing off an entire limb at a thousand yards.18

  He also saw the cruel deceptions increasingly practised with the new equipment. One of his telegraph officers, having bravely climbed a telegraph pole under fire to fix a broken line, climbed down and stepped directly onto a ‘torpedo’ or anti-personnel mine that had been buried at the foot of the pole by the retreating Confederates. It blew the man in half.

  What Lowe observed was a new kind of infantry war, with great tides of men and metal constantly clashing. It produced casualty figures never before seen in American history. At Bull Run (July 1861) five thousand dead and wounded; at Fredericksburg (December 1862) seventeen thousand dead and wounded; at Chancellorsville (May 1863) thirty thousand dead and wounded; at Gettysburg (July 1863) nearly fifty thousand dead and wounded.

  Yet Lowe rarely described the human details of what he saw.fn18 Instead, he confined himself to tactical reporting, like someone observing the moves in a vast, impersonal game of chess. But the unmistakable sounds of war came up to him – the boom of shells, the rattle of shots, the screaming of wounded. He wrote: ‘It was one of the greatest strains upon my nerves that I ever have experienced, to observe for many hours a fierce battle.’20

  Lowe was always active and adaptable. His balloons were brought into action from horse-drawn carts, from railroad wagons, and even from the decks of boats. At one stage he operated a tethered observation balloon from a coal barge, the Rotary, sailing up and down the Potomac River. He afterwards claimed it was the first ‘aircraft carrier’ – although his rival LaMountain had done the same thing on the James River. He was prepared to inflate his balloons from coal-gas mains, hydrogen field-generators, or cobbled-together barrels of sulphuric acid and metal shell-casings. On one emergency occasion he even used another balloon, ‘transfusing’ the gas from his small Constitution via a makeshift valve (‘contrived from a convenient kettle’) into the larger Intrepid.

  Lowe himself had no doubts as to the impact of his Balloon Corps in the early months of the Peninsula Campaign. As he put it graphically: ‘A hawk hovering above a chicken yard could not have caused more commotion than did my balloons when they appeared before Yorktown.’21 Rebel sources seemed to agree: ‘At Yorktown, when almost daily ascensions were made, our camp, batteries, field works and all defences were plain to the vision of the occupants of the balloons … The balloon ascensions excited us more than all the outpost attacks …’22

  All Lowe’s observation were made from tethered balloons. Except, that is, on one memorable occasion in
volving the unfortunate Lieutenant-General Fitzjohn Porter, whose balloon broke from its cable, ‘and kept right on, over sharp shooters, rifle pits, and outworks, and finally passed, as if to deliver up its freight, directly over the rebel heights of Yorktown’. But miraculously it returned, having encountered a LaMountain-style air box, and crashed down onto some Union tents. Porter emerged from the heap of canvas, still brandishing his telescope, and was immediately serenaded by a nearby military band. It is not recorded what tune they played him.23

  Lowe’s field units typically consisted of two hydrogen gas generators and two balloon equipment carts (winches, cables, envelopes), pulled by a team of eight horses and manned by a detachment of fifty non-commissioned soldiers. There was also a field telegraph unit, and a team of runners.24 He had two basic methods of observation, depending on wind strength and direction. In fine weather he would fly directly above the enemy positions, at an altitude between one and two thousand feet, acting like a true ‘spy in the sky’. In bad weather or contrary winds, he would fly on double tethers at five hundred feet above his own positions, where he functioned more like a traditional lookout on an aerial platform. In both cases he was regularly shot at, though remarkably none of his balloons was ever brought down. But the lower platform position was particularly unpopular with his detachment, as the moment the balloon was seen rising above the trees, Confederate field-gunners would immediately try to shell its estimated ground position.25

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