Falling upwards, p.14
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       Falling Upwards, p.14

           Richard Holmes
 

  Military observation with binoculars was a delicate art. A tethered balloon was rarely stable – at five hundred feet in any kind of wind Lowe found the balloon ‘very unsteady, so much so that it was difficult to fix my sight on any particular object’. At a thousand feet he could see twelve miles and a whole battlefield, yet always ‘indistinctly’ because of the dust, smoke and heat haze produced by masses of troops on the move. Even more, the heavy silver-grey smoke produced by field guns in action might temporarily block out the ground altogether.26 fn19

  Lowe communicated his observations by various means. Ideally, he used a telegraph key operated from his balloon basket, transmitting messages down a five-thousand-foot telegraph cable directly to McClellan’s headquarters. But bad conditions often made this impossible – the equipment could be too heavy to take aloft, or the cable could break. In that case, Lowe would make notes and drop them in canisters to a telegraph operator on the ground. He did the same with rapidly drawn sketch maps of the enemy positions, which were then delivered to McClellan by runner. On other occasions he used signal flags, coloured flares or simply hand-gestures. If all else failed, he would have himself winched down so he could deliver his observations in person, sometimes galloping to the headquarters on his favourite grey mare, a procedure he apparently enjoyed.

  Many of his most urgent observations consist of three or four short lines, obviously scrawled in haste, but carefully time-dated down to the nearest minute.27 While observing the battle for Richmond from the Intrepid, he noted: ‘I immediately took a high altitude observation as rapidly as possible, wrote my most important dispatch to the commanding general on my way down, and I dictated it to my expert telegraph officer. Then with the telegraph cable and instruments, I ascended to the height desired and remained there almost constantly during the battle, keeping the wires hot with information.’28

  Lowe had promised to supply McClellan with strategic aerial photographs, which he said could be examined by giant magnifying glasses once delivered to the ground. He claimed optimistically that a three-inch-square glass negative would provide the equivalent of a ‘20 foot panoramic image’ of a battlefield. He took aloft several professional photographers – ‘[Matthew] Brady the celebrated War photographer was also much interested in the work of the Corps, and spent much time with us’29 – and the British balloonist Henry Coxwell also reported that ‘some photographs were taken of the [Confederates’] position’.30 Yet no such aerial photographs have survived. While there are thousands of Civil War photographs taken on the ground, there is not a single known photograph of a Civil War battlefield taken from a balloon.31 Probably cameras, glass negatives and chemical developing equipment proved too cumbersome for the tiny observation baskets. Or perhaps the whole process was simply too slow to be of any practical use. In the event, the mysteries of early balloon photography would be explored in Paris.

  Timing was vital, because what Lowe had discovered was the highly mobile nature of battlefield observation. This transformed the traditional idea of the tranquil, all-seeing ‘angel’s-eye view’ from a balloon. In warfare, the panoptic vision no longer provided the classic, unfolding ‘map’ of the world beneath (an image still used by LaMountain). Instead it revealed a constantly moving game-pattern, a shifting topography of hints and clues, secrets and disguises, threats and opportunities. An entire tactical situation could change within a matter of hours, or even minutes.

  Visual clues had to be carefully sought out: smoke from campfires, rising road dust, sun glinting on armoury, newly dug patches of raw earth, the straight lines of fresh infantry trenches, the faint dimpled shadows of breastworks, the regular white circles of bell tents, the deep curving tracks left by heavy guns. Lowe writes on one occasion of taking a General ‘to an altitude that enabled us to look into the windows of the city of Richmond’. The battle landscape had to be read constantly, interpreted shrewdly, and summarised with the utmost speed.32

  One of Lowe’s most brilliant observational coups was the discovery of the Confederates’ secret evacuation of Yorktown, under the cover of darkness, on the night of 4–5 May 1862. This gave the Union army one of its most crucial tactical advantages in the whole Peninsula Campaign. At the time it was thought that Yorktown was being resupplied, and stiffening its defences against the Union’s long siege. Lowe’s account is vivid, and turns on a single, precisely observed detail. First of all he sets the scene: ‘The entire great fortress was ablaze with bonfires, and the greatest activity prevailed, which was not visible except from the balloon. At first the General [Heintzelman] was puzzled on seeing more wagons entering the forts than were going out.’

  This was apparently clear evidence of resupplying. Lowe, however, observed and interpreted more carefully: ‘But when I called his attention to the fact that the ingoing wagons were light and moved rapidly (the wheels being visible as they passed each campfire), while the outgoing wagons were heavily loaded and moved slowly, there was no longer any doubt as to the object of the Confederates. They were withdrawing.’

  According to Lowe, his observations of this secret evacuation carried instant conviction to the highest command level: ‘General Heintzelman then accompanied me to General McClellan’s headquarters for a consultation, while I with the orderlies, aroused other quietly sleeping corps commanders in time to put our whole army in motion in the very early hours of the morning, so that we were enabled to overtake the Confederate army at Williamsburg.’33 The result was one of the few decisive victories of the Union Army of the Potomac, which was otherwise becoming characterised by its lack of decision and initiative. By the end of May McClellan was within five miles of Richmond.34

  4

  One of Lowe’s innovations was to take journalists up with him in the basket, knowing what brilliant newspaper copy he could provide. Frank Leslie, a pioneer of American illustrated magazines, paid for one of his best war artists, Arthur Lumley, to go up in Lowe’s balloon and draw battlefield pictures.35 George Townsend of the Philadelphia Inquirer, an old friend from the City of New York days, was taken on an unexpected night ascent. His article begins with a romantic touch: ‘Said the Professor: “Will you make an ascension with me tonight?” “Where to?” I answered, greatly astonished as to the meaning of the Professor’s enquiry, “To the moon?”’

  But soon Townsend was noting the bitterly cold air, the disturbing clarity of the stars, and the soldiers’ campfires below like ‘a handful of glowing embers’. Most disquieting was the silence, interrupted only by the unnerving ‘grate’ of the netting against the sides of the balloon, and the ‘collapsing and expansion of the silk’, like some enormous creature breathing, and ‘highly suggestive of a break’ somewhere unseen in the canopy. Though not a single shot was fired all the time they were airborne, it was an extraordinarily tense and disturbing experience.36

  By contrast, an unnamed British reporter for the St James’s Magazine in London, largely ignoring tactical matters, was delighted to turn in a sensational, all-action scoop, which he entitled ‘Three Months with the balloons in America’: ‘The Confederates fire on the balloon and the first shell passes a little to the left, exploding in a ploughed field. The next, to the right, burst in mid-air. The third explosion is so close that the pieces of shell seem driven across my face, and my ears quiver with the sound …’37

  A military correspondent for the London Times, Lieutenant George Grover, reported more soberly from the later battlefield of Chickahominy: ‘During the whole of the engagement, Professor’s Lowe’s balloon hovered over the Federal lines at an altitude of two thousand feet, and maintained successful telegraphic communication with General McClellan’s headquarters. It is asserted that every movement of the Confederate armies was distinctly visible, and instantaneously reported.’38

  However, by the end of May 1862, with the Union forces nearing the rebel capital, Richmond, the demand for recreational balloon trips became so great that General McClellan banned all further ascents by newspapermen, and even required Un
ion officers to have his specific written permission to go aloft. Foreign journalists who could boast military backgrounds had better luck, and a notable series of reports were turned in by a British engineering officer, Captain Frederick Beaumont, RE.

  Beaumont’s articles appeared in Professional Papers of the Royal Corps of Engineers in 1863, and gave a realistic view of modern warfare. He was also deeply impressed by Lowe, ‘a man celebrated in America as a very daring aeronaut … from the earnest way in which he spoke, I felt convinced that he still intended to carry out his [Atlantic] scheme … but the distracted state of his country obliged him to put it off for a while’.39

  Lowe made many attempts to get senior military officers up in his balloons, but most of them declined his offers, especially after Lieutenant-General Fitzjohn Porter’s experience. An exception was a dashing young cavalry lieutenant, a willowy, wild-eyed youth from the plains of Ohio. His long blond hair, silky moustaches and extravagant manner already marked him out. His name was George Armstrong Custer.

  This was the man who would become the famous Indian fighter, and would die fourteen years later at the chaotic Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. At the time of his balloon ascent with Lowe in April 1862, Custer was aged twenty-two, and had been temporarily promoted captain by McClellan. He was already wearing his trademark red bandana, and had been noted for his reckless, showy courage in several local engagements on the west bank of the Potomac. But even Custer found the balloon experience oddly disconcerting. He was invited up by one of Lowe’s assistants, James Allen, as he recorded in an unexpectedly witty and self-deprecating memoir.

  My desire, if frankly expressed, would not have been to go up at all. But if I was to go, company was certainly desirable. With an attempt at indifference, I intimated that I might go along … The basket was about two feet high, four feet long … to me it seemed fragile indeed … the gaps in the wicker work in the sides and the bottom seemed immense and the further we receded from the earth, the larger they seemed to become … I was urged to stand up. My confidence in balloons at that time was not sufficient, however, to justify such a course, so I remained sitting in the bottom of the basket … [Mr Allen] began jumping up and down to prove its strength. My fears were redoubled, I expected to see the bottom of the basket giving way, and one or both of us dashed to the earth …

  Custer was much struck by the dramatic panorama as he looked west up the entire length of the Virginia Peninsula towards Richmond:

  To the right could be seen the York river, following which the eye could rest on Chesapeake Bay. On the left, and at about the same distance, flowed the James river … Between the two extended a most beautiful landscape, and no less interesting than beautiful, for being made the theatre of operations of armies larger and more formidable than had ever confronted each other on this continent before.

  But he also noted how difficult it was to make precise observations:

  With all the assistance of a good field glass, and when the balloon was not rendered unsteady by the different currents of air, I was enabled to catch glimpses of canvas [tents] through the openings of the forest … the dim outline of an earthwork half concealed by trees which had been purposely left standing on their front. Guns could be seen mounted and peering sullenly through the embrasures … while men [enemy soldiers] in considerable numbers were standing around entrenchments … intently observing [our] balloon, curious, no doubt, to know the character or value of the information its occupants could derive from [our] elevated post of observation.40

  9

  The rebel Confederate army was too poor to put any serious balloon opposition into the sky. But it did something almost as effective, by creating one of the most famous romantic legends of the South, the celebrated ‘Silk Dress Balloon’. This remarkable balloon was said to be extraordinarily beautiful, and piloted with fantastic and cavalier daring during the defence of Richmond by the Confederates. It was composed of a shimmering mass of multicoloured silks, supposedly sewn up in homely patchwork fashion from dozens of gorgeous silk ballroom dresses. These dresses, so the story went, had been gallantly donated by the Southern belles of Richmond and the surrounding towns of Virginia, happy to sacrifice the last remnants of their antebellum finery to the cause of Dixie. They included not only the beautiful wives and daughters of the great, porticoed houses of the very wealthy, but also the poor but no less beautiful patriotic ladies of easy virtue. It was, in other words, a balloon made of gleaming Southern dreams.

  It has been disputed whether this balloon ever actually existed. Certainly it sounds more like something dreamed up by Margaret Mitchell for Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Yet it emerges that just such a small Confederate balloon, romantically named the Gazelle, mysteriously appeared overhead during the desperate battles to defend the rebel capital Richmond between May and July 1862; and its presence became symbolically associated with the final, decisive repulse of McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac.

  Confederate official records and private correspondence have recently revealed that the Gazelle did in fact exist, and was secretly constructed at top speed in the workshop of a bankrupt armoury in Savannah, Georgia, in May 1862, at the request of General Thomas Drayton. It was built by two Southern patriots: Langdon Cheeves, a merchant from Charleston, Virginia; and Charles Cevor, an itinerant balloonist from Savannah who had once trained under John Wise. A letter from General Drayton, dated 9 May 1862, asks urgently: ‘How soon will the balloon be finished? Put night and day work on it at your discretion.’41

  The Gazelle was small and pretty, practically petite, standing about thirty feet high with a 7,500-cubic-foot capacity – roughly half the size of Lowe’s regular balloons. It was composed of long, bright, multicoloured silk strips – yellow, green, white and dark red – some plain, and some carrying decorative patterns. It was sealed with a clear, vulcanised rubber coating removed from old wagon springs, which gave the silk an unusual glisten in full sunlight. It also leaked.

  At a time when Union ships were successfully blockading all Southern ports, silk of any kind had been virtually impossible to find. But the merchant Langdon Cheeves had excellent business contacts in Charleston (incidentally, the home of Rhett Butler), and managed to locate a job-lot of twenty mixed bolts of unwrapped dress silk lying in the warehouse of Kerrison & Leiding, wholesale fabric merchants. For these he paid $514. He was still not sure that this would be enough silk for the balloon, and as he left Charleston for the Savannah workshop, he made a gentle, teasing joke to his daughters: ‘I’m buying up all the handsome silk dresses in Savannah, but not for you girls.’42 By the time the Gazelle arrived in Richmond, this wry Southern joke had started the gallant Southern legend.

  Robert E. Lee, who would command the defence of Richmond all that summer, placed the Gazelle in the hands of a young Confederate artillery officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Alexander. Alexander knew nothing about balloons, but was a brilliant tactical commander, who would later direct Lee’s artillery at Gettysburg. With him as pilot was Charles Cevor. Alexander decided not only to observe the enemy, but also to raise morale in Richmond.43

  The Gazelle was kept inflated, and was run out daily on a railway car along the Richmond and York railroad, right up to the enemy lines beyond Fair Oaks. Everyone in Richmond could see the little balloon going out brazenly to flaunt the rebel flag in the face of the enemy. For once rail and balloon shared a mutual cause. From here Alexander could report on the threatened advances of McClellan’s Union army over the Chickahominy river.44 Tension increased as McClellan’s massive forces manoeuvred into position for the crucial assault. But there was also excitement, as news of rebel reinforcements led by Stonewall Jackson were rumoured to be marching out of the Shenandoah Valley to relieve Richmond.

  Just opposite Alexander and the Gazelle, at a distance of less than five miles on the other side of the Chickahominy, was Thaddeus Lowe in his Intrepid balloon. So for the first time, a Union and a rebel balloonist confron
ted each other, out of rifle shot but well within binocular and telescope range. On 27 June 1862, Lowe telegraphed with astonishment from the Intrepid: ‘About four miles to the west from here the enemy have a balloon about 300 feet in the air.’ An hour later, at eleven o’clock, the rebel balloon had mysteriously disappeared.45

  Lowe was stationed at a strategic position known as Gaines Mill.46 The proprietor of Gaines Farm was a medical doctor, and in fact a Confederate supporter, whose cornfields had been forcibly requisitioned by the Union Balloon Corps. It was a sign of the times that Dr Gaines had enough Southern pride to complain about his trampled crop, and that Lowe had enough Yankee style to apologise gracefully for it. He also promised to provide the farm with a protective guard against Union looting. Dr Gaines had a spirited teenage daughter, Fanny, who was fascinated by the enemy balloon camp set up in the middle of her father’s meadow. She showed no nervousness in approaching Lowe, though she took the prudent precaution of addressing him as ‘General’.

  Every day the Yankees sent up a balloon in front of our house to see what was going on in Richmond. General Lowe was the man who ascended in the balloon, and he told many wonderful things that he saw going on in Richmond – such as people going to church, the evacuation of Richmond, wagon trains crossing Mayo’s bridge.47

  Lowe evidently boasted to Fanny that McClellan and the Army of the Potomac would soon be in Richmond. When Fanny told this to an ancient neighbour, old Mrs Woody, she replied with true Southern scorn, ‘Yes, Moses also viewed the promised land, but he never entered in.’48

  Both balloon observers were soon reporting on a bloody series of skirmishes at the river crossing between Gaines Mill and Fair Oaks. The fighting was bitter and confused. It continued through the end of June and the start of July, eventually becoming known as the Seven Days Battle. The rival balloonists were attempting to advise their commanders on the ground about the rapidly developing troop movements and reinforcements, sudden advances and retreats, charges and counter-charges. But it was not easy to understand the action, or even to see it. Alexander believed he was better qualified, as a ‘trained staff officer’, and dismissed his opposite number with Southern scorn as belonging to ‘the ignorant class of ordinary balloonists’.49 But Lowe was experienced, and had the immense advantage of a direct telegraph line from the Intrepid’s basket. ‘Immediately I ascended to a height of a thousand feet,’ he recorded, ‘and there witnessed the Titanic struggle. The whole scene of action was plainly visible and reports of the progress of the battle were constantly sent till darkness fell upon the grand but terrifying spectacle.’50

 
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