Falling upwards, p.15
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       Falling Upwards, p.15

           Richard Holmes

  Inspired by Robert E. Lee, and supported by Stonewall Jackson, the Confederates pushed out from Richmond, crossed the Chickahominy river, and surrounded McClellan’s troops at Gaines Mill. The fighting was unbelievably fierce: on that small wooded hilltop, more than fifteen thousand men were killed or wounded in a matter of hours. Hurrying down the hill from her father’s farm, Fanny Gaines never forgot what she glimpsed: ‘The dead were strewed on every side. I had to keep my eyes shut all the way to keep from seeing the horrible sights.’51

  The position was eventually taken by the rebels, in a series of ‘sublime’ uphill charges led first by Jackson, and then consolidated by the flamboyant Texas Brigade from the deep South. The Union troops began to withdraw from Richmond, and Lowe hastily dismantled his balloon equipment. He always believed that his last reports saved hundreds of McClellan’s troops from being cut off and massacred behind the Chickahominy, and that he had prevented retreat from becoming an outright disaster.52

  But Lowe’s balloon intelligence had not prevented Robert E. Lee from outmanoeuvring McClellan’s much larger army, nor had it brought about the hoped-for Union victory. Richmond did not fall. The Seven Days Battle was to prove a crucial turning point for Lee. It forced McClellan to abandon his master plan to take the rebel capital, and instead to organise a full-scale Union retreat down the James River. It would also mark the end of McClellan’s own military command, and the eventual disbandment of the Balloon Corps which he had championed.

  Lowe was shattered. Exhausted by the strain of what he had witnessed, he succumbed to marsh fever. He did not fully recover his health for many months, and meanwhile his Balloon Corps languished in Washington. By contrast, Alexander and the Gazelle were immediately despatched by Lee on a new adventure. The reputation of the ‘silk dress balloon’ had evidently gained currency among troops on both sides, and the new assignment appears to have had a propaganda as much as a military motive. This time the Gazelle was teamed up with a boat, rather than a train.

  On the evening of 3 July 1862 the Gazelle was secretly taken down to a wharf on the James River, and tethered aboard a small rebel tug ship, appropriately named the Teaser, which then steamed all night slowly towards the Union lines, with orders to make ‘stealthy reconnaissance’ of the retreat, and no doubt to add to the Yankees’ shame. The next day, just before dawn, Alexander made a triumphant ascent, rising into the early-morning sunlight until the gleaming multicoloured silks must have been seen for miles. Despite losing gas, he was briefly able to observe the Union retreat, and flaunt his presence. But then things went wrong. On a falling tide, the Teaser ran aground on a mudbank, becoming stuck fast perilously close to the Union lines.

  It is possible that Alexander had a chance to fly the Gazelle off from the deck of the trapped Teaser. It would have been a gallant, but probably a doomed attempt. Instead he decided to deflate the balloon completely, and sit tight until the tide turned, hoping to escape detection. It must have been a long wait. After eight hours, in mid-afternoon, just as the tide was flooding back, a Union gunboat, the Maratanza, steamed briskly into view. She immediately loosed off two rounds from her hundred-pound gun, both of which hit home. Having tried to scuttle their ship, the Teaser’s crew, including Alexander, leaped overboard and swam for the shore. There was no hope of saving the Gazelle. Alexander stood watching from the trees, and recalled regretfully: ‘The Maratanza pulled [our ship] out of the mud and carried her off, balloon and all … So I left the sailors, and struck out for the army, which I soon found, and General Lee also; and made my final balloon report.’53

  But in a way, this was not the end, but the true beginning of the silk dress balloon. What both Alexander and General Lee soon realised was that the Gazelle, by being physically destroyed, had become mythically indestructible. As such, it was infinitely more valuable to the South, safely afloat as a provoking and permanent piece of rebel propaganda among the enemy. Indeed, it was the Union commander of the Maratanza who made the first known reference to a ‘silk dress balloon’ in print, thus unwittingly making its existence official. He reported to his superior officers on 16 July 1862: ‘The Confederate officers and crew … left everything behind. We got the officers’ uniforms, swords, belts, pistols, muskets, silver chains, bedding, clothes, letters … We also found a balloon made of silk dresses.’54

  Lowe was clearly impressed by the truth of the story as well. He added a circumstantial, and curiously wistful, note to his memoirs, My Balloons in Peace and War: ‘The fashions in silks at that period were ornate, large flowery patterns, squares and plaids in blues, greens, crimsons etc, and rich heavy watered silks; and the silk dress balloon was a very brilliant and handsome object – a veritable Joseph’s coat of many colours. It was taken to Washington and cut up, many pieces being given to Congressmen and others as souvenirs.’55 Thus the myth was soon dispersed and spread, a sacred relic of the Old South: beautiful, gallant, self-sacrificing, doomed.fn20

  Thirty years after the war, the Confederate General James Longstreet, who had fought alongside Jackson and Lee in the defence of Richmond, delightfully retold and embroidered the now well-established silk dress story, in cadences that catch the authentic voice of the Old South:

  The Federals had been using balloons in examining our positions, and we watched with envious eyes their beautiful observations as they floated high up in the air, and well out of the range of our guns. We longed for the balloons that poverty denied us. A genius arose for the occasion and suggested that we send out and gather together all the silk dresses in the Confederacy and make a balloon … Soon we had a great patchwork ship of many and varied hues … The balloon was ready for the Seven Days Campaign. We had no gas save in Richmond, and the custom was to inflate it there, tie it securely to an engine, and run it down the York River railroad to any point at which we desired to send it up. One day it was on a steamer down the James when the tide went out and left the vessel and the balloon high and dry on a bar. The Federals gathered it in, and with it the last silk dress in the Confederacy. This capture was the meanest trick of the War, and one I have never yet forgiven.57

  For Longstreet, the capture of the Gazelle by the Union gunship on the James River was not an act of war, but an act of ungallantry, amounting almost to an insult, as if a fine Southern lady had been betrayed and abused by a Yankee carpetbagger.

  The poetic possibilities of balloons also occurred to Walt Whitman, who was working during these months as a hospital orderly in Washington. Though he often saw Lowe’s balloons on the horizon, he never had the chance to go up himself. But he imagined being in a balloon basket, calmly surveying the land and the rivers of the peninsula beneath. He sees no battlefields, but instead is given moments of detached, surreal vision, as described in A Song of Myself:

  Where the pear-shaped balloon is floating aloft,

  (Floating in it myself and looking composedly down,) …

  Where the steam-ship trails hind-ways its long pennant of smoke,

  Where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water.58

  By contrast, Stephen Crane, who wrote extensively about the Civil War, presents a balloon as viewed from below. It is seen by the ranks of an advancing infantry brigade, just about to go into battle. Though it is one of their own balloons, its appearance is unnerving, and almost repulsive. It seems an alien presence, presiding over a human sacrifice. It is the signal for the ritual of killing to begin.

  The military balloon, a fat, wavering yellow thing, was leading the advance like some new conception of a war-god. Its bloated mass shone above the trees, and served incidentally to indicate to the men at the rear that comrades were in advance … The first ominous order of battle came down the line. ‘Use the cut-off. Don’t use the magazine until you’re ordered …’ A sound of clicking locks rattled along the column. All men knew that the time had come.59

  This story in fact draws on Crane’s experience with troops in Cuba during the 1890s. No balloon appears in The Red Badge of Co
urage, which is a historical fiction, as Crane was born well after the end of the Civil War, in 1871. Nevertheless, the superb opening paragraph of the novel, a brooding panorama of an army encamped by a river like the Potomac, seems to draw on a balloonist’s aerial view. The whole army is seen awakening from winter slumber (with a repeated imagery of opening ‘eyes’); yet no individual soldier, horse or wagon appears. As from a balloon, what is seen is the pattern of mobilising forces. Both man and nature appear as anonymous combatants. It is just as Lowe might have seen the Union army in the spring of 1862.

  The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.60

  The Union Balloon Corps did have one significant effect on the future of warfare. Among the military observers sent to the Union army was a young Prussian officer, who took some part in the fighting around Fredericksburg in 1863, and saw the last of Lowe’s balloons in action. Later he ascended in one of John Steiner’s civilian balloons at St Paul, Minnesota, above the Mississippi. The experience was a great success. He admired the picturesque effect of the great river, but was even more impressed by the opportunities for ‘military reconnaissance’. He noted: ‘From the high position of the balloon the distribution [of the defenders’ troops] could be completely surveyed … No method is better suited to viewing quickly the terrain of an unknown enemy in occupied territory.’ The only problem was the inability to navigate a spy balloon. This started a chain of ideas that would have a considerable effect on the use of balloons in the First World War. The young Prussian’s name was Captain Ferdinand von Zeppelin.


  Almost unnoticed, the Civil War brought to an end a golden era in American ballooning. For a brief period in the 1840s and 1850s, the balloon seemed to hold the magic key to the unlocking of the whole vast American continent, ‘from sea to shining sea’. But the logistical demands of warfare had revealed the imperative necessity of modern communication networks: the telegraph, the railroad, the steamship. The business potential, as well as the visionary moment, of the balloon was gone.

  The aeronauts responded to this each in their own way. John LaMountain, brave but cantankerous, struggled on briefly as a balloon showman, increasingly underequipped and underfinanced. After one of his worn-out balloons burst above Bay City, Michigan, in 1869, nearly killing him, he returned to New York State, and after various minor commercial ventures died, a forgotten figure, aged only forty-eight, in 1878.61

  John Wise, nearly sixty by the end of the war, largely confined himself to giving lectures on the history of ballooning. In 1873 he published his admirable book, part history and part autobiography, Through the Air: A Narrative of Forty Years’ Experience as an Aeronaut. His actual attempts to return to the air were less happy. In September 1879, aged seventy-one, he took off in another balloon from St Louis, in an attempt to commemorate the famous flight of the original Atlantic twenty years before. No doubt he hoped to make the full thousand miles to New York or Boston, but this time he strayed even further from his projected easterly course. Once again he headed northwards towards the Great Lakes, and once again he was caught in a gale. He was last observed near Chicago, sailing in high winds out across the enormous stormy expanse of Lake Michigan, and trusting in the Lord. Neither he, nor his balloon Pathfinder, was ever seen again. Perhaps it was the heroic conclusion that he desired. ‘Astra Castra, Numen lumen’, as he had written.

  Despite the long after-effects of his fever, Thaddeus Lowe made the most successful career adjustment. Part scientist, part entrepreneur, part adventurer, his navigation skills stood him in good stead. First, he shrewdly turned down a tempting, but surely doomed, Brazilian government invitation to start a military balloon corps in São Paulo. Though personally invited by Don Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, with many blandishments, he passed the invitation on to his fellow balloonists the Allen brothers, remarking with a wry smile, ‘I think I am rather beyond the age of adventure.’62

  Next, he briefly promoted a spectacular ‘Aeronautic Amphitheatre’ in New York City. Here his last ever balloon flight was made in 1866 for a wealthy honeymoon couple, to take them, as he put it, ‘nearer to heaven than most clergymen ever get’. The flight lasted most of a summer’s day, and finished on a perfect idyllic note: ‘We sailed high over cities, hills, valleys and rivers, and came to earth with the sunset.’63

  But Lowe the entrepreneur was far from finished. Still determined to explore the vastness of America, he went west to Los Angeles, seeking business opportunities. Here he used his knowledge of the chemistry of hydrogen to invent a brilliantly successful ice-making machine. An early version was used to refrigerate cargo ships steaming from San Francisco around Cape Horn to New York. In its own way this fulfilled his original transcontinental dream. Instead of mail, he was transporting food across the whole continent. His perfected ‘Lowe’s Compressed Ice Machine’ was sold to all the newly opening stores and hotels of California, and made him a dollar millionaire. It also won him the Franklin Institute’s Grand Medal of Honour in 1887.64

  The same year, at the age of fifty-five, a successful businessman, he settled with his faithful wife Léontine and their extensive family in Pasadena, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Here he built a luxury estancia, and subsequently invested his fortune in a different form of elevation – a funicular, or scenic mountain railway, climbing into the hills above Altadena. It was to service an ‘Alpine Tavern’ and a forty-room luxury hotel, with panoramic terraces. This mountaintop complex, with its dazzling aerial views, was opened in July 1893 and publicised as ‘The White City in the Clouds’. Perhaps, in a way, Thaddeus Lowe considered it his final version of an enormous tethered balloon.65

  Lowe kept up his scientific contacts with the Smithsonian, continuing to correspond with Professor Joseph Henry, and wrote a long, racy aeronautical memoir entitled My Balloons in Peace and War. Typically, he never bothered to publish it. But the manuscript, treasured by his family and transcribed by one of his granddaughters, Augustine Lowe Brownbeck, eventually reached the Library of Congress in 1931.

  Lowe lived on comfortably in Pasadena, saw the coming of the Zeppelin and the aeroplane, and died peacefully in 1913, at the age of eighty. But he never quite stopped dreaming. Almost his last act was to form a new business company: the ‘Lowe Airship Construction Corporation’.66

  The crossing of the American continent, so long dreamed of by Lowe, Wise and LaMountain, was never actually accomplished in the nineteenth century.fn21 It was, however, achieved in fiction, as so often in ballooning. A novel by Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island (1875), opens with five men (and a dog) escaping by balloon from the besieged Confederate city of Richmond in the spring of 1865. The balloon, at fifty thousand cubic feet, is considerably bigger than the Gazelle, and the men are escaping Union prisoners. To lend verisimilitude, one of them is a war reporter for the New York Herald.

  Stealing a rebel balloon at night, they launch in a terrible storm, which is described by Verne with vivid details drawn from the apocalyptic journey of Wise and LaMountain across the Great Lakes. But this storm is blowing from east to west, and it sends the balloon at ninety miles per hour right across America the other way: the Great Plains, the deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and out over the Pacific Ocean, where eventually it touches down on an unknown island. But ironically, because of the stormclouds, its passengers spy absolutely nothing of that entire great American land passing beneath them.


  Gigantic Voyages


  The lack of
any aerial photographs from the American Civil War is a curious anomaly. For as early as 1858 the first aerial photograph of Paris had been taken from a balloon by a strange, daredevil figure who called himself Félix Nadar. Nadar (the name was one of his many inventions) eventually persuaded his friend, the distinguished artist Honoré Daumier, to draw a cartoon in celebration of this achievement. It appeared as a lithograph in the popular magazine Le Boulevard in 1862, and became one of Nadar’s most treasured mementoes.

  In it, Nadar’s unmistakable gawky figure is shown perched in a tiny balloon basket above the rooftops of Paris. Top hat flying, he is clinging onto a spindly photographic apparatus mounted on a tripod. The balloon basket – emblazoned with his name – swings perilously above an imagined Parisian cityscape, which seems largely composed of photographic studios. The caption reads wittily: ‘Nadar elevating Photography to the height of Art.’

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